Football is called the beautiful game. But the beauty is enhanced by the great rivalries. Indeed, without the rivalries, it would never feel the same.
Games like the World Cup final, the Champions League final and other title clashes have their own place in the football calendar but the first game an average football fan looks out for when the fixtures are made is the one against the arch-rivals.
A derby is a bread and butter big game. It doesn’t need the context of a points table or a knockout situation. It’s big in its own right, a championship within a championship.
Even in India, where football is not the most popular sport, there’s no shortage of derbies. Its century-old history is littered with rivalries, be it for regional pride, a clash of philosophies, or sheer competitive spirit. Here’s a look at some of the fiercest ones.
Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal – The Mother of all derbies
It’s simply the biggest game in Indian football.
A game first played in 1925, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal’s disdain for each other grew as the century progressed. Bagan one of India’s oldest clubs had a policy of only recruiting local Bengali players in their team. The locals had a deep dislike for the Hindu refugees that settled in Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal before and after partition. East Bengal founded in 1920 was a club that symbolised the pride of those who had left their houses in eastern Bengal, hence the name. The contrasting regional pride formed the basis of one of football’s fiercest rivalries.
The rivalry took a while to come to the boil and only intensified after partition when emotions ran high in Bengal. East Bengal was always the more motivated team in the derby with a point to prove against Mohun Bagan, India’s greatest club.
According to Novy Kapadia’s book Barefoot to Boots, in their first-ever meeting in Durand Cup in 1957, Mohun Bagan were leading East Bengal at half time in the semi-final replay after a goalless game in the first match. The East Bengal officials, including respected secretary JC Guha, begged, pleaded the players to make a comeback as the pride of the people from eastern Bengal was at stake.
East Bengal, who had a famed forward line called the Pancha Pandavas (Ahmed Khan, Apparao, P. Venkatesh, P.B.A Saleh and KP Dhanaraj), came to the party as East Bengal won 3-2. The emotional energy from the half-time team talk inspired the players and did the trick. East Bengal gave so much in that half they were beaten in the final by Hyderabad City Police. But such was the rivalry that the officials didn’t mind losing the final as they had beaten Mohun Bagan.
Over the years, the Kolkata derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bagan became such an emotional occasion for people in Bengal that a Mohun Bagan fan committed suicide after the club was beaten 5-0 by East Bengal in the IFA Shield final in 1975. There have been several cases of violence after games and even potential marriages in Bengal have been broken due to the families being split by the two clubs.
East Bengal won a total of 76 national-level trophies and 39 Calcutta League titles while Mohun Bagan bagged 74 national-level competitions and 30 CFL crowns.
In recent times, a lot of traditional rivalries in Indian football have withered away with the reduction of traditional competitions that were the brewing grounds for the same, but the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal rivalry lives on. As they say, in Kolkata no one is neutral, you are either maroon and green or red and gold.
Manipur vs Bengal - The champions vs pioneers
The state of Bengal has been the leading state in Indian football and has held that position for over a century. Women’s football in India began much after the men’s game, but it too had its roots in Bengal.
Even though India was on the podium in three straight AFC Women’s Women’s Asian Cup from 1979 to 1983, the Senior National Championships began only in 1990s. That’s when Bengal and Manipur established themselves as the two power centres in Indian football.
Bengal beat Manipur in the very first final in 1992. But Manipur then hit back with three-straight triumphs from 1993 to1995 before Bengal won again in 1996. The two teams dominated the championships and the first nine finals in the competition’s history were played between these two teams.
Overall, in the 25 editions of the tournament, Manipur and Bengal have contested the final on 14 occasions. Manipur have dominated the championship, winning the title on 20 occasions. Bengal are second with two titles and 12 runners-up finishes.
Even though Bengal were pioneers of women’s football, Manipur are now the leading state in the country when it comes to women’s football. In the Indian women’s team squad for the 2019 South Asian Games, 11 out of the 18 players were from Manipur.
States like Odisha, Tamil Nadu, Kerala are emerging states in women’s football. In the Indian Women’s League in the four seasons so far there have been champions from four different states.
Rivalries may develop in women’s football as it grows further, but few would be able to match the duel between Manipur and Bengal in the 90s.
Salgaocar SC vs Dempo SC – Goa’s flair derby
Goa, along with Bengal emerged as a powerhouse in Indian football in the late 20th century. At the heart of this was the Portuguese influence on the state and their use of football to promote the exclusivity of land from the rest of India.
Salgaocar and Dempo, the oldest clubs in Goa grappled for the bragging rights in the state. Unlike, the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan rivalry, the Goan derby was not as fanatical, it was more about the football than off-field matters. It was a battle to be the best representative of Goa’s technical, possession-based that the Portuguese promoted in the state.
Both teams possessed several gifted footballers and were coached by coaches like T Shanmugam at Salgaocar and Joseph Ratnam at Dempo who liked to make the teams play a highly attractive brand of football. A Dempo-Salgaocar clash thus attracted capacity crowds in the 1980s.
“We are no rivals. The best thing about football in Goa is that we share a mutual respect. Whether we win or lose, we go home happy,” Armando Colaco said, describing the nature of the Goan derby.
The two clubs dominated Goan football in that period. From 1978 to 1989, the Goan state championship was either won by Salgaocar or Dempo. As things stand the two clubs have 31 Goan titles among them.
The rivalry faded after the 1990s as either of the side dominated the other in different spells. Salgaocar were on top under Syed Nayeemudding in the 90s while Dempo were the team to beat after 2005 under Armando Colaco. In terms of national league titles Dempo have record five championships while Salgaocar have two.
Today both clubs operate only at the local level and do not participate in national leagues. A duel that once guaranteed high-quality football is in need of a resurgence.
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Goa vs Bengal – Battle of the powerhouses
In India, domestic rivalries are not limited to clubs. The Santosh Trophy the annual national championship featuring the state sides also exudes a sense of regional pride. Add the club rivalries into the mix, and it gives birth to a simmering rivalry.
Goa vs Bengal has been one such prominent rivalry in Indian football, a clash of two powerhouses. Bengal have 32 Santosh trophy triumphs while Goa have five.
The rivalry peaked during the 90s when Goa was threatening the east Indian state’s hold over Indian football. But West Bengal beat Goa in four consecutive Santosh Trophy finals from 1995 to 1999. The Goans had to wait ten years to get their revenge when they beat Bengal on penalties. Goa and Bengal have faced each other in the Santosh Trophy final eight times in history with Bengal winning six times, losing only once and trophy being shared on one occasion
However, in club football, Goa well and truly stole the march on the Kolkata clubs. In 2005, Dempo ended East Bengal and Mohun Bagan’s duopoly on the league and began an era of Goan dominance. Dempo won five titles, Churchill Brothers two and Salgaocar one in a decade that saw Goan football reach its pinnacle. As football in other states was plagued with mismanagement, the Goan Football Association came out as the most efficient.
The Kolkata clubs have never the same after that decade of Goan monopoly. Even though Mohun Bagan won the I-League in 2015 and 2020, the two clubs have lost their swagger and have been left behind by the cash-rich Indian Super League clubs.
With Santosh trophy also losing its significance and I-League its top-tier status, the onus to continue the Goa-Bengal rivalry now rests with ISL side ATK who merged with Mohun Bagan and FC Goa, the latest top dog in Goan football.
Hyderabad City Police vs Kolkata clubs – David vs Goliath
Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting were the three big Indian teams that had made their presence felt in all-India tournaments before independence. But by the time tournaments like the Durand Cup restarted in independent India, Hyderabad City Police had emerged as a challenger to the Kolkata clubs.
The team lacked the financial might of the three clubs, but fit players, an astute tactician in Syed Abdul Rahim as a coach and a never-say-die spirit allowed the Hyderabad side to compete with the best.
They first laid down a marker in 1950 when they beat Mohun Bagan in the Durand Cup final. The victory was achieved in dramatic circumstances. Trailing 0-2 to the Kolkatans, Hyderabad City Police engineered a late comeback to force a replay. This ability to come back from difficult situations became a hallmark of a side that had earned its right to challenge the big guns. They gained popularity among the masses for their spirit, and the average Indian was able to connect with Hyderabad City Police as they had achieved success against the best through limited means.
The Hyderabad side coached by Rahim was very fit and always prevailed in replays starting from a 1-0 win over Mohun Bagan in the 1950 Durand Cup final.
The team went from strength to strength and won five Rovers Cup titles in a row from 1950 to 1954. However, in the Durand Cup, they lost to East Bengal in the final in 1952 and 1956. But a year later, Hyderabad finally got their revenge and beat East Bengal to win their third Durand Cup title.
In 1957, they won the Rovers Cup again beating Mohammedan SC, another Kolkata side in the final. This rivalry between Hyderabad City Police that was later named Andhra Police lasted till 1965 as they beat all three big clubs at various junctures.
After the death of coach Rahim, football in Hyderabad declined as they were not able to produce enough talents to keep up the challenge but for fifteen years the team from Hyderabad gave the mighty clubs from Kolkata a run for their money and produced a highly competitive rivalry.
Punjab vs Bengal – The clash of styles
After Hyderabad’s decline, Punjab emerged as a rival for Bengal not just in Santosh Trophy but also in club football. Thanks to clubs like Leaders Jalandhar, Punjab Police and Border Security Forces, there was a steady supply of players in Punjab.
At the base of the rivalry was a clash of footballing ideologies. Bengal and the Kolkata clubs played a more technical game focussed on skills, dribbling, and passing, Punjab, on the hand, had players that excelled more in a physical game with long, aerial passing.
BSF beat a formidable East Bengal side in the 1968 Durand Cup final to weaken the Kolkata clubs’ hold on the Delhi trophies – Durand Cup and DCM trophy – as the Punjab sides enjoyed huge support in the capital.
In 1970, Punjab won its first-ever Santosh trophy title and a year later in 1971, the Durand Cup saw an all-Punjab final between BSF and Leaders that the former won.
From 1968 to 1996, there was not a single Durand Cup final with no representation from either state. The Punjab clubs won 12 Durand Cup titles among themselves in that period.
In 1975, Punjab thrashed West Bengal 6-0 in the Santosh Trophy final to truly shatter their pride. Hurt by the defeat, Bengal hit back to win five straight Santosh Trophy titles, beating Punjab in the final twice during that run. Their winning streak though was eventually ended by Punjab.
Overall, Punjab and West Bengal faced off in the Santosh trophy finals seven times with Bengal winning on four occasions, while Punjab triumphing thrice. These two teams are the most successful teams in the Santosh trophy with Bengal recording 32 triumphs, while Punjab have 8 titles.
After the turn of the century, JCT Mills shut down and the club rivalry between Punjab and West Bengal died down until Minerva Punjab claimed the I-League crown beating Mohun Bagan and East Bengal to it on the final day in 2018.
The ideological differences remain as Punjab continue to produce more robust players, while Bengal more technical ones, the combination resulting in a good crop for the Indian national team.
New rivalries brewing in the ISL
The decline of the old and popular tournaments in Indian football and the uncertainty over the structure of league football in India in the past two decades have allowed a new generation of rivalries to take birth. But with the ISL, a few rivalries in Indian football are brewing in Indian football.
Bengaluru FC, who joined the I-League in 2013, were developing a rivalry with Mohun Bagan, but their move to the ISL meant it went off the boil. But with passionate fan bases like the Manjapada of the Kerala Blasters, West Block Blues of Bengaluru FC, and Super Machans of Chennaiyin FC, something might just be around the corner.
With time, as the ISL grows and transforms itself into a more stable and longer league competition, these rivalries are certain to get more intense.