The excitement was palpable when Nikhil Poojary took to the ground with Raynier Fernandes during a Calcutta Football League fixture two seasons ago. They had both earned their stripes in Mumbai at a local club, Air India, and for a season in 2014, had even played together in the senior team that won the local football division, as well as a tournament organized by the All India Football Federation (Aiff) in Lucknow where Fernandes got the “Best Player” award.
From his full back position, Poojary had seen enough of his junior’s creativity in midfield to become an instant fan. Over time, they also became friends. Their professional careers then took them both to Kolkata. Only now, they found themselves on opposite sides of India’s most passionate footballing rivalry—Poojary at East Bengal and Fernandes at Mohun Bagan.
So when their respective clubs faced each other for the Kolkata derby, Poojary and Fernandes decided to celebrate the occasion.
“When we had spoken about facing each other during the Kolkata derby, Raynier had suggested we take a selfie on the ground since it was such a special moment. The time had now come to do it, but when I looked around, I was scared as I wondered what the fans would say if they saw us. It was all wrapped up under 5 seconds,” Poojary recalls, chuckling.
In Indian football, nothing comes close to an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan fixture—whether in the I-League or the Calcutta Football League. And the opportunity to play for either of the clubs remains an enticing prospect for any footballer. It was no different for Raju Gaikwad, who signed up for East Bengal in 2011 from Pailan Arrows, now known as Indian Arrows.
“There was no one from Mumbai at the club, but my elder brother, who is also a player, told me it was the best thing for my career. The fans are very different from Goa or Mumbai. They are everywhere—right from the training sessions to the derby, simply to remind you that you are there to win. You get a lot of respect, but at the same time, one must know how to handle the pressure,” Gaikwad says. One of the memories that has stayed with him is of a loss against Aryan FC in the Calcutta Football League.
“The fans were so mad at us that we had to stay on the ground for an hour after the game because they wouldn’t let us leave. We had to wait until police reinforcements arrived and we could be safely escorted off the ground,” he says.
The same fans are known to be generous on most other occasions. While going from Mumbai to Kolkata for trials on an unreserved ticket, Poojary was embraced by East Bengal fans on the train and offered a seat. In Kolkata, he was reunited with Fernandes and also got in touch with Gaikwad. He started feeling at home once his senior from school, Rahul Bheke, arrived at East Bengal after finishing his loan spell with Kerala Blasters.
“We would spend a lot of our free time together, catching a movie, eating or soaking in the sights and sounds of the city. Raynier too would come over while off training. Every fan knows you in Kolkata and we realized that it could be a problem if we were seen together, so we never hung out prominently. We had a senior, Luis Barreto, who was an ace cook, so we would spend a lot of time at his home, before going back to our respective worlds,” Poojary says. “I was happy to have someone from my own city on the team. Having a schoolmate play alongside has its advantage. We chipped in for each other at times,” Bheke recalls.
With Poojary operating just in front of Bheke at right back, their chemistry off the pitch helped them function in sync on it. A moment that has stayed with Bheke is scoring against Bagan during a Calcutta Football League tie in 2015.
“It’s the most treasured memory of my career. The fans worship you as a hero, a very different experience. They have their loyalties for the team and expect the same from you,” Bheke recalls.
“Though I had never played with Raynier or Raju, it felt really good that we were making our city Mumbai proud. Despite being opponents, we respected each other and I hoped that all of us did well,” Bheke adds.
Things got better for Fernandes when midfielder Shilton D’Silva joined Bagan in 2017. Though they hadn’t played together back home in Mumbai, the city connect meant that they took little time to settle in as roommates. “Raynier was the first person I called to know what Kolkata was like. When other Mumbai boys, midfielder Darren Caldeira, defenders Abhishek Ambekar and Amey Ranawade joined Bagan the next year, it was my turn to help them feel comfortable,” D’Silva recalls.
Even before they played professional football, D’Silva and Ambekar used to play rink football at private tournaments in Mumbai. They now spent time discovering eateries in Kolkata that would offer pav bhaji and pani puri—comfort food from back home. That 2018-19 season was unforgettable for anyone associated with Bagan, given that they won the Calcutta Football League for the first time since 2009. “We were four Bombay boys, so it was really special. The league was sealed with a game to spare and the entire stadium was on the ground, throwing colours all over,” D’Silva says.
It all got rather strange when Ambekar decided to join rivals East Bengal the following season. “My grandfather was a Bagan supporter, so I had joined them initially, but I personally wanted to be one of those players who had turned out for both clubs,” Ambekar says.
Ambekar and D’Silva continued hanging out in the city and there were times when fans would crack wise when they would see them together. Or simply pester them for tickets.
“There is never a moment you can get away from the fans. They will call out and applaud you if you have done well, and at the same time, really let you have it if you have not put in your shift,” Ambekar says.
Defender Ashutosh Mehta had his first taste of the same fervour when he landed in Kolkata after signing up for Bagan in 2019. The supporters hounded him at the airport and also urged him to change Bagan’s fortunes during the derby. “They told me that they had gone home crying far too often. In the next moment they got to the point—get ready to deal with a lot of pressure,” says Mehta.
In D’Silva and Ambekar, he found company to spend time off the field. But when derby day arrived in January, it was every man for himself when they entered the Vivekanada Yuba Bharati Krirangan, commonly known as the Salt Lake stadium. They wished each other luck amid the deafening din created by the 63,000-odd supporters of the rival clubs, and for the rest of the evening, a delightful contest unfolded between Mehta and Ambekar on the right flank. Though Ambekar had been a part of the fixture before, he was left amazed yet again by the atmosphere.
“You cannot hear someone 10m from you, it’s that loud. You can never get used to it,” Ambekar says. Mehta too realized what made the Kolkata derby a fixture like none other, thriving on a special chant reserved just for him.
“All those people singing together ‘Kaun bachaye apni naiya, Ashu bhaiya, Ashu bhaiya (Who keeps us afloat, brother Ashu)’. It still echoes in my ears, something I will remember all my life,” he says.
With Bagan having tied up with ATK for the Indian Super League next season, the fixture is set for one final flourish. Come 15 March, what is likely to be the last edition of the Kolkata derby promises to be no different. And for those 90 minutes, all Mumbai connections will be forgotten for the bragging rights in store at the end of it.