The famous rivalry between these two clubs started when they first met in a Calcutta League match on 25 May 1925. Particularly after Partition, when Mohammedan Sporting’s traditional support base and catchment area were both diminished, these two came to dominate the Kolkata football scene. There have been periods when clubs from other parts of the country like Hyderabad and Punjab gained prominence, but these two clubs have maintained their superior position. The adulation of the fanatical fans and lucrative monetary rewards by both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have secured Kolkata’s place as the nerve centre of Indian football.

This has seen a slight change in the new millennium, with the rise of clubs in Goa, Bengaluru and the North-east, and the start of the ISL. Debashis Majumder, in his well-researched book The History of the Football Clubs in Calcutta, provides some very interesting details of their long-running rivalry during 1947–85. Due to the constraints of space, I offer here a few select—but fascinating—stories about these titans of Indian football.

Until recently, it was widely believed that whenever East Bengal first met Mohun Bagan in any major domestic tournament in India, they would be the more motivated side and emerge victorious. East Bengal met their arch-rivals in the IFA Shield for the first time in the 1944 semi-final. They expectedly won 1-0, with V. Rao scoring the winning goal. After their 1943 victory, they were favoured to win the title a second time, but lost 0-1 to EB Railways in the final.

The two teams met for the first time in Delhi in the 1957 Durand Cup semi-finals, thirty-seven years after East Bengal was formed. The first match ended in a goalless draw. In the replay on 28 December 1957, Mohun Bagan led 2-1 at half-time with goals by inside-left Chuni Goswami and striker Krishna Chandra ‘Kesto’ Pal.

At half-time in the dressing room, East Bengal officials, led by their secretary J.C. Guha, begged, pleaded and cajoled the players to raise their game as it would be an insult to lose to their arch-rivals in their first meeting in India’s oldest football tournament.

T. Balaram, in his first year with East Bengal, was amazed at the sheer passion of the club officials. He said officials touched his feet and, on bended knees, requested the players to make a comeback so that the pride of the Bangal (East Bengalis) all over India was not hurt. Balaram later told me that before the players left the dressing room, a small prayer was held and the players were blessed. Whatever the reasons, East Bengal’s star-studded forward line became highly motivated. They scored twice in the thirty-five-minute second-half, with goals by Balasubramaniam and Moosa, to emerge victorious 3-2.

They used up so much emotional energy in this comeback win that they were flat in the final against Hyderabad City Police two days later. Despite leading by a goal by outside-right Ibrahim, East Bengal lost 1-2 in the final. Balaram later said the officials were sad to lose the final but were overall satisfied as they had overcome arch-rivals Mohun Bagan in their first-ever meeting in Delhi. In fact, for the next fifty years, this jinx of losing the final of a tournament after beating Bagan continued.

In the Rovers Cup, the arch-rivals first met at the Cooperage Stadium, Mumbai, on 29 November 1960 in the semi-finals. East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan 2-1 with goals by defender Arun Ghosh and inside-right B. Narayan. However, the inevitable happened— East Bengal lost 1-2 to Andhra Police in the replayed Rovers Cup final. On the first day, the match had ended in a thrilling 2-2 draw.

Mohun Bagan were able to beat East Bengal in their first meeting in a major domestic tournament only in 1993.

In the 2nd Scissors Cup tournament on 31 August 1993, Mohun Bagan beat East Bengal 2-1 in the final with goals by Vijayan and midfielder Christopher (penalty). Sanjay Majhi reduced the margin for East Bengal in the seventy-seventh minute.

East Bengal too overcame their hoodoo by winning the 2007 Federation Cup tournament for the fifth time—their first since 1996—after beating Bagan 3-2 in the semi-final.

Excerpted with permission from Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football, Novy Kapadia, Penguin Random House India.

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