The Kolkata derby is one of the most legendary club rivalries in world football. As Mohun Bagan moves to the ISL, is this the end of an era?
Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal is only technically a football match. Scrape past the wins and losses, the statistics and tactics, the goals and misses, the blood and sweat—and you will find deep human chemistry in the supporters of two of India's most storied football clubs. Since the two clubs first faced off in 1925, they have represented generational histories of shared joy and dismay, of folktales and reality, of immigrants and natives, of stars and unsung heroes, of passion and pride and shame, of noise and poetry. Each of these things blends into the joyous Kolkata derby—fondly called the boro match, or the big game, by Kolkatans.
15 March was supposed to be the last time both clubs would play in a derby in the same countrywide league before the coronavirus outbreak postponed the league. Until East Bengal, like Mohun Bagan, find a way to play in the Indian Super League (ISL). Bagan's merger with ISL club ATK (previously known as Atlético de Kolkata) was announced earlier this year, which means the Mariners will now play in India's new premier league. Bagan will leave the I-League on a high, after they were crowned champions on 10 March. While talks are on with potential suitors, East Bengal haven't yet announced investors who will help them make the leap.
Realists may say this derby will be the last of its kind, but the Kolkata derby is for the dreamers. It is pure football fantasy, written in tales of hope that there will be a derby in the top division once again. Think of it more as a semicolon, not a full stop; an interval, rather than the closing credits.
India's first countrywide top division was the 1996-97 National Football League (NFL) season. A dozen clubs were divided into two groups, with the top four teams from each group going into the championship round after playing a mini league among themselves. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, the two Kolkata powerhouses, were in separate groups. East Bengal made it through theirs, finishing second in Group A. Mohun Bagan didn't qualify, finishing fifth in Group B. The NFL was later rechristened the I-League, but the 1996-97 season remains the only one in which India's great rivals did not face off in the same division.
"We all know that the derby will never end—it could be a year or two without it, but East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans know that we are two hands of the same body. Everybody in Indian football knows that and while some may say this is the last original derby, it's not true. East Bengal will most probably be there in the next couple seasons— because they can't imagine being left out. There is still hope that something will be worked out. The fans expect to be part of the ISL soon. This city does not function with one club," says Debanjan Banerjee, a lifelong East Bengal fan whose Footy Traveller project takes him around the world documenting football fans and cultures.
It is difficult to put a tangible value on the Kolkata derby. Part of Fifa's list of classic derbies across the world, this is a match that transcends a sport that has increasingly become obsessed with statistics.
"For players it will be another derby— for the fans it will be emotional—because of the uncertainty of when the next one will happen in the top division. In this current situation, it is easy for players since they quickly move from one club to another. For the fans, it will be nostalgic until it happens again," says Renedy Singh, who has played for both clubs and has more than 70 caps for the Indian national football team.
From a sporting point of view, this season's I-League title is already Mohun Bagan's. Going into the last derby of the season, they have an unassailable 16-point lead at the top of the table. Meanwhile, East Bengal's centenary year (the club was formed in 1920) has been poor on the pitch. Off it, it has been marred by challenges, with majority stakeholder Quess Corp. announcing its plans to exit after a series of reported disagreements with the club management. The banter with Mohun Bagan fans over their merger with ATK will eventually dissipate, replaced by the need to be in the ISL. A feeling which will be reciprocated by their fierce rivals.
"Without them we are nothing, without us they are nothing. Whatever the national league is—if we are not playing together, it will be like one of Kolkata's two hearts will stop beating. We are hoping that East Bengal will find the means to join the ISL. Until that happens, we will make do with the Calcutta Football League derbies," says Prasenjit Sarkar, of the Mariners' Base Camp, the ultras fan group of Mohun Bagan.
For Sarkar though, there is another club rivalry to look forward to from the next ISL season. "We are looking forward to playing against Bengaluru FC. We may be losing the Kolkata derby until things are resolved, but the resumption of another rivalry will soften the blow a little." The two clubs vied for glory between 2013-17, before Bengaluru switched to the ISL. In fact, Bengaluru's first-ever competitive match was against Mohun Bagan. That kick-started a rivalry which includes AFC Cup games, a Federation Cup final (won by Bengaluru), and a famous away draw for Bagan, which meant Bengaluru conceded their 2013-14 title to the Kolkata side on their own turf.
Bengaluru moved to the ISL in 2017, and the prospect of watching both play in the same league again is mouth-watering. That said, a Kolkata derby in the ISL will be the real clincher for neutrals and partisans alike.
The 1997 Federation Cup semi-final was a derby played at the Salt Lake stadium. Around 131,000 people reportedly turned up. Indian football legend P.K. Banerjee was the coach of East Bengal. The late Amal Dutta, then a young, risk-loving player, making his reputation as an innovative tactician, was in charge of Mohun Bagan. Football historian Novy Kapadia writes in his book, Barefoot To Boots, about how Dutta tried playing mind games with Bhaichung Bhutia, who was at the time East Bengal's star striker, by talking him down in media interviews. At dinner on the eve of the match, Banerjee let Bhaichung know of Dutta's views about him. It fired up the striker and he went and scored the derby's first ever hat-trick, 72 years in the making.
There is no doubt that Indian football is richer with this great rivalry. Which is why for Kolkata, 15 March will be celebration as usual, but tinged with the uncertainty of when both sides of the city will be able to once again celebrate their team's victory and gloat over the other's defeat.
And until the time that the stars of Indian football align themselves so we can have the derby in the top division again, here we stand, at the cusp of another boro match.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.