In a country obsessed with cricket and football is mostly relegated in the sidelines, the buzz surrounding a Kolkata Derby – which never seems to wane in terms of passion and zeal – shows that this timeless fixture is rooted deep in the consciousness of an average Kolkatan and football lovers elsewhere. Having stood the test of time, this game colloquially known as Boro (meaning big in Bengali) is evidence that India does indeed have a strong footballing culture rooted deep.
One of the oldest clubs in Asia, Mohun Bagan was inaugurated in 1889 and flourished by drawing players from different regions. The acquisition of players from other parts of India though did not sit well with everyone and as is the case with all classic rivalries a schism followed the birth of a new local challenger in Jora Bagan.
However, when Jora Bagan opted not to field star player Sailesh Bose during a match in mid-1920s, its vice-president Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri was so infuriated by the decision that he decided to form a new club - East Bengal. Since Chaudhuri hailed from the eastern region of Bengal, which is Bangladesh now, the club is traditionally supported by immigrants from that area, whereas the majority of the Mohun Bagan fans are a part of the native population. Of course, there are cross-ethnic support bases as well with both the Kolkata superpowers possessing massive fan bases across the globe.
Bragging rights are up for grabs in these matches with both teams well aware that nothing less than a win would do for their fans. East Bengal supporters who are colloquially known as ‘Bangals’ hold Hilsa fish in the stands to indicate their allegiance, while their Mohun Bagan counterparts colloquially known as ‘Ghotis’ hold prawns in an exhibition of the intense and intrinsic divide between football lovers in Kolkata.
Another exhibition of the fervent support that these sets of fans have for their teams is how a Mexican Wave can never complete a full circle around the Stadium, simply because one set of supporters will not join in if it is set in motion by rival fans. For supporters of these clubs, a win or a loss represents a celebration of their identity as the prices of fish and prawns rise or plummet depending on which side wins with celebratory meals prepared in every household all over the city.
It always makes for a grand spectacle with the attendance for these derbies regularly crossing the 100,000 mark comprising of a sea of red and gold as well as maroon and green. The largest footfall recorded during these ebb and flow fixtures was in 1997 when a whopping 1,31,000 strong crowd packed the Salt Lake Stadium to its rafters as East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan 4-1 in the semi-finals of the Federation Cup after Baichung Bhutia scored a hat-trick.
It was fitting that Bhutia was the deciding factor in a game of such magnitude having represented both the Red and Gold Brigade and the Mariners during numerous stints with the Kolkata heavyweights. The Sikkimese sniper also holds the record for the most goals scored in the Kolkata Derby (19) with Mohun Bagan legend, Jose Barreto a close second with 17 Derby day strikes.
The pendulum of dominance has swung both ways over the decades with Mohun Bagan acting as the superior force in the 1960s before East Bengal took precedence in the 1970s. In terms of the number of National League titles won, Mohun Bagan currently edge past East Bengal having won on four occasions to East Bengal’s three. The Red and Gold Brigade, however, boast more IFA (Calcutta Football) League titles than Mohun Bagan with 37 crowns to their name in contrast to the Mariners’ 29.
The giants of Bengal presently meet at least three times a year – twice in the Hero I-League and once in the CFL. And when these footballing giants do lock horns, fireworks can be expected as matches between these teams are generally incident-filled encounters with lots at stake. Very few countries can actually boast about such a historic rivalry of such epic proportions as this more than nine-decade-old rivalry that never shows signs of waning continues at the Salt Lake Stadium where an electric atmosphere is now synonymous and one of the most unique features of the occasion itself.