Game On: Witnessing a 90-Year-Old Football Rivalry in Bengal

The electric lure of watching an East Bengal-Mohan Bagan match in Kolkata.  
East Bengal F.C Ilish Bangladesh
The hilsa, also known as ‘ilish’ is the national fish of Bangladesh. It is associated with East Bengal F.C. because the club’s founding members hailed from Bangladesh in the pre-partition era. Photo: Subhendu Ghosh/Hindustan Times

Part of a massive human centipede inching forward, it was easy to be intimidated. All I could see around me were the hip pockets of a mass of adults. Instinct told me to bolt but I was too young to find my way home alone and too old to show that I was scared. I clasped my father’s hand and hoped for the best.

That afternoon, in the early 1980s, everything that could possibly go wrong with my father’s attempt at male bonding did. Tired of waiting in a queue, a surge of spectators had broken ranks and swept me helplessly into Kolkata’s Salt Lake stadium. The match was a disaster: the home team lost 0-6 to West Germany’s F.C. Bochum. But the roar of the 1,00,000 people in the tiers left me wonderstruck.

A few years later, I returned as a teenager for my first match between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. I was overawed by the incredible energy that enveloped the stadium, divided firmly down the middle. I still haven’t lost that sense of wonder. I have made more visits to the 1,20,000-seater Salt Lake stadium than I can remember (for the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match in July 1997, the crowd swelled to a record number of 1,31,000). For the past 18 years, I’ve visited as a journalist—which is to say, I’m paid to be a fan. I am completely hooked by the game and the setting.

The grounds of the Salt Lake Stadium are a microcosm of a city whose ability to exasperate is matched only by its capacity to exhilarate. There’s one hotel right next to the stadium and a Hyatt on the premises, plus smart glass-panelled dignitaries’ boxes and media enclosures. The tiers though are in desperate need of maintenance. Every now and then, there is a power outage, a flashback to the dark ages that plagued Kolkata for most of the ’70s and the ’80s.

Mohun Bagan IFA Shield

On July 29, 1911, Mohun Bagan became the first Indian club to win the IFA Shield, beating a British army team. A colourful rally was organised last year as part of the centenary celebration. Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/Stringer/Getty Images

Football frenzy has been a part of Kolkata’s culture since 1911 when Mohun Bagan stunned a British army team to become the first Indian club to win the IFA Shield, a tournament that is still an annual fixture in the Kolkata football calendar. Mohammedan Sporting, another city club, ruled the ’30s but from the 1940s to now, it is a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match that generates the maximum interest. East Bengal was born when a Bagan board member broke away and decided to start his own club. It’s a common belief that the Partition was responsible for the rivalry between the two Kolkata clubs, but in truth, the political divide just accentuated an existing grudge.

Between the 1950s and the ’80s, the clubs were such an essential part of Bengali life, that the game was featured in several classic films. Among others, Satyajit Ray depicted a game in Jana Aranya (The Middleman). Last year, Egaro, The Immortal Eleven recounted the story of Mohun Bagan’s memorable IFA Shield win. Its theme song is a popular ringtone.

Visitors looking to see Kolkata at its most vibrant have two choices: they can visit during the Durga Puja season, or for a Mohun Bagan and East Bengal face-off. It’s been that way since 1984 when derbies moved east from the Maidan and the Eden Gardens, to the Salt Lake amphitheatre whose somewhat grandiose Bengali name “Yubobharati Krirangan” means “playground of India’s youth”. The rivalry between the clubs is nearly as old as Flury’s, the 1920s confectionary famous for English breakfast and cakes, and the Victoria Memorial. Like the ubiquitous seller of lozenges at the stadium who only wears saris in East Bengal colours, the rivalry is a constant in a city that’s changing at its own pace.

The Bagan-East Bengal rivalry is so intense, an article on the website of FIFA, the international body that governs the sport, describes the matches as a “must-see for those football cognoscenti with a global view”. In fact, when FIFA president Sepp Blatter was planning a visit to India in April 2007, he timed it so he could witness a Bagan-East Bengal match. The teams meet approximately four times a year in Kolkata during various competitions, including the I-League, India’s apex football tournament.

Salt Lake Stadium East Bengal F.C Mohun Bagan

In addition to games between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the Salt Lake Stadium hosts a number of I-League games, international friendly matches and world cup qualifiers. Photo: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/Stringer/Getty Images

Before matches, flags are strung across neighbourhood lanes—rival standards are seldom seen side by side. Some three hours before kick-off, one part of the quiet, leafy suburb of Salt Lake starts to hum with activity. In mini-trucks with club flags draped on sides, in buses, cars, motorcycles and on foot, the crowd starts arriving, many with vermilion smeared on foreheads, proof that divine intervention has been sought, possibly at the Kalighat Temple in south Kolkata or Dakshineswar in the north. Unlike at Barcelona’s Camp Nou, there is no chapel on the way out of the players’ tunnel, so the teams have officials deputed to offer the pre-match puja.

The crowd is almost completely male, its conversation loud and sprinkled with abuse for which no one is rebuked. On the terraces, flags, festoons and slogans are draped and excitement is literally drummed up. Unlike cricket matches at Eden Gardens, there are no Mexican waves at the Salt Lake Stadium. The problem is simple: if Mohun Bagan fans start one, it will not be taken up by the other half and vice-versa. However, cardboard cut-outs of sea creatures bob above the crowd. The lobster is the insignia for Mohun Bagan as the hilsa is for East Bengal. These mascots draw such devotion that in 2011 a Kolkata restaurant had a food festival featuring these delicacies.

Many fans have developed quirky rituals to ensure that their team comes out tops. For instance, Swapan Ball, an East Bengal official who started out as a fan in 1957, takes the same route to the club on match day. He’s done this for 30 years. He also wears the same shirt. “I had a batik-print shirt that I would wear only when East Bengal played Mohun Bagan,” he said. Ball is so disdainful of anything in maroon or green, the colours of Mohun Bagan, that he once stood through a two-and-a-half hour wait for his flight at an airport rather than sit on sofas in the hues he abhors.

East Bengal F.C

Red and yellow are the colours of East Bengal F.C. The rivalry between the Kolkata clubs is so intense that most fans refuse to wear colours remotely reminiscent of the opposition. Photo: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters

Alokesh Chattopadhyay is another football nut. The software developer fetched up to watch Mohun Bagan play an early morning match against Mohammedan Sporting in 1980. He wasn’t alone but was probably the only one who had got married the night before. Chattopadhyay doesn’t suggest that Mohun Bagan’s victory in that match was a good omen as he started a new life, but merely says he’s been happily married since. Businessman Amit Sen, on the other hand, almost broke up with the lady he was courting for this match. A regular at Mohun Bagan-East Bengal games since 1961, he remembers it as if it was yesterday: “She was a stewardess and had an air mishap which got her to Kolkata unscheduled. It happened to be match-day and so, I went to the hotel where she was staying and left a note saying why I couldn’t meet her. Postmatch, she wrote back, saying we seriously need to rethink our future,” said Sen. It took all his energies to repair the situation. He still foregoes his afternoon beer on match days because it once “turned out to be a bad day for East Bengal”, and of course, chingri (prawns) because it belongs to the shellfish family associated with “the other club.”

The rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal is now more than nine decades old. As with many such rivalries worldwide, the mere fact of its existence is often more than just the tournament or title at stake. Bragging rights are more important.

Appeared in the October 2012 issue as “The Great Game”.


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