How Kolkata derby came into being and what it means to the inhabitants of the city

A match entrenched deep in the fabric of Indian football, the Kolkata derby is right here, first-ever in the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) featuring ATK Mohun Bagan and SC East Bengal on Friday.

A rivalry with 100 years of history, the Kolkata derby is the oldest in Asia and is recognized by FIFA as one of the most iconic rivalries in world football on a par with the El Clasico (Barcelona and Real Madrid), the North West derby (Manchester United and Liverpool), the Old Firm derby (Rangers and Celtic) and the Superclasico (River Plate and Boca Juniors).

The Kolkata derby divides the city based on allegiance but unites it by passion. ATK Mohun Bagan supporters are primarily the natives of West Bengal and are known as Ghotis, while SC East Bengal fans mostly have their roots in the eastern part of pre-independence Bengal.

It’s this cultural divide that, in fact, gave birth to East Bengal in 1920. Mohun Bagan is one of the oldest clubs in Asia having been established in 1889. Initially, Mohun Bagan fielded a mix of players from both parts of Bengal although it was predominantly being run by the natives. However, it was in 1920 that a landmark event took place to give birth to East Bengal following a match between Mohun Bagan and another Kolkata club Jorabagan in the Coochbehar Cup. The match witnessed Jorabagan fail to field their star player Sailesh Bose for reasons yet unknown and that infuriated their club’s vice-president Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri.

Chaudhuri argued that Sailesh Bose was being held back since he was from the eastern part of Bengal and he responded by establishing East Bengal on August 1, 1920 with the help of a few others. Colloquially known as the Boro Match or Big Match these days, the Kolkata derby isn’t just a game but more of an emotion that’s part of Bengal’s ethos and is intertwined to the Bengali identity.

The two clubs have since been involved in innumerable battles for silverware, pride, points and bragging rights. The Kolkata giants have met 367 times over the years with East Bengal winning 129 times, while Mohun Bagan have been the victors 118 times. In terms of silverware won, Mohun Bagan have the slight edge having won 73 trophies compared to East Bengal’s 70.

The intense rivalry between the clubs, though, isn’t just confined to the pitch and comes with plenty of symbolism extending to the stands. One of the most fascinating examples of this is the fish war between both sets of supporters. Bengal’s affection for fishes is only rivalled by their passion for football, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that both these integral aspects of the state’s culture shine in all their glory during the Kolkata derby.

During these matches, supporters of East Bengal are often seen carrying cut-outs of their favourite fish Ilish or Hilsa, while Mohun Bagan fans swear by chingri or prawns. It’s normal for the prices of both these fishes to skyrocket on derby days.

In essence, the derby transcends football as two similar yet different sets of individuals find themselves in a symbolic tussle in the crowd and an intense battle on the pitch. It’s also a fixture where legends are born. The likes of Bhaichung Bhutia, the all-time leading goal-scorer in Kolkata derbies with 19 goals, and Jose Barreto, Mohun Bagan’s top scorer in the derby with 17 goals, will never be forgotten by either group of supporters owing to their heroics on the field when it mattered the most.

Legends like Krishanu Dey, Chuni Goswami, Sailen Manna, Subhash Bhowmick, Peter Thangaraj, Chima Okorie, Bhutia, Baretto all attained iconic status among their fans on the back of their derby day heroics.

With such a rich and colourful background, one can understand why there is so much buzz ahead of the ATK Mohun Bagan-SC East Bengal game. Fans will agree that the winner on Friday will be football, no one else.


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