On a quiet Sunday afternoon, at around 3.30, a frenzied shout rang out from the neighbour’s house: “GOAL, ebar cho-bar” (now, it's the sixth time!), followed by a long list of Bengali expletives of the sort that are usually not heard in a middle-class neighbourhood. But no one raised an eyebrow. This wasn’t an ordinary Sunday. It was derby day at the Salt Lake Stadium. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan had locked horns to decide the winner of the Calcutta Football League and East Bengal had just doubled their lead.

In a feverish Salt Lake Stadium filled almost to its 60,000-odd brim, thousand of rancorous East Bengal supporters celebrated as their team thrashed their oldest and fiercest rivals 4-0. Any victory over the old enemy is celebrated, but this was especially sweet – Mohun Bagan had won the I-League last year, giving their supporters another point to taunt East Bengal with. East Bengal, though, had got sweet revenge – with this victory giving them their sixth consecutive Calcutta Football League title.

Intense rivalry

Outsiders would have reason to wonder what the fuss was all about. At the end of the day, this was just a match being played in a regional league with absolutely no bearing on a larger stage. And yet, for generation upon generation of football fans in Kolkata, no other event can compare to the feeling of an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan derby. The rivalry has entered the historical consciousness of the city. Like some of the oldest footballing rivalries in the world (the Old Firm derby, the Manchester United-Liverpool rivalry), it has its roots far beyond football.

The founders of East Bengal’s founders migrated to the city from modern-day Bangladesh and they have historically enjoyed the support of people who also have their origins in those parts. They're colloquially called Bangals. Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, became the club supported by the “Ghotis”, the original inhabitants of West Bengal. If you were to believe the official East Bengal website, daggers were drawn right after East Bengal set up shop: Mohun Bagan were not willing to share their ground with East Bengal in 1924 . Later on, Bagan also protested against East Bengal’s claim for promotion to the first division of the Indian Football Association League.

But as the years went on and both clubs became increasingly successful, the schisms became far more entrenched. Both clubs vie to be recognised as India’s most successful club, with East Bengal pointing to its enviable collection of titles and Mohun Bagan touting its reputation of being an icon of national pride during the freedom movement. Games between the two clubs have never been short of drama. The derby in 1980 at the Eden Gardens witnessed violent clashes between their supporters, with 16 fans losing their lives. Though things became a little calmer at the turn of the new millennium, violence still rears its ugly head occasionally, as in the case of Mohun Bagan player Syed Rahim Nabi being carried off the field with a bloodied face after being hit by a missile during the derby of 2012.

Violence and blood

It is a strange situation. On the one hand, the condition of Indian football is bleak – it is ranked 155th in the world, and the current Indian football coach is already predicting its death. And yet, this decades-old football rivalry sees no signs of waning.  The East Bengal-Mohun Bagan divide has become an intrinsic part of the culture of Kolkata – as the story goes, even the price of fish is dictated by the result of the derby. East Bengal fans are lovers of ilish (hilsa) so if their team wins, the price of the fish goes up as celebratory meals are cooked. If Mohun Bagan wins, the soaring rate of chingri (prawn)  indicates their preferences. For supporters of these clubs, a victory or a loss is a celebration of self-identity.

Few other countries can boast of an historical rivalry on this scale, especially in a sport which has generally been relegated to the sidelines. With the Indian Super League, the All India Football Federation has tried to manufacture a similar sort of rivalry between different franchises. But as old-time regulars at the  East Bengal-Mohun Bagan games will attest, nothing in the ISL can ever come close to the atmosphere of a packed Salt Lake Stadium during a derby.