Sepp Blatter didn’t do much right in his time as the president of the world’s primary football body, FIFA. Filled with controversies, corruption and lie after lie, he tarnished the image of the beautiful game to an unneeded level and often didn’t see eye to eye with the rest of the footballing world. But, in 17 years of holding his post in FIFA’s offices in Zürich, he let one rightful phrase slip out of his unreliable mouth – labelling India as the “sleeping giant” of world football.
In a country of more than 1.2 billion people and a history to tantalise the imagination of one, India has rarely produced internationally acclaimed footballers. Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chettri are the only two that come to mind in recent memory but have barely set the world alight in footballing metaphors. However, a country that big does have one bright spark, a city well renowned around the world and very well synonymous with the British – Kolkata.
Kolkata is India’s best reply when asked about their football heritage. The country’s best players have played there and have gone on to become national heroes with their performances in that esteemed city. Surrounded by vast poverty and bungling facilities, they’ve still accomplished in making something with very little of what they possess, and rather surprisingly, are considered as one of world football’s most well-honed cities.
The Birth Of A Rivalry
The essence of the city’s footballing tradition lies in its greatest and most intense rivalry. Mohun Bagan play East Bengal under arguably the most powerful crowd in Asian football with thousands and thousands flocking into the historical Salt Lake Stadium to create a fine atmosphere, with banners, flares and sadly, violence, being familiar when the two giants meet.
Most rivalries are born out of internal rift, and so was this one. Mohun Bagan is Asia’s oldest football club, formed in 1889 in Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, while under the British rule. They were set to square off against local side Jora Bagan in 1920, who decided against fielding their star centre-half Sailesh Bose for reasons unknown, much to the displeasure of vice-president and industrialist Suresh Chaudhuri, who decided to leave the club imminently and form a new club along with Raja Manmatha Nath Chaudhuri, Ramesh Chandra Sen, and Aurobinda Ghosh, named simply as East Bengal.
East Bengal were formed with players from lesser socio-economic groups and that financial schism still exists between the two clubs. The locale of the club is now essentially modern-day Bangladesh and many of their players and fans from back in the day are migrants and immigrants from the country following Bangladesh’s advance towards independence in the 1970s.
Before East Bengal were born, Mohun Bagan were the darlings of Indian football as they aimed towards seeking independence from the British rule in the 20th Century. Calcutta, then the capital of the British Raj, was playing host to the IFA Shield in 1911, where the all-Indian team overcame East Yorkshire Regiment in the final of the competition at the Calcutta Maidan Stadium under a crowd of more than 60,000. The audience consisted of shabbily dressed Indians and finely dressed Englishmen, a picture that painted the state of the times in the region. Winning by a score of two goals to one, Mohun Bagan etched their names in history and proved that their British superiors were no more human than they were.
The English publication, Reuters, noted a rare sight that day: “The Bengalees tearing off their shirts and waving them. The members of the Muslim Sporting Club were almost mad and rolling on the ground with joyous excitement on the victory of their Hindu brethren.” The 29th of July is officially declared as Mohun Bagan Day in modern Kolkata, and there’s even a movie based on their illustrious heroes, directed by Bengal-native Arup Roy, named Egaro – The Immortal Eleven, released in 2011.
The Twelth Men
Despite India not being as well-renowned as their other Asian counterparts for their passion for the game, the Kolkata Derby has seen the best, and chief form of bizarre, the Indian fans have to offer. An imperious 5-0 win for East Bengal in 1975 over their rivals saw one of their fans get a heart attack in ecstasy following his side’s fourth goal. The same evening, something even more dubious occurred when a 25-year-old Mohun Bagan fan Umakanto Palodhi committed suicide leaving behind a suicide note that showed every bit of his love for his club: “I wish to take revenge for this defeat in my next birth by returning as a better Mohun Bagan footballer.”
A suicide by poising in 1977 and a stampede in 1980 are just some of the cases to prove how far the Kolkata fans would go to represent their colours, while there was a wave of violence in a game as recently as 2012, where one of Mohun Bagan’s players suffered a fracture between his jaw and right ear after a stone was pelted at him in the derby in December that year. That, game in particular, showed everything the derby was about and had more than 40 fans injured after Mohun Bagan’s star player Odafa Okolie was sent off and commenced the rioting that included objects such as bottles to window panes being thrown onto the pitch.
Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium is India’s largest football ground, being able to accommodate more than 120,000 fans at one point. But recent redevelopments have taken place and have seen its capacity decreased to just less than 70,000. Nevertheless, the stadium is exactly what a rivalry of this magnitude deserves and in one game, had a record crowd of 131,000 people crammed up for a Federation Cup semi-final in 1997, in which Indian legend Baichung Bhutia scored a hat-trick for East Bengal. Bhutia also happens to be the derby’s highest-ever goal scorer and arguably, India’s greatest ever footballer.
The Salt Lake Stadium is a home away from home, with Bayern Munich being frequent visitors in recent years during the Bundesliga’s winter break. Their most recent arrival at the stadium came in 2012, where they beat the Indian National Team 4-0 in Sunil Chettri’s farewell game. New York Cosmos, spearheaded by Pelé, were visitors in 1977, while the Argentinean National Team, featuring Lionel Messi, once contested a friendly against South American rivals Venezuela at the stadium.