The Durand Cup final between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in Kolkata, September 3, 2023
It was an unimportant match between East Bengal and a local team in the late 1970s. The match was just about to start. A small crowd was chatting near the main entrance of the ground. Suddenly a middle-aged man with messy hair, red eyes and a worn-out look appeared at the gate. While entering the ground, he anxiously asked the gatekeeper whether the match had begun. The gateman replied in the negative. A few other members who knew the man came to him and asked why he was so late in arriving on that day. The man hesitantly replied: “My younger son passed away in the morning. I am coming straight from the crematorium.”
In a League match in the late 1970s, Mohun Bagan won by a big margin. After the match, the jubilant crowd rushed towards Esplanade to board buses and trams on the way home. A few bare-bodied young lads were standing on the rod of the tram’s wheel, hanging on to the windows with one hand. They were waving their shirts like Mohun Bagan flags. As the tram suddenly stopped at a road signal, one of the lads got thrown onto the street. His feet appeared to be run over by the wheels of the tram. However, as the tram started to move, the lad ran and jumped onto the rod to catch the tram. After the tram left the place, a severed toe was found amidst a few drops of blood while a thin red line stretched along the tramline. The pain got lost in the euphoria of victory.
Neither of these two incidents are aberrations. Anyone who was present at the Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan on September 3 would agree. The build-up had started from the morning. Fans coming to the city in numbers wearing their club colours and all set for the big game was the norm. It was derby day and all else was secondary. In fact, it was around 2PM that I was at the ITC Sonar, less than a mile from the stadium, meeting a few friends ahead of the mega Durand Cup final. A number of colleagues had asked for tickets and the honest truth is I did not have any left to give! I had somehow managed four tickets and the number of people who had asked me was no less than 50. Every ticket was gold and all roads were jampacked with supporters of both teams all buoyant and committed. The East Bengal victory in the group stage of the competition after a gap of 1,657 days had helped set things up and it meant that Mohun Bagan no longer had that aura. They were beatable and it was evident from the number of East Bengal supporters in the ground. The stadium was exactly divided halfway down the middle and for the 35,000 Mohun Bagan fans, there were an equal number of East Bengal fans in the stands. Each time the East Bengal players managed to mount an attack, the fans found voice. And even after Mohun Bagan had scored the all important winning goal, the EB fans did not desert the team. They stayed on till the end and kept cheering. It was only after the referee had started looking at his watch 7 minutes into lost time did the East Bengal fans start to leave the stadium. As one side of the stadium was fast turning empty, the other side witnessed wild celebrations from the Mohun Bagan fans soon after the final whistle was blown.
Team owner Sanjiv Goenka was all ecstatic and did not hide his jubilation. “It is always good to win a trophy. And when you do so beating East Bengal, it is a very special feeling. However, we can’t rest on our laurels. The real deal is the AFC cup and we need to prepare for it. We also have the ISL starting soon and we need to get back to training immediately,” said Goenka.
For too long, matches like Mohun Bagan Vs East Bengal have dominated Indian football but each time the national team has played a better and higher ranked side, we have been caught wanting. Now things have finally started to change and we need to use the Derby to strengthen Indian football
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INDIAN FOOTBALL’S PREMIER club rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal mirrors the oppositional identities, social differences and emotional commonalities inherent in Indian society and culture. While the roots of the origin and consolidation of this football rivalry lie in social and sub-regional differences of contemporary Indian society, its playing out in the last 25 years can only be meaningfully explained in terms of club loyalty, fan culture and commercial transformation. This was yet one more time borne out on Sunday, September 3. While the East Bengal fans all said the team had played well and they are now confident of competing with Mohun Bagan in the ISL, the Mohun Bagan fans considered it the perfect revenge within a week of having lost to East Bengal. The players, too, were consumed by fan passion. Soon after he scored the deciding goal, Dimitri Petratos ran towards the Mohun Bagan stands and was not willing to resume play for at least 5 minutes. His gesture was pushing the fans more and it is no surprise that both sets of fans came hard at each other once the match was over. There were unconfirmed reports of fan violence and it is time the law enforcement agencies clamp down on such behaviour.
Some East Bengal supporters were attacked and abused at the end of the contest and there are rumours that a couple of them were seriously injured. While there is no confirmation on this at the time of writing except some videos floating on social media, suffice to say that clashes did take place and flare-ups did happen. This is where things get ugly. As a Mohun Bagan fan myself, I think such incidents are deplorable. A true fan will never attack another fan and by doing so the fans are bringing disrepute to their own club. It is time the fans find grace in both winning and losing for only then can Indian football progress.
The larger question, however, isn’t about the derby itself. While the fan support and all else is great, how can the derby help the growth of Indian football? Is there any way to harness the fan support for the betterment of Indian football, going forward? If local club football continues to take precedence, will the clubs release players for the national team? Will the AIFF be able to push through a compromise formula that will ensure national interest is taken care of? For too long, matches like Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal have dominated Indian football but each time the national team has played a better and higher ranked side, we have been caught wanting. Now things have finally started to change and we need to use the derby to strengthen Indian football. Such a thing can only happen if synergies are established and that’s what will make this famed rivalry a lot more valuable.