In January 2016, I visited Kolkata for the first time. A couple of friends were getting married and I got a taste of the derby obsessive nature of Bengalis when the father of the groom turned up late at the wedding reception because he had a Mohun Bagan – East Bengal game to catch. There seemed to be a casual acceptance about the whole thing, in a way that suggested that it would have been abnormal if events had panned out any other way.
This was my initiation to India’s oldest footballing rivalry dating back to 1921, without getting anywhere close to the stadium. Over the years, I have read about the exploits of both clubs, and the sadly in decline Mohammedan Sporting Club, in newspaper match reports without truly understanding how the rivalry is woven into the socio-economic milieu of West Bengal. As my interest in Indian football deepened, there really was no other place that I could start.
It is some story and it has got everything. The natives and the immigrants, not unlike the Old Firm derby in Scotland. A disgruntled club official parting ways to start a new club much like John Houlding did at Liverpool FC. The prices of hilsa and prawn being determined by the team winning the derby, celebratory meals being the order of the day. Of course, a lot of the stories I have heard from Bengali friends over the years could be over simplifications of a phenomenon that has ingrained itself into popular culture for the best part of a century, which makes it the most fascinating fanbase story to follow. Peeling through all the layers would be a worthwhile exercise for all football lovers.
For all the good stories in popular mind space about the Manjappadas and the West Block Blues, fans of the Kerala Blasters and Bengaluru FC respectively, they do not (yet) capture the imagination in a similar way. In Kerala, they joke about how fans hop on to the ISL bandwagon for a few months every year before shifting their attention back to the Manchester Uniteds and Arsenals of the world. If there are indeed deep rooted affiliations for football teams in the state, they would be for Brazil and Argentina. There is a story that goes back a few decades.
The biggest anomaly in Indian football these days is that both these Kolkata clubs are yet to grace the ISL, where they would get the visibility that they deserve. They have been accused by detractors of harping about the past without accounting for the realities on the ground. The clubs on their part believe that current stakeholders in Indian football do not give them the respect that they believe they’ve earned. There is merit to both sides of the argument.
For all their glorious history, the clubs have failed to capitalise on the passion and fervour of their fans. Progress on and off the field has been slow and it is dumbfounding that two clubs who have been around for so long still do not fulfil criteria for an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) license. For their part, the All India Football Federation (AIFF), ISL custodians and prospective partners have expected the clubs to compromise over their name, logo and kit colours, which is a shame because these elements contribute heavily to their identity.
It might well be that answers will be found by 2019, when the league will be expanded further. The protection afforded to ATK for the first five years of their existence shall be removed and the contentious requirement for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to play their home games outside Kolkata shall no longer stand.
64630 people thronged the Salt Lake Stadium last weekend for the first Kolkata Derby of the I-League season, despite a 2 pm kickoff. Given that they exist outside the collective consciousness of most Indian football fans elsewhere in the country, it was an opportunity for them to serve notice to observers about their relevance. In these uncertain times, it is hard for them to do that in isolation. Together, they continue to serve quite a spectacle. The two grand old clubs of Indian football need each other more than they know.