The Battle of Bengal


by Rohin
16th October, 2007 at 6:10 pm    

A feature in this week’s TIME reminded me of a sporting derby that runs deeper than Arsenal vs Spurs, Rangers vs Celtic or Everton vs Liverpool. My grandfather’s brother-in-law used to own East Bengal Football Club but the rest of my family have always been die-hard Mohun Bagan fans, so this is a rivalry I have been raised with.

Mohun Bagan Athletic is in fact Asia’s oldest sporting club and famously were the barefoot real-life Lagaan story in 1911. The club was founded on the 15th of August (later to become an auspicious day) 1889 and from the off was imbued with nationalistic fervour. The sole purpose of the disciplined outfit seemed to be to beat the British at their own game. Twenty two years after their formation, Mohun Bagan lifted the Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield, beating the East Yorkshire Regiment, previously undisputed kings of the Indian League.

The date this feat was accomplished, July 29th, is now ‘Mohun Bagan Day’ in the club calendar and 100 years later Rajiv Gandhi named Mohun Bagan as India’s national club. A postage stamp was brought out to commemorate the united patriotism that resulted from the Indian win over the English club.

Mohun Bagan’s links with the independence movement are inextricable. The founder was lawyer Bhupendranath Basu, who would later become Indian National Congress President. Two players became Governor of West Bengal. The Indianness was evident also from the club’s code of conduct. Players were taught etiquette, could not drink or smoke and they all needed written permission from their parents to play. The first playing ground was the back garden of the Mitra family mansion (Mohun Bagan Villa). The Basus, Sens and Mitras, three wealthy Calcutta families, put up the cash.

East Bengal Football Club was formed in 1920. After Mohun Bagan had piqued Bengali interest in football, several clubs had popped up (best named: The Aryans). But the British restricted the number of Indian teams in the main league to two. Mohun Bagan was one of the Indian teams that did not support promotion for East Bengal, fuelling the early fires. They fought a war of attrition for two difficult decades, but first won the IFA Shield in 1943.

The intense rivalry between the two clubs is older than India vs Pakistan. The overall tally sheet has East Bengal ahead but Mohun Bagan has perhaps more impressive achievements. At present, they remain a dominant force in Indian football with high profile Indian players and plenty of overseas imports (chiefly from South America and Africa).

However, despite the footballing fever pitch in India’s football capital, the standard is poor. Having said that, the play present at an MB-EB derby is more deft and talented than at any match featuring the national side. FIFA has shown interest in Indian football since the turn of the century and both clubs have links with successful teams outside India. But Indian football remains in a dire state.

The stories of East Bengal and the Mariners tick plenty of Bengali stereotype boxes. Obviously football, patriotism and the independence movement are clear. But the classic Bengali passion also finds its place in the Calcutta League. When Mohun Bagan fans beat East Bengal, they eat prawns and when East Bengal triumph, ilish mach is served.


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  1. Sunny — on 16th October, 2007 at 7:05 pm  

    It’s something about Bengalis and their communist tendencies isn’t it? (I’m not racist but…). They’re far too busy beating each other.

    How many communist parties are there in West Bengal? They keep splitting up every year, and they hate each other more than the others. Heh.

    Nice little piece though!

  2. Rumbold — on 16th October, 2007 at 8:57 pm  

    Rohin:

    Great piece. I especially liked this bit:

    “The Indianness was evident also from the club’s code of conduct. Players were taught etiquette, could not drink or smoke and they all needed written permission from their parents to play.”

    You forgot however to mention India’s greatest ever player: Baichung Bhutia (played for Bury)

    http://www.sikkiminfo.net/bhaichung.htm

    An East Bengal man through and through.

    Also, this film is coming out in India, which may increase interest in football there:

    http://www.apunkachoice.com/scoop/bollywood/20061210-2.html

  3. Rohin — on 16th October, 2007 at 9:05 pm  

    Not forgotten Rumbold, although I wouldn’t call him EB through and through, seeing as he’s currently playing for Mohun Bagan and played for them once before…!

    Don’t know much about Goal, I’ve heard it mentioned quite a bit so thought it was already out. But apparently only the poster has been released. Now reading – apparently it’s about Southall United! I am dreading this. I hate the trend in Hindi films that has developed of pretending to be British/American Indians. Not American Indians. You know what I mean. As if a football team in Southall will a) talk in Hindi the whole time b) have anyone remotely resembling John Abraham or Bipasha Basu c) not get pissed every training session down the Glassy.

  4. Sid — on 16th October, 2007 at 10:59 pm  

    As the old saying goes,

    One Bengali is a poet
    Two Bengalis are a film society
    Three Bengalis are a political party
    Four Bengalis are two political parties. Both Leftist

  5. lost — on 17th October, 2007 at 12:47 am  

    I just read on wiki… I am surprised at this:

    “Hilsa is not just a fish to the Bengalis. It is a part of their culture. In many Bengali Hindu families two Hilsa fishes (Joda Ilish) are bought on special auspicious days, like some pujas. It is considered auspicious to buy two Hilsa fishes on the day of Saraswati Puja (The Goddess of Learning and Beauty), which takes place in the beginning of Spring and also on the day of Lakshmi Puja (The Goddess of Wealth and Prosperity) which takes place in autumn. But this custom is prevalent mainly among the Hindu Bengalis of former East Bengal (now Bangladesh) many of whom now live in West Bengal in India after the Partition of India. Some of them give Hilsa fish as an offering to the goddess Lakshmi, without which the Puja is thought to be incomplete. Hilsa is an important source of foreign exchange for Bangladesh.”

    I am East Bengali Hindu and never heard of this. Infact, although non-veg, my mother would be in tatters if non-veg was cooked in the house on any Puja day. The whole house is cleaned and different utensils are used for vegie cooking. We don’t even use the same sink to take water for the Puja. I must be missing something. Next time I am in Kolkata I have to find this out man…!

  6. Vikrant — on 17th October, 2007 at 2:02 am  

    Great post Rohin :P . Bongs and their un-Indian passions!

  7. Edsa — on 17th October, 2007 at 11:29 am  

    I am no football fan but the full page article on Indian football in Time (15 Oct 07) caught my eye. It was headed ‘Clash of the Titans’. So had India played Manchester United or Germany or Brazil?

    The sub-heading soon brought me down to earth with a thud. It said; “What India’s football lacks in quality, it makes up in spirit and spectacle.” But my spirit fell. India is still saddled with an old and enduring problem – mediocrity, lack of quality in whatever they do.

    For some odd (charitable?) reason, Time had decided to report the clashes between two Calcutta (Kolkata) football teams called Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Heard of them? Neither had I. It seems these are old foes who never tire playing against each other in a mud-pit that passes for a football ground. I won’t bore you with the minutiae.

    What dispirited me further was the news that India comes 145 in FIFA’s world rankings whereas little Bahrain in the Persian Gulf is 13 points ahead. Within Asia, India is 24.

    FIFA’s president toured India last April with Mt Hamman, head of the Asian Football Confederation. Hamman’s judgment was blunt: “The Indian game only has the history, I don’t see any future…”
    Why talk just of Bengali sports?
    Think of India’s miserable record in international sports.

  8. Rumbold — on 17th October, 2007 at 5:58 pm  

    Rohin:

    I did not realise Bhutia was playing for Mohun Bagan. I suppose that he has yet to recapture his Bury highs.

    “As if a football team in Southall will a) talk in Hindi the whole time b) have anyone remotely resembling John Abraham or Bipasha Basu c) not get pissed every training session down the Glassy.”

    Ha ha. And I bet that you will be able to count the number of ‘innits’ and ‘safes’ on one hand. Totally unrealistic.

  9. Bert Preast — on 17th October, 2007 at 10:05 pm  

    I remember as a kid in the 1970s our school headmaster, who’d served in the army in India, telling us how not everyone had shoes back then. He told us of his battalion being challenged to a game by a local Indian team, sorry no idea where. They all turned up and on seeing the Indian team barefoot refused to play – they thought it’d be unfair to wear boots and none of them fancied trying it in bare feet.

    The Indians insisted that they were happy to play without boots, and assured them that they did not consider it a disadvantage. The army team still protested, and the Indians explained how far some of their players had travelled barefoot to get there and play the game. There was no way they were just going to go home again because the English were trying to wuss out.

    So they played the game, and the Indians won it 6-4. Their feet were as tough as football botts, and their shins were even tougher. After a glorious first half of robust old-stylee footy the imperialist boot was the worse for wear, and the imperialist shin had been hacked to pieces.

    Don’t know why after 30 years I remember that story, but I do.

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