In 11 years of commentating on Indian football, a question that was often thrown at me by fans, colleagues, players, coaches and hotel staff was, "East Bengal na (or) Mohun Bagan?" As a question, it was the second-most common misplaced assumption about me, the first being that I was from Kolkata.
I grew up in Delhi, and so the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan rivalry wasn't something that I either witnessed first-hand as fan, nor I could identify enough with either camp, with a family background of fans of both clubs.
Most of my family hails from East Bengal, which should make them the natural choice of team to support. But for me, the earliest association was with players, and Sudip Chatterjee, Krishanu Dey, Atanu Bhattacharya, Basudeb Mondal, Babu Mani, and IM Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia in later years, invariably played for both sides. It took travelling to the boro match, the "Big One" as the players themselves call it, starting in January 2006 to appreciate the scale of passion that surrounds this game.
In my first derby, I read out a list of derbies from around the world during my introduction into the game, and as the players were making their way out of the tunnel, I added a "...eat your heart out, because this is the mother of all football battles." It made our English director chuckle in approval, but it couldn't lift a game that rarely saw either side get out of second gear. Back then, the two clubs had shared six of the last eight National Football League (NFL) titles, and it was often said that the team which won the first derby of the season would go on to win the title. Neither side wanted to give an inch, and a goalless draw ensued.
Later that season, Bhutia, back in East Bengal colours after a spell in Malaysia, showed his big-match temperament in leading his team to a 3-1 win. The Salt Lake Stadium gets divided neatly into two sections, the area to the left of the viewing gallery into large swathes of maroon and green, and the rest engulfed by red and gold. The noise levels from either side usually give you an idea of how a game is going, and it also makes it easier for celebrating players to head off to the section with greater numbers of their supporters.
Bhutia would move that year to the arch rivals, and there followed a superb spell of his, especially when it came to the derby. When the NFL ticked over to the I-League, Bhutia held the wood over Subrata Pal, perhaps the greatest Indian goalkeeper of the past 20 years. Pal would thwart the likes of Jose Barreto with ease, but somehow found Bhutia's opportunism in and around the box too hot to handle. Watching the latter skip away, jump over the advertisement boards behind the East Bengal goal, while Pal thrashes the ball into the net in frustration remains an enduring memory of a few 1-0 wins for Bagan.
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In April 2007, then FIFA president Sepp Blatter paid a visit, and as a result our commentary box got converted into a bulletproof VVIP section, and our commentary position got shunted up to the top tier, alongside the two main cameras. I had invited a cousin, himself a Bagan fan, over to sit with us on the gantry, and we witnessed an exciting battle. East Bengal led 1-0 at half-time, and their fans began baying the rivals with gestures and words, but then Bagan came roaring back with two strikes in the second half. At the full-time whistle, the barricade to our left broke with the weight of the jubilant Mohun Bagan supporters, and a few bottles came flying our way too (they were intended for East Bengal fans, who were beating a hasty retreat). My cousin got a little nervous, but I told him there had been trickier situations, involving stones and seats, in other Indian grounds, that had been less harmful.
Then came 2009, where Karim Bencherifa's Bagan finally avenged the infamous 1975 IFA Shield 5-0 defeat, with a 5-3 win of their own. Calling that game, alongside Goan Elvis Goes, was a bit like riding a rollercoaster of thrill and excitement. Nigeria's Chidi Edeh went on to match Bhutia's feat of a hat-trick, scored in a famous Federation Cup semi-final in 1997, and then added a fourth for good measure. Walking out of a packed Salt Lake Stadium after a decisive result in the derby is an experience in itself -- you see a kaleidoscope of emotion on display as you cross all tiers and pass supporters of either sides as they wait around the team buses.
Later that year, the two teams met each other in another Federation Cup semi-final, on New Year's Eve in Guwahati. This remains a personal favourite of Mehtab Hossein, the former India and Kerala Blasters midfielder who has captained both teams, and was with East Bengal then. My wife had also joined us in Guwahati, and we had an invitation from East Bengal to spend the night partying with them, but we also knew Bencherifa from before, and chose to meet him at his hotel and cheer him up.
The last derby I was physically there for was in Siliguri in April 2017, when Sanjoy Sen's Mohun Bagan got a 2-1 win, thanks to young winger Azharuddin Mallick's fabulous long-distance goal.
I have watched the teams face off in lands as distant as Kerala, Maharashtra, Punjab, Delhi, a few of them in person. They never fail to draw in crowds, with fan bases existing across the borders of India and beyond. They won't be physically present this time, but the fans will be willing them on in Goa this time as well. And the emotions associated with the result will be genuine too.
Of all my relatives, one grand uncle on my father's maternal side was a massive Bagan fan, as were almost all of his neighbours in a south Kolkata colony. I would often visit him for dinner after completing my matches, and the effects of a result I found were pretty obvious. When Bagan won, the entire colony would erupt with joy -- you could hear people discuss the match late into the night, and there would be a festive aroma around. When they lost, though, many of the families would forego their dinner, and you could hear a pin drop as you walked through the bylanes.
This emotion, this passion, is what binds sports fans together. And it has been passed on for many a generation in Kolkata. It is just the right time for the rest of the world to embrace it.