“Arrey Togo aij paanch goal bhoira dimu dekhis oney,” yelled a young guy who plays football with me on Sundays to another fellow player during a heated argument. The latter instantly retorted, “Arrey, ja ja, ekai Barreto paanch goal debe, dekhish.” The first comment from an East Bengal supporter in chaste ‘bangal‘ dialect, roughly translated to mean “We are going to put in five past you today.” In reply, the Mohun Bagan fan retorted, “Buzz off, Barreto would alone score five.” The entire argument related to the Kolkata derby between East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan in the I-league encounter slated in the evening.
I was mighty amused to listen to this conversation. It catapulted me back to my school days in the ’70s, when I had similar arguments with my buddies before any such derby between the two. A clash between the two giants in Kolkata in the ’70s was not a mere game; it was war. I had been a fanatic East Bengal supporter and frequently bunked school to watch matches of my favourite club, often queuing up for hours to get a 60 paise ticket to enter the club grounds.
With the passage of years and the advent of TV channels, I acquired a taste for international football and my fascination for the local brand dissipated. I can hardly recall the names of footballers of either clubs these days except for a few. I rarely watch the matches between the two; relying on SMS updates from two of my senior colleagues — Hirakda and Bachchuda — both ardent and passionate East Bengal supporters, who still attend every game the Red&Gold brigade play in Kolkata and follow every away game on TV.
I had been away from the city for a week and had arrived only on Saturday from Ahmedabad and was not aware of the passion whipped up for Sunday’s derby. As I went around the South Kolkata area with a group of friends later in day to garner support for Ritabrata in the ensuing Lok Sabha by-polls, I saw Red&Gold and Maroon and Green flags far outnumbering flags of any political party. It made me realise that that were still die-hard fanatics around and instantly decided to watch the match on TV, giving a marriage invitation scheduled in the evening a skip.
As I switched on the TV, I was surprised to find a near full house at the Salt Lake Stadium. Thousands of fans had thronged the stadium to cheer for their favourite club. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan share an inherent hostility that extends beyond the boundaries of the patch of green. The enmity between the two teams, respectively of the city’s West (ghoti) and East Bengali (Bangal) population, mirrors the Catholic-Protestant sectarianism of Glasgow’s Celtic versus Rangers. It stretches back earlier than Indian Independence and has got entrenched into the very fabric of Kolkata society. The clash between the two in Kolkata still can draw a multitude that can hardly be challenged by any soccer contest in the world in any stadium. Expectedly, any contest between the two, especially in Kolkata is always a high voltage encounter.
As the TV camera focused on the coaches, Trevor Morgan of East Bengal and former India internationals Subrata Bhattacharyya and Prashanta Banerjee technical director and coach of Mohun Bagan, respectively ( incidentally both my colleagues at the bank), I could see looks of apprehension written all over.
The match stared with East Bengal dominating possession. It was a nervy affair. Every referring decision was contested since the word go. Two East Bengal players received yellow cards within the first 10 minutes. Alan Gow, the Scot, was yellow carded for ‘feigning’ a dive inside the Bagan penalty box, though TV replays seemed to suggest that he might have been brought down.
There was a zip about the game, unlike what is usually dished out in Indian soccer. I was getting involved with the game every passing minute. The love for my side seemed to surface a long, long time. It was suddenly against the run of the play on the 20th minute, Okpara, the burly East Bengal defender allowed the ball to bounce allowing Sunil Chhetri to get to the ball and move around him. His tackle brought Chhetri down, though it appeared that he had made contact with the ball. A few seconds later the ref blew for a penalty. I found myself letting out a choice expletive questioning the parentage of the referee, ignoring the presence of my daughter and wife in the room. Okpara appeared to lose his marbles as he kept arguing with the referee, who had no options but to flash a yellow card to him to add salt to the injury. Odafa stepped forward and calmly slotted the ball in sending Gurpreet, the 19 year old goalie the other way.
1-0 to Bagan.
The referee had taken two controversial decisions, both going against East Bengal. Okpara was seen arguing with the referee at the half time mark absolutely incensed.
East Bengal players came on to the ground in the second half with a new determination, obviously infused by words of wisdom from Trevor Morgan, who had never before lost a derby in his tenure. In the 52nd minute, Vashum headed over, in what looked like the first clear cut scoring opportunity of the match. Soon, the East Bengal captain made two attempts on the goals, one following the other in quick succession; both being blocked by the goalie Sangram Mukherjee, who had an outstanding game. As the match progressed East Bengal shifted gears and looked incisive. Alan Gow was again seemed to have been brought down inside the box on the 69th minute. The referee again looked the other way. By this time, I was whipped up in frenzy and forgot my bearings and cursed freely. I was nudged by my wife, who was equally involved, to get hold of myself. In the 70th minute, East Bengal substitute Sahni, the diminutive striker, could have earned himself a fantastic name, if only he could guide the ball past Mukherjee the goalie, with his first touch of the ball. I thumped the bed with such ferocity that my wife was appalled. Sangram then saved a terrific left footer from Robin Singh, which had a goal written all over.
East Bengal kept up with their passing game, but lacked the final finish. Daniel Zeleny, the new Australian recruit for Mohun Bagan, making his debut was outstanding in defence and kept the East Bengal forwards at bay. Suddenly at the other end, Sunil Chhetri was fed beautifully by Odafa and found himself clear. He could have killed the game then and there; but shot wide off target.
The derby had all the ingredients — fierce competitiveness, passion, drama, and controversy. However, in the 88th minute, more drama was forthcoming when a freak power cut blew out most of the lights. It was quite a while before the same was restored. It happens occasionally during day and night cricket matches, but seldom in soccer. East Bengal threw themselves at Bagan; but lady luck favoured the maroon and green brigade. As the referee blew out the final whistle, a sense of dejection gripped me. The boys had given a gallant display, which could have made any coach and supporter proud. Yet the team finished on the losing side. I wonder what Tolgey must have been thinking, having had to sit out of the match after being been unnecessarily yellow carded in the previous outing.
The referee had taken three big calls; all going against the losing side. It was just not our day. But then, after a long, long time, I really enjoyed a local derby and it ignited the latent passion in me. It proved a point that old habits die hard, irrespective of the quality of the match, I enjoyed every minute of the game and was under a trance, which brought back sweet memories of my childhood vindicating the theory that there’s child inside every adult, irrespective of age.
I salute the beautiful game.