t is always good to be back in Kolkata. Though the city has changed its contours — flyovers extending their concrete arms and glass-facade skyscrapers replacing the Ambassador-laden narrow streets and age-old one-storey homes — the bells carry a familiar timbre and a language known tells tales already heard. Bus conductors still bend rules to pick you up from your doorstep, and unannounced visitors still get treated to mishti and, at a certain hour of the day, sombre tunes (in various levels of vocal dexterity) will waft out of open windows as you walk past. It’s a city clamouring for change while holding on to a languid pace that, while serving nostalgia, doesn’t always bode well for its ambitions. And while in most aspects of life old allegiances unite, there is one field where the battle lines remain firmly drawn and love and logic are cast aside — football, more specifically, a clash between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
A sport, to gain legitimacy, needs to engage not just with the players that take the field, but also the fans crying hoarse in the stands — and without either the game cannot exist. While the action is offered by the players, the voice and noise are from the fans, their combined might adding weight to an activity that makes little difference to the actual daily life of either. But the surround sound of a packed ground, the thousands of heartbeats that follow the moves of each player and teams, with many willing to bet their lifelong fortunes just to witness one win by their beloved champion, make it a prized affair.
A celebration of sport doesn’t need the paraphernalia of today — the song and dance and gloss that is the template for sporting events now. It just needs a legacy, some talent, and a contest where the means and the end are there to see on the field itself. While much debate rages on about the relative superiority and merits of the two rival leagues currently seeking ownership of Indian football, fans seem unbothered as most clubs affiliated to either of the two have failed in one important sphere — a fundamental connect with the fans.
Most I-League clubs and their richer equivalents from the Indian Super League are yet to establish that umbilical link with the support base that will allow them to draw inspiration in both good and bad times. Fortunately, for East Bengal and Mohun Bagan — both struggling with finances after years of mismanagement — the connect with the local population dates to a century or, in the case of Bagan, more, and no glitz and glamour can take these diehards away from these institutions. The love for the club crest and its colours has been passed down generations and an 18-year-old has no qualms crying his lungs out for Majid Badsha (Beshkar), the Iranian who enthralled spectators in the Kolkata maidans even before the former was born. True fandom transcends generations.
The derby between the fierce rivals is the only world-class sporting encounter than India can boast of. The contest here is not about the quality of the game, but the passion that still drives it.
An unfancied match in the Calcutta Football League — which has long lost its position of eminence in the changing dynamics of Indian football — still draws more than 60,000 fans to the gigantic stands of Salt Lake Stadium, a remnant of West Bengal’s communist past where size and durability mattered more than aesthetics. Cosmetic touches by recent governments have provided it a new sheen, but not many refer to it by its new name. Years have passed, but the sounds and sights of the derby largely remain unchanged, with lorries emptying out people from all corners of India’s fourth most populous state.
The stars of Indian football have long left, settling in the more glamorous but less demanding space of the Indian Super League, but the fans are not bothered. In this battle of mediocrity, they are still eager to find new stars, rechristen an unknown as the Badsha of Kolkata, the figure who will give you bragging rights at the fish market and also in the swanky offices of New Town, the information technology hub of the city.
The first derby of the 2019-2020 season, however, failed to match the enthusiasm of the fans. The promise of silken-touch football — with two Spaniards occupying opposite dugouts — never materialised with Alejandro Menendez Garcia and his Bagan counterpart Kibu Vicuna opting for a safety-first approach. The duo was guilty of keeping the best attacking threats away for most parts of the game; while Garcia introduced the offensive pair of Jaime Santos Colado and Bidyashagar Singh late into the match, Salva Chamorro — Bagan’s top scorer for the season — didn’t even find a place on the reserve bench.
Mohun Bagan still had the better start, with former Real Sociedad B midfielder Joseba Beitia orchestrating the moves from the middle. The 29-year-old’s ability to envision gaps to find teammates behind the rival defence gave a sense of foreboding to the East Bengal ranks, but Keralite V. P. Suhair failed to score from the many opportunities that came his way.
East Bengal held on with journeyman Marti Crespi proving to be a calming influence at the heart of its defence. The restart brought a more assertive East Bengal looking to inflict damage with fast counterattacks, but the team’s inability to push enough men forward while on the offensive failed to provide its attack with the adequate bite to breach the Bagan defence. Suhair again had a chance to make amends for his first-half profligacy, but his attempt from an Ashutosh Mehta cross sailed innocuously over the bar with the clock almost at the hour mark.
The game petered on and the action in the stands continued to be more intriguing, with fans taking on the mantle to entertain with innovative banners and chants, making fun of their rivals. Here, too, Bagan had the edge with a mosaic ridiculing East Bengal’s long 15-year-wait for the national league title.
However, on the ground nobody came out a winner as the teams settled for a draw and the stands were soon empty. The fans — their passion hardly diminished — promised to renew the rivalry another day. They will be back, irrespective of the results, irrespective of the names involved, irrespective of the leagues they play in. For them it is a habit, it is a pilgrimage and Indian football needs them.