As the plane made its descent into Kolkata, a look out the window throws a mixture of row houses, all painted a different colours. A few high-rises and water bodies are also dotted along the flight path. And then there is the the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan – the Salt Lake Stadium. It’s an architectural marvel for the football aficionados of the city, with its wide white roof that runs across the perimeter of the stadium.

In many ways, it’s rather fitting that one of the first views of Kolkata – albeit from the air – is the fabled football stadium well revered by the locals in a city that prizes itself as being one crazy for the sport.

Within the halls of the stadium are two particular walls near the players’ tunnel, with pictures of a galaxy of international icons who have played at the venue. Oliver Kahn had come, as did Zico, Gerd Muller, and Romario. Lionel Messi was here, as were Diego Maradona and Pele.

Yet those names didn’t mean much on Saturday. All that mattered were the 22 who were to take to that field for the most important fixture in the city – the Kolkata Derby.

For the 383rd time in their history, across all competitions, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal were to square off against each other. But this was the first time they were playing an Indian Super League match in front of their own fans, in their own city.

By the 85th minute, the giant digital screen flashed that 62,543 was the official number of people who came to watch on Saturday night, as ATK Mohun Bagan came up with a 2-0 win over their fiercest rivals to keep up their perfect record in ISL in this match-up.

It was an early ISL fixture between two teams that have not exactly had the brightest of starts this season. Going by a practical approach, the biggest prize from this match, for either team, was the three points that came at the end of a win. Yet in a country that has long been termed the ‘Sleeping Giant’ of football, when it comes to the Kolkata Derby, the city comes alive for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.

A Kolkata carnival

Going for the Derby, as one scribe in the press box described, is akin to going to ‘a carnival.’

Outside the stadium, well over two hours before kick-off, crowds had started to queue up dressed in their team’s colours, some with their faces painted to show where their allegiance lay. Countless were dressed in jerseys, even more had matching bandanas wrapped around their heads.

Outside, fans packed onto the tops of trucks made circles around the stadium chanting slogans – most were of a rather unparliamentary variety. Yet a fan explained that all those slogans – clean and otherwise – were old compositions. All traditions of the Kolkata Derby.

Which begs the question, for a neutral, how did this rivalry come about in the first place?

Mohun Bagan, as a club, was founded in 1889. It was the first Indian club to have won the Indian Football Association Shield – a competition that had started in 1893 and had been won by British organised teams till Bagan ended that dominance.

East Bengal meanwhile is a club founded, as the name suggests, from the eastern side of Bengal by those with their roots in modern day Bangladesh. The club’s fans are those whose ancestors had crossed the border into present day West Bengal – from the erstwhile East Bengal.

The calm before the madness, stadium just hours before the kickoff | Photo: Shahid Judge /

“Being a supporter of a club is your identity. It’s your belonging. That’s what makes these two teams so important to Bengalis,” said 63-year-old Santosh Pal, an East Bengal supporter, to, before kick-off.

“You are born into the club. My father and grandfather came to Kolkata from Bangladesh. So the club runs in my blood. There was a decent fan-following for the club, but after the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, when there were thousands who came in from Bangladesh, the following grew greatly.”

At the other end of the stadium, Sagnik Chatterjee explained the Mohun Bagan heritage.

“This is a club meant for fans born and brought up in India. So there has always been an us versus them kind of feel to it, at least that’s how the rivalry began all those generations ago. But the legacy has continued,” he said.

“Both sets of fans are die-hard supporters of their clubs. They will abuse each other on Derby Days, and sometimes things get violent too. But the following day, everyone is back to being normal and cordial with each other.”

A scribe mentioned that despite the rivalry, there is a deep respect for the passion from either side. If a fan from one team is struggling with health problems, both sets of fans organise fund raisers to help provide financial aid.

That endearing off-field sentiment though has no place on Derby Day. Chatterjee further explained that the heavy security involved in martialling the Derby is mostly absent when either Kolkata club is playing an outstation team. For these inter-city clashes though – regardless whether it is an ISL match or the lower division Calcutta Football League – there are heavy security arrangements. And it’s required too, for the derby is not shy of its fair share of fan violence.

The disaster in 1980 is one that still brings back harsh memories from the elder guard of fans – when 16 fans died after a riot broke out at Eden Garden (where the derby was held at the time).


Half and half

One of the security measures nowadays is to have both sets of fans enter and exit through specific gates on either end of the stadium – and the centre stands on either end of the pitch is left empty on purpose to ensure there is no meeting in the middle. It results in the stands inside the stadium being divided into half for the Derby.

On Saturday, fans who were delayed due to security from entering the stadium were already invested in what was happening inside. As the announcer welcomed the teams out for warm-up, chants began of ‘Joy (pronounced ‘jai’) Mohun Bagan’ or ‘Joy East Bengal.’

Photo: FSDL

Since Mohun Bagan were the official hosts, they got to welcome their team their own way - confetti was shot out of a cannon, raining down green bits of paper over the team bus as it approached, followed by the spraying of a maroon powder – the colours of the club.

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Inside the noise was enchanting, as the 62 thousand used every ounce of energy they could muster to voice their presence. Slogans in Bengali were chanted, fireworks – smuggled into the stadium – were lit. Supporters’ clubs banners were unfurled.

And once the teams lined-up, the East Bengal fans put on display a large banner that took a dig at what has been a great annoyance for Mohun Bagan supporters – that their club’s official name is in fact ATK Mohun Bagan.

Yet all that was forgotten as the match started.

Everything was cheered for, and loudly.

A shot at goal, a shot off target, a corner kick, a throw in, a shot blocked, a brave bit of defending, a mis-timed tackle…

...and when Hugo Boumous’ long-range effort hit the back of the net, the Mohun Bagan end went ballistic.

A few minutes later when Manvir Singh doubled the lead, the East Bengal end went silent. By the 80th minute, fans from the trailing team started to make their way to the exit – none left from the Mohun Bagan end.

Noise, and a lot of it, was coming from just one end of the the Salt Lake Stadium. It was like a earphone had fallen off and the volume is coming from just one side.

The history, legacy and following of the clubs are so great that even journalists swear fealty and betray their emotions. Once that Boumous goal went in, one danced and celebrated while a few held their heads in disgust for the goalkeeping error.

The football on display, at the end of the 90 minutes, may not have been the best India has to offer, but the atmosphere of the Kolkata Derby made the experience all the more entertaining.

“It’s fantastic, this is why we play the game,” said East Bengal’s head coach Stephen Constantine after the match. “It’s a privilege, an honour, great to be a part of and involved in such a setting. I’d like to win one of these matches one day,” he added with a smile.

Bragging rights fall to ATK Mohun Bagan at the end of the match on Saturday, as the city settles in for a quieter Sunday.

Chatterjee is asked what’s more important, winning the league title of winning the Derby.

“The Derby is a tournament within a tournament,” he said.

“You may not be a fan of football, but if you’re Bengali, you’ll be a fan of one of these teams.”

The fans dressed in green and maroon would sing the loudest after the match, as they’d march down the stairs of the vast cauldron that is Salt Lake Stadium.

Not many may come back for most of the matches through the rest of the season. But they’ll be back for the second round in February as the city once again gets divided for their teams, united by the passion in the biggest rivalry in Indian football.