Mention the world’s most popular and enduring rivalries and even the most ardent aficionado will immediately turn their thoughts to the traditional hotbeds of Europe and South America. Few will look to Asia, and even fewer to India. By any measure, however, the rivalry between Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan and East Bengal deserves a place on the must-see list for those football cognoscenti with a global view.
Now dating back 86 years, the fixture is a highlight on the annual fixture list. Enormous crowds are assured at the city’s cavernous Salt Lake Stadium, one of the globe’s largest arenas. Up to 100,000 patrons can be expected depending on the standings of the respective combatants, and the derby holds the record for the largest sporting attendance in the world’s second most populace nation.
Mohun Bagan are one of Asia’s oldest clubs having been inaugurated in 1889 in the city then known under its anglicised name, Calcutta. The significant British influence in what was, until 1911, the nation’s capital, ensured the game flourished, drawing players from other regions, and it is against this backdrop in which today’s rivalry took root.
Like many great rivalries a schism, albeit in this case an indirect one, led to the birth of a local challenger. In mid-1920, the Jora Bagan club took to the field against Mohun Bagan without star Sailesh Bose, much to the chagrin of club vice-president Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri. Such was the industrialist's displeasure, he decided to form a new club and East Bengal was born. As Chaudhuri and his co-founders hailed from East Bengal, essentially now modern-day Bangladesh, the club were traditionally supported by immigrants from that area. This resulted in the clubs being backed by two different socio-economic groups, although this has largely changed over the decades.
The first major meeting between the two clubs occurred in 1925 and resulted in a 1-0 win for East Bengal in a Calcutta League match. The result was repeated when the pair met for the first time in the prestigious IFA (Indian Football Association) Shield in 1944. East Bengal’s semi-final triumph was all the more poignant due to Mohun Bagan’s historic and deep-seated affiliation with the tournament.
The Green and Maroons had lifted the Shield for the first time in 1911, defeating the East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1, the first win for an Indian team over European opposition. The match is considered a sporting milestone in India’s struggle for autonomy, and the anniversary of the win is celebrated annually on 29 July with Mohun Bagan Day. Such is the significance of the result, a postage stamp was issued by the Indian government in 1989 during the club's centenary year to commemorate the victory.
Facts and figures
Though exact figures are disputed, East Bengal boast a clear winning margin over their city neighbours, despite Mohun Bagan more than holding their own in recent years. In modern times, iconic India international Baichung Bhutia has tallied the most goals in derby matches, with the diminutive forward transcending the city’s football divide by representing both clubs. His hat-trick in a famous match in 1997 was the only contemporary treble until the feat was eclipsed by Nigerian Edeh Chidi in 2009, who not only became the first foreign player to score a treble in the Kolkata derby, but became the first player in its history to score four goals in a single encounter.
Tales of derbies past
The 1960s proved a golden period for Mohun Bagan and it concluded in perfect fashion for the Mariners. Having already won the league, Mohun then did the double, defeating their rivals on their own ground in the IFA Shield final. The 3-1 victory credited to the then revolutionary 4-2-4 formation employed by innovative coach Amal Dutta.
The wheel eventually turned, as happens in most such rivalries, and the 1970s was East Bengal’s decade. They didn’t lose a derby for six years in a period which culminated in a 5-0 IFA Shield win over their great rivals. The Red and Golds roared to a record 5-0 scoreline and, with it, a record of five consecutive Shield victories. Such was the ignominy surrounding the heavy defeat that several Mohun Bagan players spent the night holed up on a boat on the Ganges River trying to escape the wrath of shell-shocked supporters.
Arguably, the most memorable Kolkata derby of all took place in 1997 when a remarkable crowd of 131,000 – a record attendance for any sport in India – filled a heaving Salt Lake Stadium. Appropriately enough, India’s most recognisable footballer, Bhutia, took centre stage, scoring a hat-trick as East Bengal triumphed 4-1 in the semi-final of the Federation Cup. The Sikkimese sniper was unable to repeat his goalscoring heroics in the final, however, and his side lost against Salgaocar.
The rivalry today
Though traditional enmity has subsided, the passion and rivalry remains strong between the two big teams in the historical home of Indian football. The dominance has ebbed and flowed over the last decade, with Mohun Bagan winning eight successive matches over a three-year period up to 2008. While neither side have claimed the title in the brief three-year history of the I-League, it is Mohun who have the edge in terms of wins.
This Saturday is the latest instalment of the Kolkata derby and victory for East Bengal could see them claim more than just bragging rights. Currently in third position, they can stay in the hunt for their maiden title with a victory that would write another chapter in Indian football’s longest-running football melodrama.