The Kolkata Derby, Asia’s Old Firm rivalry

By Kieran Ahuja

The nearly century-old Boro Match, Bengali for ‘Big Match’, regularly attracts attendances of nearly 100,000.

On December 29th, 49,863 people, mostly comprised of enthusiastic Glaswegians, turned out at Ibrox to watch the Old Firm Derby, a rivalry between Celtic and Rangers that is deeply ingrained in Scottish culture. It’s an incendiary match marked by passionate sectarianism, fierce rivalries and a delicate sense of pride; it’s the sound of tens of thousands of Scottish fans roaring until their voices crack as 22 players (often less by the end) push, shove and barge each other whilst vaguely adhering to the rules of football.

It’s fiercely competitive, especially this year. Between them, the Old Firm have won every Scottish top tier title since the 1984-85 season, when a certain Sir Alex Ferguson took Aberdeen to victory. This year’s derby was especially important for home side Rangers – Steven Gerrard’s team are very close to Celtic in the table, in the most hotly contested season Scotland has seen in a while. Celtic have won the last seven Scottish Premier League titles. Yet Rangers, under the watchful eye of the Premier League and Liverpool legend, have made a marked improvement, and look closer to swiping the title from Celtic than they have done in years. After their longest period in the SPL being the losers in the rivalry, Rangers had an opportunity to create headlines in a city where for too long they have been second best.

The match ended with a 1-0 victory for the home team, bringing them level on points with Celtic in the SPL, behind only on goal difference – although Celtic do admittedly have a game in hand. Although Rangers seemed at points that they might succumb to their familiar problem of not being able to convert chances, Ryan Jack scored after half an hour of impressive attacking intensity from the home side.

13 days before Celtic went to Rangers, 64,867 zealous Kolkatans went to Salt Lake stadium to watch the Kolkata Derby, a rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Whilst the Old Firm Derby has been played 160 times, the Kolkatan Derby has been played well over 300. It’s purported that 130,000 people turned out to watch the 1997 match, in which India’s most famous footballer, Bhaichung Bhutia, scored a hat-trick.

Read also: Football in the UAE: ‘A footnote to society’ growing to become an international force, by Lewis Steele

The Boro Match may seem a world away from the Old Firm Derby, but the two matches are staggeringly comparable. This is in terms of their political significance, local rivalry and their transcendence of the ostensible banality of their respective leagues.

That’s not to label Scottish football as banal, because it’s not. Yet it remains that by inevitable geographic comparison, the SPL is not widely watched outside Scotland in the same way as the English Premier League. It’s a league that only two teams have won since the mid-’80s, and when either Celtic or Rangers win, they often find a groove which sees them dominate for nearly decades on end. Although this season has a lot more rivalry than most, it generally lacks an unpredictability at the top of the table that the EPL provides. Managers in at the big six teams in the premier league strive season to season to win a single title. Brendan Rogers will already have his sights set on winning every season until 2020/21 – if Celtic win every title until then, they will have won a record breaking 10 in a row. Both Glaswegian teams have already won nine in a row.

A lot of football fans in England watch the Old Firm rivalry, but you’d struggle to find one who watches Scottish football regularly. A quick, small and unreliable poll conducted around 5W towers revealed that even very dedicated English football cognoscenti will only watch it if it’s on, some with the exclusion of the similarly rivalrous Edinburgh Derby. Our own half-Scot and Celtic supporter, Joe Davies, was omitted from the poll.

‘If it happened to be on Sky and I was very very very bored’

– 5W editor Lewis Steele, upon being asked if he’d ever watch a Scottish Premier League game other than the Old Firm Derby

And you’ll struggle to find any western football fan who has ever seen a game played in the I-League, India’s top tier. That’s mostly due to the fact that finding footage of I-League games is nigh on impossible in the UK. However, even in Asia, Indian football doesn’t hold significant prestige. It’s obviously well watched – India is the second most populous country in the world, and a good portion of Indians identify as football fans. However, Indian domestic football doesn’t have the investment to be a major Asian contender, and this doesn’t seem likely to change any time soon, as it is in the UAE. This is exemplified by the fact that the winner of the I-League enters the AFC Champions League (equatable to the UEFA Champions League), but no Indian team have progressed past the group stage in the I-League’s 11-year history. This mirrors India’s international performance on the Continental stage – they have only qualified for 4 out of 17 Asian cups, and their odds on winning the 2019 iteration were somewhere around 500/1 before the tournament started, although these odds will have improved after a deserving victory over Thailand in the Asian Cup on Sunday.

Yet, over half a million people tuned into Sky Sports to watch the Old Firm Derby back in March. And the Kolkata Derby is one of the most popular sporting events in Asia – even the U18 version of the tie attracts around 15 times more supporters than regular youth matches. People don’t even care that both teams in the derby are mid-table.

“The entire stadium shakes along with the chants of the fans,” said Saikat Chakrobarty, an Indian football journalist and lifelong Mohun Bagan fan who lives in Kolkata.  

Read also: What is the Asian Cup and should we care about it more? By Andrew Misra

Aditya Debnath, who runs the Indian football fan club @iffc_official, and is an East Bengal FC fan, said similarly that fans chant loudly before, during and after the match. He even went so far as to record how loud the atmosphere inside the stadium was: 95 decibels, which is about the same level of noise as a jet taking off. And this atmosphere is conducive to attacking play according to Chakrobarty.

“Indian teams traditionally depended on the long ball tactics of the British, but with time influences from Hungarian tactics of the ’50s and Brazilan free-flowing football got incorporated,” he said.

“The Kolkata derby, in terms of tactics mainly depended on high risk attacking approaches, with both teams try to outscore their opponents.”

However, Denbath argues this stokes an already existing fierce animosity between the fans.

“There is always a chance that a fight can break out at any moment,” he said. 

Usually there are fights in the streets before and after the match. In the 2018 under-18 derby, a fight broke out in the stadium not one but two times.”

 

Indeed, the tension surrounding the game often reaches fever pitch, and the true animosity between the two groups of supporters is revealed. East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan 5-0 in the IFA Shield final, leading Umakanto Palodhi, a Mohun fan, to commit suicide. In a note, he pledged to ‘take revenge by becoming a Mohun Bagan footballer.’

In a 1980 derby, an unpopular refereeing decision started a fight amongst groups of fans. The fight and subsequent stampede, despite the best efforts of police, led to the death of 16 people. A similar event threatened to occur less than a decade ago; in 2012, a sending off led Mohun Bagan fans to cause chaos. A brick thrown from the stands struck Mohun midfielder Syed Rahim Nabi in the head, hospitalising him. The Mohun Bagan team refused to come back out after half time, and 40 people were injured in the violence that resulted.

It’s a pretty well accepted fact that the British occupation of India was, to put it kindly, error-strewn. The partition of the country into India, Pakistan and later Bangladesh, based upon a perceived religious duality, displaced tens of millions of people and created a refugee crisis on a gigantic scale. It’s thought that up to a million people died as a result of this mass displacement and the ensuing violence. It’s also created a cultural tension between the three countries which is still engrained in their culture.

India is not primarily a footballing nation. It has one of the best cricket teams in the world, and the love for the sport is a deep, nationwide one. However, Kolkata is anomalous in this sense; they are a proudly pro-football region of India, which dates back to the days of British occupation. The base of the British Raj was Kolkata – then anglicised to Calcutta – in which football was used as a vehicle of subjugation against the native population. The Calcutta Football League was set up, maintained and played in by exclusively English officers, and Kolkatans were prohibited from participating in the, erm, Kolkatan, league. This changed at the turn of the century, as the ever-merciful imperialists finally allowed Indian players to form clubs in their own country, with it in mind that they’d beat every single one of them in a show of dominance.

The first of these clubs was Mohun Bagan. Formed in 1889, they are the oldest club in Asia, and older than a lot of European giants. When they beat the East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in 1911 (playing barefoot, no less) to win the IFA Shield, it became a game that symbolised the nationalist revolution. Football became a game reclaimed; the tables had turned, and instead of being a means to illustrate racist ideologies for the British, it became a symbol of pride for Indians. They’d literally beaten the British at their own game – and they’d done it without shoes on.

Read also: Remembering the pioneer of black footballers who showed that talent and skill is worth more than skin colour. By Saiktat Chakrobarty

East Bengal F.C. was formed in 1920, after a game between Mohun Bagan and Jorabagan. The starting 11 that Jorabagan fielded had a notable omission; midfielder Sailesh Bose, an immigrant from East Bengal. Mohun’s Vice President, Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri, also a Bangal, saw this as a discriminatory gesture, and in an act of protest started East Bengal FC.

Chakrobarty summarised the origins of the rivalry between the two teams:

“Both clubs represent a specific class of Bengali people. Mohun Bagan represents people in the western part of Bengal (known as Ghotis), while East Bengal is primarily supported by people hailing from the eastern part of pre-independence Bengal (known as Bangals). This is the umbrella under which the rivalry started. However, there are ample exceptions.

The Ghotis are the ethnic Bengalis from the western part of Bengal – Kolkata being its epicentre. Bangals are traditionally from the eastern Part of Bengal – present-day Bangladesh and previously East Pakistan. The origin of the Ghoti-Bangal rivalry was created by the territorial difference between two parts of the Bengal province in the colonial era.

The rivalry came into existence in the aftermath of the subsequent Partition of Bengal policy by the British Raj which took place in 1905 and it intensified after the Partition of India in 1947. The Eastern part of Bengal became the part of Pakistan which eventually became the Republic of Bangladesh on 26 March 1971.”

As mentioned earlier, this may be on the other side of the world from Glasgow, but the similarities to the Old Firm rivalry are uncanny. “Rangers are native Scots, Protestant and conservative, Celtic are Irish-Scots, Catholic and labour-supporting. It’s basically the same as what you get in Northern Ireland, so Celtic wave the ROI flag, and Rangers the Union Jack,” said 5W’s Joe Davies.

“The dividing lines around religion aren’t as clear as they used to be in the 1900s, but it’s still a problem for both clubs and the city. Though it definitely helps fuel the fire in the rivalry, when you’re seeing managers getting death threats and kids getting beaten up by rival fans it really ruins the game and takes it away from the football.”

This was exemplified in December’s derby. The game’s referee, John Beaton, was forced to contact the police after receiving messages that threatened both him and his family. Beaton was a figure of controversy after three incidents in which Celtic felt that Rangers striker Alfredo Morelos should have faced punishment. This is the latest in a string of disrespectful behaviour towards Scottish football officials.

Therefore, people watch these games without watching other games in their respective leagues because these are two matches that exist unto themselves. They are occasionally overreaching storms where football is no longer a game, but the microcosmic vehicle for the clashing identities of tens of thousands of fans. The differences in fans are more than what colour scarf they wear; it’s a deep rooted ideological, sociopolitical opposition.

In Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper points out football journalism’s perhaps hyperbolic penchant for comparing the game to either art or war. Yet it’s impossible not to use the latter comparison when taking about these games. They are battles of pride, in which the ball is a bullet and a goal is a wound.

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