RIVALRIES: East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and the Kolkata Derby
Perhaps one of the largest untapped and unexplored football outposts, India provides one of the great unknown rivalries in world football. Crowds of over 100,000 are not unusual in the fixture known as the Kolkata Derby played between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. It is a rivalry steeped in history, politics and has its roots in India’s colonial past and with over a billion people living in India alone as well as millions of people of Indian heritage spread across the world, this truly is a rivalry of global proportions.
Journalist Somnath Sengupta states that although Bengal was a united region until 1905 when it was divided up into East and West, there already existed deep social divisions between the West Bengal Ghotis and the East Bengal Bangals. West Bengal is now in Eastern India and East Bengal is now the country of Bangladesh. Culturally the two peoples were different. They spoke different dialects of the same language and ate different types of food. Calcutta (to give it its anglicised name), at the time was the political and financial capital of India and began to attract many Bangals who were searching for better prospects and quality of life. They met an established Ghotis population largely unwilling to integrate and as such the Bangals were discriminated against and often exploited by naturalised Ghotis.
Against this backdrop a fierce footballing rivalry evolved. Mohun Bagan is the elder of the two clubs formed by wealthy lawyer Bhupendranath Basu in August 1889 and are also the oldest football club within India itself. With the help of other wealthy families in Northern Calcutta the club was formed with the hope of inspiring youngsters to participate within sports, especially football. East Bengal was founded in 1920, partly due to Mohun Bagan who were scheduled to play a team called Jorabagan.
Jorobagan dropped star player Sailesh Bose with little footballing reason. The suggestion was that Bose was dropped due to being a Bangal. The Vice President of Jorobagan, Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri, was himself a Bangal and in protest resigned from his position with immediate effect, before forming a club specifically for the East Bengal population known as East Bengal Football Club. Chaudhuri hoped that the newly formed club would become a focal point for the Bangal population as a whole.
Mohun Bagan had never operated exclusively for the benefit of the Ghotis population, indeed prior to the creation of East Bengal many fans and some players were Bangals (eight played in the 1911 IFA Shield winning team) but with the creation of East Bengal FC, Bangals naturally began to emigrate towards a club with which they had a natural affinity. Before India gained independence in 1947, the rivalry between the two clubs was somewhat dormant as the British were seen as the common foe. However post independence Bengal was partitioned again and up to two million refugees crossed to Western Bengal and became naturalised East Bengal fans. Mohun Bagan were seen as the team of the ruling elite whilst East Bengal were seen as the team of the people.
It has been estimated that there have been over 300 encounters between the two teams since they first met in 1925 in which East Bengal won 1-0. East Bengal have won 115 matches whilst Mohun Bagan have triumphed in 85 matches. East Bengal have scored 280 goals and Mohun Bagan have scored 230. Key fixtures include the one hundredth encounter in December 1967 where East Bengal emerged as 2-0 victors and in doing so won the Rovers Cup. In the final of the Airlines Cup in April 1993, Mohun Bagan won by the remarkable score line of 6-5.
In the 1975 East Bengal humiliated Mohun Bagan 5-0 in the IFA Shield, a defeat which saw Mohun Bagan players have to seek shelter in boats on the River Ganges in a bid to escape irate supporters. Perhaps one of the best signs of the significance of the fixture was in 1997 when 131,000 people packed into Mohun Bagan’s Salt Lake Stadium. The attendance was a record for any Indian sporting fixture, which in a country where Cricket is a national obsession is extraordinary.
Incidents off the pitch are a common occurrence. Bottles and other missiles are thrown by supporters, stadium lights often turn themselves off and on again at seemingly random points. The fixture has known tragedy too. In 1980, the authorities lost control of the crowd with 19 people being crushed and losing their lives. Perhaps a little more bizarrely Umakanta Paladhi, a Mohun Bagan fan, committed suicide after they were beaten in a fixture in the 1970’s. In his suicide note, Paladhi wished to be reincarnated as a Mohun Bagan player so he could come back and wreak revenge upon East Bengal FC.
The Kolkata Derby was the only fixture which made it into FIFA’s list of classic rivalries where the nation involved was ranked outside the top 100 national teams. It represents an area of India where political, economic and social history has often been one of great struggle and change and whilst football struggles to gain a foothold in a country where cricket rules supreme, the Kolkata Derby could hold the key to over a billion potential football fans.