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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