Vishweshwar Rao was one among hundreds of footballers playing at the Calcutta (now Kolkata) Maidan in the 1930s. No one really missed his soccer skills when he stopped playing for Sporting Union to return to his native place somewhere in the Madras Presidency.
Yet, Rao will always be remembered in the history of East Bengal for the services he rendered at the fag end of his career in 1944. When East Bengal clashed for the first time in an IFA Shield encounter against Mohun Bagan, Rao emerged the unlikely hero by netting the all-important goal.
It turned out to be a fascinating tale in the end. In the 1944-45 season, East Bengal were a struggling side. Most of their regulars had either left the club or were injured. In the same season, Rao was transferred to Kolkata by his employers. He knew a few East Bengal officials well and requested them to allow him to play for the club’s Second Eleven in smaller tournaments.
His request was granted, but when the IFA Shield started, the club was forced to include Rao in the squad as the they were struggling to raise a decent forwardline in the traditional 2-3-5 system. City newspapers reported that a complete sell-out crowd watched the maiden clash of the two giants in IFA Shield semi-final at the Calcutta FC ground (now Mohun Bagan-CFC ground) on August 8, 1944.
East Bengal supporters were highly sceptical. In the Calcutta Football League that season, the red and yellow brigade lost to Mohun Bagan twice. Given the strength of East Bengal, another defeat loomed large.
Yet, the result went East Bengal’s way. A free kick in the second half by Paritosh Chakrabarty dipped in the Mohun Bagan box and Rao leaped high to nod home. This one goal settled the issue in East Bengal’s favour. Never after this did Rao do anything spectacular on the pitch but he will always be remembered by the loyal fans.
On November 27, the two Kolkata clubs will renew their rivalry for the first time in the Indian Super League in front of empty stands in Goa. Interestingly, right from the beginning of the traditional rivalry in 1925, the first meeting between the two Kolkata giants in a major tournament had always gone in favour of East Bengal for many years. The trend continued for 68 long years before Mohun Bagan managed to break the hoodoo in the short-lived Scissors Cup.
It began with the CFL in 1925. East Bengal were a newly promoted side in the first division. Mohun Bagan, established 1889, were by then a legendary institution. Their triumph in the historic 1911 IFA Shield defeating a series of British sides, had given them the unofficial status of the “national club.” But the stature and reputation didn’t help. A goal by Nepal Chakraborty saw East Bengal through.
The defeat hurt Mohun Bagan. In the 1925 season, they were hoping to grab their maiden CFL title. The loss of two points put them behind in the race. In the return match of the league, they did beat East Bengal but by that time their hopes of a top finish had vanished.
Frankly, the 1925 clash in the CFL was more a match between two local sides. There was hardly any indication that a day will come when an MB-EB encounter would be considered one of world’s most watched Derby matches. But when the two teams met for the first time in Durand Cup in 1957, not a seat was vacant at Delhi’s Corporation Stadium (now Ambedkar Stadium).
The match was played in chilly weather on December 28, 1957. It ended in a goalless draw. A couple of days later, when the two teams met again to break the deadlock, East Bengal had the last laugh winning a well-contested match 3-2. Famous Chuni Goswami and Nimai Mukherjee scored for Mohun Bagan. Pakistani striker Musa (2) and Balasubramaniam struck to clinch the deal in favour of East Bengal.
The city of Bombay (now Mumbai) was always known for having a rich football culture and it was at its height in the 1950s and 1960s. The now-defunct Rovers Cup attracted a huge crowd at the Cooperage. So, when Mohun Bagan and East Bengal crossed swords for the first time in Rovers Cup on November 27, 1960, fans were truly excited. Old-timers say among the spectators were leading men from the film world like Dilip Kumar, Pran, SD Burman, Hemant Kumar, Manna Dey etc.
Here, too, East Bengal walked away with the honours of winning in the first meeting, though in the most bizarre of ways. The 2-1 victory came against the run of play. The green and maroon side were clearly having the upper hand after Amiyo Banerjee (MB) and Arun Ghosh (EB) scored once each.
The match was level at 1-1 when Mohun Bagan fans were stunned to see their most reliable defender, Jarnail Singh, accidentally heading the ball in his own goal while trying to clear it. That settled the matter. East Bengal walked into the final as their frustrated rivals took the train to Kolkata.
Going by the tradition, Mohun Bagan fans were naturally apprehensive when the two rivals qualified to meet in the Federation Cup final in 1978. All India Football Federation launched this tournament in 1977 as the country’s official club championship. This time, however, Mohun Bagan managed to hold on. For two days in the month of May in Coimbatore, the two teams battled it out without scoring a goal. They were declared joint winners.
The next stop in an all-India tournament was the prestigious DCM Cup in Delhi in December 1992. By that time, both teams had started the trend of recruiting foreign strikers. Mohun Bagan stayed luckless here, too. Punjab recruit Kuljit Singh and Nigerian Chibuzor struck one each to pave the way for a 2-1 win for East Bengal. Mohun Bagan’s Nigerian striker Chima Okerie’s lone goal proved to be a consolation.
The awaited turnaround finally happed in the Scissors Cup final in Chennai on the last day of August in 1993. East Bengal were at the receiving end here as IM Vijayan and Nigerian Christopher scored in the 2-1 victory. Sanjay Majhi pulled one back.
There was no looking back for Mohun Bagan thereafter. When the AIFF launched the National Football League in 1996-97 season, Mohun Bagan failed to qualify. Next season, in 1998, they returned with a bang by winning the title. On the way, they beat East Bengal 2-1 in their first NFL clash with goals from Dipendu Biswas and Chima. Felix struck for East Bengal.
Ten years later, when AIFF rechristened the NFL as the I-League (only they know how it really helped), Mohun Bagan were on the target again in December, 2007. Then India skipper Bhaichung Bhutia made all the difference by scoring the only goal of the match.
Now, it is time for the maiden ISL battle. But things have changed pretty much this time. Even the names of the historic clubs have taken a beating. Mohun Bagan AC are now ATK Mohun Bagan. East Bengal FC have been converted into SC East Bengal. The two of country’s biggest public sporting institutions are now virtually private properties of rich business houses. But then, many consider it as the sign of progress and neo-normal in the abnormal time. For the first time in history, an MB-EB match will be played in front of empty stands.
Yet, millions of supporters of the two clubs will follow the encounter with great interest from across the world. Such is the magic of the great Kolkata Derby.