The enduring charm of the Kolkata Derby

Mohun Bagan’s Chidi Edeh (second from right), the star striker of the I-League so far, in action against Chirag United in Kolkata.-S. PATRONOBISH Mohun Bagan’s Chidi Edeh (second from right), the star striker of the I-League so far, in action against Chirag United in Kolkata.

The Mohun Bagan-East Bengal encounters are still a colossal draw, but it’s the teams from Western India that are calling the shots in the I-League. Ayon Sengupta takes a look at the first phase of the tournament.

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don’t like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”

— Bill Shankly

One look at the Kolkata derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan will prove the truth in the famous Liverpool manager’s words. The epic rivalry between the two clubs has seen violent clashes and fan brutality, which once left 16 people dead on an ill-fated August evening in 1980 at the Eden Gardens. The passion behind the rivalry has been far from healthy at times and one of the reasons may be the bitterness that was born from the socio-political happenings in eastern India, something that has unfortunately not been erased over time. In terms of numbers, East Bengal is ahead of its adversary, but Mohun Bagan perhaps has an edge when it comes to more impressive achievements.

Two hundred and ninety one matches old, the derby still inspires over 50,000 people to head to the colossal Salt Lake Stadium with the result of the game often taking precedence over even life and death. Though the Kolkata sides have lost their prominence with the emergence of the more professionally managed Goan clubs, the high point of the football season in the country is still the clash between the two archrivals.

The first meeting between the sides this year in late October in an I-League game, though, didn’t lead to the ignition of such passions, but a 3-5 drubbing at the hands of their perennial ‘big brothers’ left an East Bengal supporter literally with a broken heart. Shambhu Hazra, a lifelong East Bengal fan had a heart attack at the end of the first half.

Four goals from their newly imported Nigerian Chidi Edeh gave Mohun Bagan supporters an occasion to counter the barbs of their archrivals, who had always basked in the glory of a 5-0 mauling, way back in 1975.

Another casualty of that day was East Bengal coach Subhash Bhowmick, who was forced to resign after a vote of no-confidence from the club office-bearers and more importantly the fans. Bhowmick was one of the stars for the red-and-gold brigade in that 1975 triumph and as a coach was also instrumental in leading the club to a five-trophy run in 2003. But such memories are short-lived in this cut-throat world.

Keeping aside all the hype and hoopla, the two Kolkata giants had a stuttered start to their campaign and after the end of the first phase Mohun Bagan occupies the fifth spot with 13 points. East Bengal stands a notch lower with 12.

A revelation, though, has been another Kolkata side, Chirag United. Relatively unknown and with a modest budget and jelled together with the rejects from the ‘big two’, it has had an inspired run so far. Holding on to the joint second spot with Dempo SC, Chirag has played an attacking brand of football, with strikers Josimar and Edmilson Pardal finding the net frequently. With that old workhorse of the Kolkata maidan, Jayanta Sen, stitching the midfield together, the side has also benefited from the newfound maturity of its young recruits Denson Devdas and Shylo Malswama Tulunga. No doubt these players will have a queue of agents knocking at their doors at the start of the next season.

But, as has been the case over the last few seasons, teams from Western India have scored over their more passionate Eastern brethren with a mix of pragmatism and professionalism. Reaping the benefits of having a very settled side for over three seasons, Goan sides Churchill Brothers and Dempo are again occupying the top two slots in the points table after the end of the first eight rounds of matches.

Defending champion Churchill, which started with a series of four draws in its first five outings, returned to form in style with a 3-2 away win in Mumbai against Air India in early November. Two more home wins over Dempo and Chirag has placed it comfortably as the table topper with 16 points. Its goal-machine, Odafa Okolie, the highest scorer in the I-League in the last two seasons, has regained his Midas touch with six goals. He is not too keen to relinquish his golden boot to either Chidi or Mahindra United’s Muritala Ali, both of whom stand tall on the goal scorers’ chart with eight strikes each.

Dempo managed to hold on to its talismanic Brazilian skipper Roberto ‘Beto’ Mendes Silva despite intense interest from East Bengal at the start of the season, and with the addition of Indian internationals Sunil Chettri and Anwar Ali the side has looked good to reclaim the title that it had lost to Churchill earlier this year. Dempo has been the most successful side in the League in recent times, winning it three times on the last five occasions.

The League, expected to fast track Indian football to a higher plane, is also in an experimental mode this year. Going in for a more universal suffrage the I-League is accommodating 14 teams from seven cities for the first time in its short history.

The introduction of Shillong Lajong FC has opened up a new home for football in India’s north-east. Its home venue, the JLN Stadium in Shillong, has looked like an impenetrable fortress with visiting sides often complaining of altitude sickness much like the notorious Estadio Hernando Siles Zuazo in La Paz, Bolivia.

A tense moment from the Churchill Brothers-Air India match in Mumbai.-PTI

Every match at the JLN Stadium has been a festival with locals thronging the venue, attired in the trendiest of clothes and armed with gongs and other musical instruments. It’s hard for a side to lose when there’s such dedicated support.

Another new entrant, Pune FC, owned by the pharmaceutical giants, Piramal group and cricketer Rohan Gavaskar, has also brought in a touch of modernity, with SMS campaigns egging fans to come out and support it in whichever city it plays.

The federation has at last appointed a CEO for the League, after much dilly-dallying. The new appointee, Sunando Dhar, comes with a wealth of experience. Dhar, currently General Manager, sales and marketing, of Leisure Sports Management was preferred over Anil Kamat and Harish Rao and is expected to take charge at the start of the new year.

The I-League is on a break and will restart on January 3 with three matches scheduled for that day.