The beautiful game got a lifeline in this country when the ISL kicked off in 2014. While the National Football League started in 1996 which was later revamped as I-League in 2007 had been around a long while, they failed in creating a buzz that the Indian Super League has managed in the last 7 years. India underwent a footballing revolution, breaking into FIFA’s top 100 ranked footballing nations for the first time in 21 years in 2017 and ISL was the catalyst. Footballing greats were playing for clubs from Mumbai, Goa, Kolkata, Chennai and Kerala. From Del Piero to Forlan, from Lucio to Materrazi, from Roberto Carlos to Riise, all came and enthralled football fans in this country. But the biggest league in the country was missing out on the biggest game in the country. A rivalry between two clubs situated a couple of miles away from the banks of the Hooghly River, that not only divides the city but an entire state in half, its the Kolkata Derby and it’s coming to the ISL.
If you want to talk about Indian football, you cannot ignore the impact both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and the Derby has. A Derby so fierce that not only does it captivate the state of West Bengal, but the entire country. Both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were part of the I-League last season and will be making their ISL debuts in 2020/21. The wave of change in Indian football eventually forced both the clubs who have been around for over 100 years to go through structural changes. While Mohun Bagan decided to join hands with RPSG group who already owned ATK, East Bengal found themselves an investor in Sree Cements. RPSG Group who acquired the majority of shares and control in Mohun Bagan already had a team in the ISL, ATK. They decided to keep Mohun Bagan’s legacy intact, thus retaining the club’s emblem and colours and renaming the football club ATK Mohun Bagan. East Bengal too gave away their majority of shares and sporting rights, along with control of the football team to Sree Cements and adopted the name SC East Bengal. The clubs which were struggling financially off lately were now ready for all the glitz and glamour of the Indian Super League.
The Kolkata Derby is unlike any football match you have witnessed in this country. To put into perspective, in a country where everyone is obsessed with cricket, 131,000 people turned up to watch P.K.Banerjee’s East Bengal and Amal Dutta’s Mohun Bagan in 1997 at the Salt Lake stadium in a Federation Cup semi-final, a staggering attendance figure that is yet to be broken. The roots of the Kolkata Derby dates back to 1925 when both the sides met for the first time. Over time the rivalry intensified, the fans couldn’t stand each other and the repercussions of it were often ugly. Incidents of bust-ups between two sets of fans are so common on Derby day that security surrounding match day have their hands full. When East Bengal and Mohun Bagan met in the 1975 IFA Shield finals, East Bengal was in a rich vein of form, not losing the derby in 1932 days and it culminated in them scoring 5 past Mohun Bagan without a reply. Erstwhile Mohun Bagan fan Umakanta Paladhi committed suicide after that embarrassing defeat writing on his suicide note that he will be reborn as Mohun Bagan footballer and will avenge this defeat. The darkest day of Indian football also revolves around the Kolkata Derby. In the 80s the Derby was played out at Eden Gardens and on 16th August 1980 East Bengal and Mohun Bagan locked horns in Calcutta Football League game and an on-field scuffle between Dilip Palit (East Bengal Right Back) and Bidesh Bose (Mohun Bagan Right Winger) resulted in a full out brawl in the stands and resulted in the loss of 16 lives. In 2012, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan met each other on 9 December 2012, this time at the Salt Lake Stadium. With most decisions on the pitch going against Mohun Bagan tensions were soaring in the stands and when Odafa, Mohun Bagan’s talisman was sent off, things got out of hand. Bottles, bricks and sticks were hurled at the referee and the linesman which missed their target and hit Rahim Nabi who had to be carried off the pitch with a bleeding head. Mohun Bagan refused to come out for the second half, forfeiting the match.
While the Derby has a nasty side it is also a celebration of football and fan culture. With the rise of Ultras culture in the country, the Kolkata Derby is moving past its dark history. The new-age fan is more into singing chants, tifos, fan choreography, shunning the violence but the rivalry is still as intense if not more. The Bhaichung Bhutia hat-trick in 1997 Federation Cup Semi-final resulting in a 4-1 victory in favour of East Bengal, the 4-3 thriller in favour of Mohun Bagan during the 2007 Calcutta Football League season, the 5-3 game in 2009 in the I-League where Edeh Chidi scored 4 goals for Mohun Bagan are some of the most iconic games in the Kolkata Derby and Indian football. The stands have often been the voice for religious and cultural harmony and also been a strong voice against political injustice while managing to keep the banter between the clubs alive. The Kolkata Derby is just not a football game, its global stage where every aspect of life comes together from every stratum of society to celebrate a game they love. Winning the derby affects the social lives of every Bengali, where winning means you get to resume your social life with your head held high, while if you lose you stay locked down to avoid the banter.
With the ISL taking place behind closed doors, the fans won’t be available to cheer their teams on this season and the Kolkata Derby without filled stands will be a disappointing sight but the quality and passion of the players’ on the pitch will make up for it. The Derby has always been a fight for supremacy and prestige and with local lads, in both camps, they would be itching to make a name for themselves when the Mariners and the Red and Gold brigade lock horns on 27th of November. This is going to be the biggest ISL season yet with 11 sides and 115 games to be played but all eyes would be on the hallowed Kolkata Derby and expectations are sky-high for an intense affair and let’s hope the match doesn’t disappoint.