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The Football Derby of India: A Historical Perspective


(Editor’s Note. Association football is the second most popular sport in India, behind cricket.  India has won two Asian Games championships (1951 and 1962); but over the past few decades the sport languished  with little financial support and poor leadership.  In 2006 India signed an agreement with Brazil to import coaches and administrators to train coaches and help improve the sport’s infrastructure.  The game was introduced to the sub-continent by British soldiers.  Indeed, the Indian Football Association did not have any Indians on its governing board until the 1930s).

India, an emerging superpower of the global economy, is yet to mark its footprints in the international football arena. It is the dream of tens of millions of Indians to see their country participating in the football World Cup. We do not know when our dream will be fulfilled, but it does not keep us from enjoying the beautiful game, especially the high profile Indian derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. The rivalry between these two clubs started due to ‘sub- regional’ conflict introduced in the Bengali community in the pre- independence period. The objective of this article is to describe briefly the history of this famous derby of India.

Mohun Bagan, which introduced an element of ‘nationalism’ into Indian football, was set up on 15th August 1889 in the residence of renowned political leader Shri Bhupendranath Basu. The club made history in 1911 when it won the IFA Shield and established its supremacy over the British clubs in India. Mohun Bagan defeated a number of British teams, including East York Regiment, Middlesex Regiment, and Rangers Club, to win this tournament and infuse vigor into the suppressed Indians. The impact of this epochal success was highlighted in a story in The Englishman on 31st July 1911 with the headline “What the Congress has failed to achieve, Mohun Bagan has. In other words they have succeeded in degrading the English.”

A ‘sub- regional’ sentiment was created in Indian football with the founding of East Bengal on 1st August 1920 (Mohun Bagan was located in what is now West Bengal). The club was set up due to a rift in the Jorabagan Club which compelled the eminent personalities of Calcutta, such as Shri Suresh Chowdhuri, Professor Sarada Ranjan Roy, and Rai Bahadur Tarit Bhusan Roy, to establish a new club, East Bengal. The club provided an identity to those who were forced to migrate from the eastern districts of Bengal to wealthy Calcutta for socio- economic reasons.

This migrated section failed to find a better livelihood in Calcutta and was in search for an identity in the sophisticated city. East Bengal, which was set up by the renowned personalities of eastern districts of Bengal residing in Calcutta, provided an identity to them. This migrated section, popularly known as ‘Bangaal’, extended their full support to the club. Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, was supported by the urbanized section of Calcutta. This urbanized group , which was famous for their sophistication, was known as ‘Ghoti’. Thus, the derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan is the reflection of two conflicting cultures of Bengali community. At present, hardly any difference exists between these two cultures, but the football rivalry still persists.

So far, the two biggies of Indian football played 300 matches against each other out of which East Bengal won 112 matches and Mohun Bagan won 85 matches. This high profile derby enjoys the support of millions of fans across the country and contributes significantly to the commercial interest of Indian football. Unfortunately, the story of these two pillars of Indian football is limited to India and few other neighboring countries. It can be expected that comprehensive initiatives will be taken by the club authorities to promote these two prides at the international level. The fans are eagerly waiting!

Indian football in general has made great progress in the past decade.  In 2011 the national team qualified for the Asian Cup for the first time in 24 years.  The current professional league, the I-League, was formed in 2006 and has 14 teams and a second division.  Each year two clubs are promoted and two clubs are demoted between the leagues.  Attendance and TV exposure are increasing annually.

About the Author
Ankan Banerjee is a full-time faculty member of the Department of Sports Management of Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management (IISWBM), Calcutta, India. He previously worked fo theAll India Football Federation (AIFF),  the national body of football in India.  He has an M.A. in Economics and a post graduate diploma in Sports Management (PGDSM).  He occasionally submits articles to The Sport Digest.  He can be reached via email at absportsblog@gmail.com.


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