Jamshid Nassiri recalled settling in comfortably in his seat, during a flight from Kolkata to Bengaluru in 1985, when his peace was disturbed by two individuals from the Mohun Bagan football team. This was an era in Indian football where good players were often poached to sign contracts by a rival team.
Nassiri, a strapping young striker, had been plying his trade for East Bengal. But since both rival clubs were on board the same flight for a Federation Cup match, there may have been an opportunity for another sneak signing.
Only, Nassiri was Iranian.
“While on the flight, Dhiren Dey (a celebrated club president) and Arun Ghosh (a former player) came to me and were saying ‘we are very keen on using you for our club, but the thing is our club doesn’t allow the signing of foreign players. So hopefully in a few years we can do it’,” Nassiri recollected the story to Scroll.in.
“They changed their rules in 1989, but I had moved on to coaching by that time. Even now, some of the supporters who don’t know, ask why I never joined, then I have to explain that it was our bad luck why we couldn’t play. Mohun Bagan players, coaches – they all wanted me there. They gave me respect and I respected them for that encouragement.”
Nassiri, now 63, resides in Kolkata. He was one of the good players in the Indian footballing circuit, especially in the Kolkata circle, and someone who was not poached by a rival club through an underhand tactic. He was a neutral, a foreigner who had first come to India aloof of what the Kolkata Derby – the fierce rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal – meant to the people of the city.
In time, that consumed him.
“The first Derby I played against Mohun Bagan was in 1980 at the Eden Gardens. It was the Federation Cup final,” he said. “The gallery was packed. Those days I hadn’t known much about Indian football or the derby. All I knew was that the match was an important one.”
“In Iran also we used to get a lot of crowds for league matches. Even when I went to Indonesia with the national team, there were a lot of crowds. But here we saw the Eden Gardens fully packed. One look at the size of the crowd and we came to know the importance of the match, the value of the match for the club and fans. We were somehow accustomed to this, but sometimes it got crazy.”
Just how crazy, he saw in his first year as an East Bengal player.
During a Calcutta Football League match in 1980, a riot was triggered in the stands after a scuffle on field resulted in East Bengal’s Dilip Palit and Mohun Bagan’s Bidesh Bose receiving red cards.
The riot triggered a stampede which resulted in the death of 16 fans.
“This was in my first season. We were shocked to see this kind of thing happening,” Nassiri said.
“People fighting in the gallery, people jumping down from there to escape the riot, people getting hurt… we were all kept in the centre of the pitch and the security was around us trying to get things to cool down outside and inside.
“That match continued after a long delay. Then they announced both teams as joint champions. In those days, if there was a draw (at the end of 90 minutes), especially if it was a Derby match, they would announce both teams as champions to avoid clashes.”
The match had taken place on August 16, 1980, and since then, on every anniversary of the disaster, supporters from both clubs would come together and organise a blood donation drive.
“(My teammates and I) used to go and give blood and meet the people there,” he added.
The legacy of the Kolkata Derby has gone on for over 100 years now, since the first match took place in August 1921. And it’s a legacy that brings out a great deal of emotion and pride among supporters.
It’s a rivalry that has essentially split the city into two clear factions. Times may have changed, and the city may have become more cosmopolitan, yet the traditions remain the same – this is the one match each set of fans do not want to lose.
Nassiri though finds himself willingly refraining from going to the Salt Lake Stadium to watch the Kolkata Derby. After all those years in the spotlight, he’s enjoying the peace of being away, on the sidelines.
“I mostly just watch it on television,” he said. “If I go there, people keep asking for photographs and questions (why didn’t I ever join Mohun Bagan).”
But now, the Bagan team does have a Nassiri involved. Thirty years after the club changed its rules, they signed up Jamshid’s son Kiyan Giri Nassiri – the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Kolkata Derby.
By family tradition, Kiyan should breathe the values of East Bengal, but he plies his trade for their arch rivals. Nassiri senior, though, doesn’t mind.
“Everybody is happy for him. He’s doing well, but he has to do better than this. The moment he gets a chance – big or just a few minutes – I’m sure for that period he will make his position count,” he said.
“Now people tell me that you played for us but your son is playing for Mohun Bagan. But it’s good, whatever he’s doing in whatever club, if he’s playing good, let it be that way.”
His is perhaps a slightly more practical approach. But on Derby Days, its all about tradition. Nassiri knows it well enough.