In the realm of Indian sports, cricket’s popularity reigns supreme. But anyone in Kolkata on the day of a Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal match may beg to differ.
Popularly known as the Kolkata Derby, the tussle between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan is the oldest footballing rivalry in Asia with 100-years worth of rich history.
With their entry into the Indian Super League (ISL) – Mohun Bagan as ATK Mohun Bagan after their merger with ATK and East Bengal – one of the biggest derbies in the world is all set to unfold on a new stage.
The two Kolkata giants will face off in the first ISL Kolkata Derby on November 27 and before that, here’s why this rivalry qualifies as among the world's fiercest.
Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal – the beginning
The Kolkata Derby’s roots run deep in Indian football but more importantly, the Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal rivalry is interwoven into the very fabric of the culture and history of the country’s Bengali population.
Bengalis are people from the eastern part of India who speak the Bengali language. Those from the western region (now West Bengal) of the former undivided Bengal under the British Raj are called ‘Ghotis’ while the ones from the eastern region (now Bangladesh) are called 'Bangals'.
One of the oldest clubs in Asia, Mohun Bagan was established in 1889. The Mariners, as they are called, shot to fame after beating East Yorkshire Regiment in the 1911 IFA Shield final. They were the first all-Indian club to beat a British team for a major trophy in India’s pre-independence era.
In the early days, while Mohun Bagan’s players were a mix of both communities, the club was predominantly run by Ghotis.
Being native to the western part of Bengal where Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) was located, Ghotis were more financially affluent than the Bangals, who were mostly immigrants or refugees. At the time, almost all Kolkata clubs were helmed by Ghotis.
In 1920, though, a landmark event played out.
Mohun Bagan were set to play another Kolkata club Jorabagan in the Coochbehar Cup. During the same match, Jorabagan opted not to field their star player Sailesh Bose for some unknown reason.
Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri, an industrialist and vice-president of Jorabagan, was perplexed by the decision and tried to argue with the other club officials for Bose’s inclusion. His pleas, though, fell on deaf ears and during the heated interaction, it was implied that Bose being from ‘East Bengal’ was being held back.
Chaudhuri was flabbergasted and stormed off with Bose by his side. A few days later, on August 1, 1920, Chaudhuri established East Bengal along with Manmatha Nath Chaudhuri (Raja of Santosh after whom the Santosh Trophy was named), Sailesh Bose, Ramesh Chandra (Nasha) Sen and Aurobinda Ghosh.
As the name suggests, the club was to represent the immigrant population in Kolkata coming from East Bengal (across the River Padma, now in Bangladesh).
While both Ghotis and Bangals were part of the Bengali community, there were several differences in terms of dialect, dressing sense, economic backgrounds and even palette.
East Bengal became home to millions of immigrants, often treated like outsiders in Kolkata at the time, while Mohun Bagan represented the established bastion of the Ghotis, both on the football pitch and off it.
The two clubs locked horns several times from 1921 to 1924 but the first-ever official Kolkata Derby was played in the Calcutta Football League in 1925. The rest is history.
India’s partition in 1947 also saw a mass exodus of Bangals from Bangladesh to West Bengal, further strengthening the East Bengal fanbase and intensifying the bitter rivalry.
The two clubs situated less than 500 metres from each other in Kolkata’s famous Maidan area adds even more drama to it.
The Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal rivalry beyond the football pitch
The two sides have squared off innumerable times in the past century, and crowds over 100,000, if the venue permits it, is commonplace.
The 1997 Federation Cup semi-final between the two saw over 130,000 spectators at the Salt Lake Stadium with more waiting outside. It’s still the most-attended sporting event in India, unofficially.
Even FIFA considers it to be amongst one of the most iconic rivalries in the world, in the same vein as the El Clasico (Barcelona vs Real Madrid), North West Derby (Manchester United vs Liverpool), the Old Firm derby (Rangers vs Celtics), the Merseyside Derby (Liverpool vs Everton), the Milan Derby (AC Milan vs Inter Milan) and others.
India may not quite hold the footballing pedigree of the countries many of the other famous rivalries are based in, but in terms of raw emotion and passion, the Kolkata Derby can match any of them blow for blow, fan for fan, chant for chant.
"The fish wars"
Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of it is the Ilish (Hilsa) vs Chingri (Prawns) fish wars that accompany the Kolkata Derby, which sets it apart from any other sporting rivalry in the world.
Bengalis’ affection for football is only rivalled by their appetite for fish. The preferences, however, differ from region to region. Bangals - the supporters of East Bengal - hold a special place for hilsa while Ghotis, largely Mohun Bagan fans, tend to swear by prawns.
On Kolkata Derby days, it’s common for prices of both fishes to go through the roof throughout Bengal due to the high demand. If a club wins, the winning team’s fish prices reach astronomical heights the next day but still get sold out throughout the city in the blink of an eye.
The Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal battle transcends football. Rather, it’s a symbolic tussle between two very similar, yet different, ways of life.
Until the 90s it wasn’t even uncommon for entire neighbourhoods in Kolkata and Bengal to be painted in team colours – red and gold for East Bengal and green and maroon for Mohun Bagan.
East Bengal's red and gold shirt with a logo of a flaming torch is indicative of the fire among refugees to conquer the odds of life. Football was only an expression.
Mohun Bagan’s green and maroon stripes, meanwhile, represent legacy and affluence. Their logo, a boat with its sails up, symbolizes to the intent to always sail forward with the flow of time.
Birthplace of legends
Also known as the ‘Boro Match’ or big match, Kolkata Derbies have been the birthplace of several legends of Indian football. In recent memory, the 1997 Federation Cup final is often regarded as the breakthrough match for Bhaichung Bhutia.
Bhutia, in East Bengal colours, scored a hat-trick in a 4-1 derby win over Mohun Bagan to emerge as a superstar. He has also played the Kolkata Derby for Mohun Bagan and is the highest-scorer in Kolkata derbies with 19 goals (13 for East Bengal and six for Mohun Bagan).
Legends like Chuni Goswami, Krishanu De, Sailen Manna, Peter Thangaraj, Amal Dutta, Subhash Bhowmik and several others also attained their iconic stature in Indian football courtesy their accomplishments in Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal games on big stages.
PK Banerjee is probably the only famous Indian football great who never represented either team during his playing days but became a part of the ecosystem during his illustrious coaching tenure.
The emergence of icons through Kolkata Derbies, though, isn’t restricted only to the field.
The name Jamuna Das, for example, won’t ring a bell for most but any reference of ‘Lozenge Masi’ will be familiar to anyone following Indian and Kolkata football from close quarters.
An avid East Bengal fans, Lozenge Masi (Candy aunt) makes ends meet selling hard candies during East Bengal matches. On derby days, though, the middle-aged woman can always be found leading chants with the fans in the East Bengal gallery, dressed in the team colours.
Over the years, the Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal rivalry has gone pan-India, even global. And the trend is only set to amp up with their entry in the ISL.
But the true significance of the historic Kolkata Derby still lies in the local intricacies. It’s personal.