Finally, ISL gets a taste of Kolkata derby's famed passion and fire

The Kolkata derby promised much this time, and it delivered Dipayan Bose/Focus Sports/ISL

Oh, now that was a derby. On the pitch, the goals were excellent in this 396th boro match, and they were shared between these two great teams: Mohun Bagan 2 - 2 East Bengal, inseparable as ever. Two finishes tucked in expertly at the near post, one by a young Indian midfielder and another by an experienced Albanian striker. A contentious penalty panenka-d in by a captain celebrating his birthday. A late equaliser -- after a rather clear foul from the attacking team -- from the most inevitable footballer in India. Off the pitch, the fans were deafeningly loud, living every moment as if they were the ones kicking their rivals, and being kicked in turn.

At the start of it all, though, there was a very real feeling that this might be a damp squib. An hour and a half before kickoff for a match as big as this, stadiums are usually heaving, tension coiled tight around the structure, ... but the only thing at the Salt Lake was... that stadium. Massive, impersonal, dominating the sky, the YBK stood silent except for the milling of thousands of police personnel and vehicles. The only thing descending onto the ground was the mist in this late Kolkata winter, with its eerie, measured inevitability.

Maybe that's all it was going to be. Maybe the cynics were right. When the teams came out to warm up with an hour or so to go, there were smatterings of fans that dotted the giant bowl -- loud, but the empty stands stood as a threat: maybe this grand old derby had lost its charm after all. Maybe it didn't really have the stranglehold on Kolkata that its people so loudly love to proclaim.

Maybe... pshaw!

By the time Ajay Chhetri was tucking a lovely Nishu Kumar ball in at the near post, a superb run blindsiding the Bagan defence, the stadium was crackling. When the ball hit the back of the net, three minutes into the game, one half of the YBK exploded. Fireworks were set off, chants and cheers melding into one loud yell of delight. Fourteen minutes later, when Armando Sadiku mirrored Chhetri's finish with a superb touch at the near post off a precise Brendan Hamill cross, the celebration too was mirrored in the maroon-and-green half. Fireworks, screams, tears... the works.

East Bengal had started with a ferocity that's not been associated with them in their short time in this young league, coach Carles Cuadrat keeping his team at Bagan's throat, the intent clear like he said in his post-match conference: "We were going for the three points at the start."

Shocked by the start, Bagan seemed rushed, not helped by star defender Anwar Ali (returning from a long-term injury) hobbling off in the 14th minute. But they soon adapted and by the end of the match the nominal home side appeared to have turned the momentum completely, finishing the half strong.

As the half wore on, the intensity on the pitch refused to dip, and as fans cleared the multiple security checkpoints outside and filled into the stadium, the intensity off it continued to draw. There were chants -- the young "ultras" this writer met on Friday introducing a measure of the rhythmic support they so crave -- but the overwhelming sounds were those that come most naturally to Indian football, and some unique to Kolkata football. The drawing of breath when a shot flies too close to your goal. The derisive jeering when one of the other's players is stretchered off. The long silences that comes with periods that don't produce goalmouth action. The curses hurled at each other, at the players both theirs and... most of all your own (Dimi Petratos was booed louder by his own support for passing back from a position in the attacking third than by East Bengal fans, for instance). The fights that broke out in the one section that wasn't cordoned off fanwise, the VVIP section.

On it, a slightly contentious penalty was awarded to East Bengal after Deepak Tangri seemed to have pushed Mahesh Singh in the box ("Never a penalty, not possible," said Antonio Habas after the match). Cleiton Silva, 37 on the day of the derby, stepped in and facing Vishal Kaith and the mass of Bagan fans behind him... calmly chipped him down the middle.

The oscillating noise around the stadium slipped back to the East Bengal half, taunts as loud as their cheers. What followed was a scrappy period of typical derby football. Fights started across the pitch, easy passes were misplaced, and mazy dribbles were made. Bagan's attacking increased in intensity, everyone in maroon-and-green stripes hurtling forward, and every time they were repelled the EB half erupted.

Until the 87th minute that is. Sahal Abdul Samad caught VP Suhair dawdling on the ball, and dispossessed him with a move that looked about as illegal as they come. Coach Cuadrat certainly thought so, saying, "it's a crazy foul, insane... [the referee] should not be the protagonist [but he was]." Whatever your thoughts on the foul/tackle, though, the finish was peak Dimi Petratos: first time into the roof of the net, at a time when his team did not look like scoring at all, coming up clutch when it really mattered.

The decibel-pendulum swung Bagan's way and continued to keep swinging as both sides spurned good chances at both ends. In the end, there was no winner, but there was an air of satisfaction (even if begrudging): after having heard all the hype about it, after having celebrated everything that this rivalry means, at long last the ISL had seen what this derby is capable of cooking up on the pitch.