Back to The Beginning: The East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan Rivalry

Author of Barefoot to Boots, Novy Kapadia, traces the roots of Indian club football’s greatest rivalry.

5 min read
The 1965 Mohun Bagan squad that won the Durand for the third successive year—the first Indian club to do so—with President Dr S. Radhakrishnan. Standing sixth from left is Chuni Goswami, ninth is Jarnail Singh; kneeling third from right is Arumainayagam, next is Prodyut Burman, and seventh is Ashok Chatterjee. 

In his book Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football, senior journalist Novy Kapadia traces Indian football's glorious legacy from the time, decades ago, when India was called the ‘Brazil of Asia’ to now, when the country is set to host its first-ever FIFA event, the Under-17 World Cup in October 2017.

The below excerpt is from the second part of the book titled Battles For Supremacy where Novy traces the start of India’s greatest-ever club rivalry - between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.

Back to The Beginning: The East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan Rivalry

The famous rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal 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.

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 re-play 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.1

The East Bengal team,winners of the 1956 Durand,with President Dr Rajendra Prasad, a football enthusiast. Standing from left are T.A. Rahman and J. Kittu; sitting from right is M. Kempaiah and next tohim is Kannayan. 
The East Bengal team,winners of the 1956 Durand,with President Dr Rajendra Prasad, a football enthusiast. Standing from left are T.A. Rahman and J. Kittu; sitting from right is M. Kempaiah and next tohim is Kannayan. 
(Courtesy: DFTS)

In the late 1990s, the rivalry between the coaches P.K. Banerjee and Amal Dutta was India’s equivalent of the bitter contest between Sir Alex Ferguson (Manchester United) and Arsène Wenger (Arsenal). Both used the local media to spark off impassioned debates before a derby match, which added to the excitement and whetted the interest of Kolkata fans.

P.K. Banerjee’s finest act of motivation came prior to the 1997 KBL Federation Cup semi-final. P.K. was coaching East Bengal and Amal Dutta was in charge of Bagan, and the match was being billed as the clash of the coaching titans.

Dutta was making Bagan play exciting, attacking football, using the diamond system in midfield. Bagan had crushed all opposition on the way to the final, including Goa League champions Churchill Brothers 6-0 in the quarter-finals. They were favourites to win the match. The regional newspapers and magazines had created a lot of hype and built up great expectations with their detailed reports, and Kolkata was in a frenzy. As a tactical ploy, Amal Dutta in his columns and interviews with the local newspapers had been scornful of East Bengal’s main striker and star player Bhaichung Bhutia. Dutta had even suggested that Bhaichung was overrated and just a flashy youngster who would not trouble his experienced team.

On the eve of the final, the astute P.K. Banerjee invited Bhaichung to dinner and gave him a detailed account of all the scorn being heaped on him in the vernacular Bengali media by the rival coach. This made Bhaichung livid and he was all charged up for the match. P.K. Banerjee’s subtle psychological tactic worked wonders.

A highly motivated Bhaichung guided East Bengal to a memorable 4-1 victory before an Asian record crowd of 1,31,000 at the Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata, on 13 July 1997.8 He even scored a hat-trick—the first-ever in the derby match, and seventy two years after it had first been held.

This match was the turning point for the revival of the craze for the Kolkata clubs. Briefly, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it had seemed to decline due to various factors, including new exposure to international football and some very violent episodes in stadiums, particularly the terrible one on 16 August 1980 at Eden Gardens.9 It has now taken on a new dimension, with supporters travelling with the team to away matches to cheer them on.


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

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