East Bengal vs ATK Mohun Bagan brings Kolkata derby's mud and madness to ISL

A lot has changed in the world, in football terms and otherwise, since Mohun Bagan and East Bengal last played a Kolkata Derby on January 19, 2020. AIFF media

Yuva Bharati Krirangan (Salt Lake Stadium), January 19, 2020. 63,756 fans packed the ground to watch Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal in the I-League Kolkata Derby.

Read that sentence again. There are at least four facts there that tell us just how much the world has changed since that day: There were fans in the stands, the match took place in Kolkata, not Goa, it was part of the I-League. And Mohun Bagan and East Bengal had not yet attached prefixes to their names. Even Soumitra and Maradona were doing their day jobs.

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On Friday, the two teams play their first derby since that Sunday evening in Kolkata. The clubs are rooted in, and still divided on, deep cultural differences: One is the "ghoti" or West Bengal side, the other is the "bangal" side, from across the border. The divisions have been written about often enough but perhaps, as these two clubs -- and, more importantly, their fans -- take their first steps in the slick and scrubbed world of the Indian Super League (ISL), it's time to celebrate the ties that bind.


It's a short distance from 14, Balaram Ghosh Street to 20B Nimtola Ghat Street. Just over a mile, past crumbling 19th-century mansions, through narrow, congested streets where every kind of wheeled transport is negotiating frantically, often unsuccessfully, with the other for right of way. This one mile is Classic North Calcutta. The modern -- ATMs, mobile-phone shops, Metro stations -- might in other cities have appeared out of place amid the debris of the glorious past but in Kolkata, incongruities have somehow always found a way to coexist.

And it is here, improbably in this brick jungle, where Indian football was born. Balaram Ghosh Street is where, in August 1889, some of Calcutta's prominent gentry gathered to found Mohun Bagan Athletic Club so that the local youth could play football. And Nimtola Ghat Street is where, in July 1920, another set of worthies, protesting against Mohun Bagan's decision to drop a "bangal" from the side for a big match, set up East Bengal club for those with affiliations across the river Padma.

In their origins, then, the two clubs represent football at its most elemental -- a group of boys kicking a ball about.

In their track record, they represent success -- for so many neutrals, especially those of a certain generation, they are synonymous with Indian football. For roughly four decades, from the 1950s onwards, they dominated the national scene, winning tournaments almost at will and supplying the Indian team with some of its greatest players.

And in their relative decline, over the past 15-odd years, they symbolise the rank bad administration that has plagued Indian football -- and Kolkata football in particular -- so that, even on the city's Maidan, the sport yielded primacy to cricket. Where Chuni Goswami and Krishanu Dey once reigned, the knock-off KKR jerseys with "Andre Russell 12" now sell briskly. Meanwhile, the Goa clubs and then the newer, modern, better-managed clubs in Bengaluru and the north-east moved ahead, marrying footballing talent with marketing and management smarts.

And now in their bid to revive themselves, the clubs have taken the same route: both have been bought by old Kolkata Marwari families, with close ties to the city and the business nous to turn things around.

For all those ups and downs, though, the rebellious gene the two clubs were born with has never been too far below the surface; in fact, it was on display at that derby match in January. Remember, the hot topic of debate then was the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). How did fans of the Kolkata teams respond? With an improbable show of unity. Their banners that day registered their protest, via typical Kolkata wit. One East Bengal banner read: "This land has been bought with our blood, not with documents". From their rivals: "We were here before there were papers".

This, hopefully, is what they will bring to the ISL, whose newly-formed clubs could do with their fanbase, even if they can't have their legacy. They will bring controversy, too, and the emotion that only Kolkata fans can bring to football. There's already been one bust-up within the ATK Mohun Bagan family, over the use of three stars on the team jersey to signify three ISL titles won. Mohun Bagan, it has been not-so-politely pointed out, have been in the business of winning trophies and tournaments since 1911.

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Perhaps the Kolkata clubs needed the ISL, the gateway to the future of Indian football. But it is undeniably true that the ISL needed the clubs, and their rivalry, and their history. Even all the madness that inevitably accompanies them. The football -- on the field and off it -- we see on television veers towards sanitised, standardised 90-minute shows wrapped in corporate red tape.

Here's to the Kolkata clubs bringing back some of the grit, the mud, the madness of football. If anyone can do it, they can. After all, they were here before there was ISL.