Asia’s Oldest Soccer Rivalry
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From motorbikes to minivans to matadors, the streets were brimming with energy, and an exhilarating sense of excitement hung about the air as thousands of supporters made their way to the Salt Lake Stadium. The vibrant green and maroon of Mohun Bagan clashed against the striking red and gold of East Bengal. The two titans of Indian soccer with over 100 years of history between them seem to offer something new every derby, and this match would prove to be no different. As in any past meeting between these two superpowers, the Kolkata Derby transcends all limits as pride and reputation are at stake.
The two sides met in the Durand Cup, a month-long tournament consisting of 24 teams fighting for the title. In Group A, these two giants were fated to meet eventually. Bagan’s dominant performances, with 5-0 and 2-0 victories in the previous two matches, had all but cemented them as favorites in this matchup, with many predicting blowout scorelines. Boasting a formidable squad consisting of multiple national team prodigies such as Anwar Ali, Liston Colaco, and Anirudh Thapa, experienced leaders in the form of captain Subhashis Bose, and established foreigners such as Dimitri Petratos and Armando Sadiku, coach Juan Ferrando certainly had an arsenal of options to unleash.
While Bengal’s hopes of progressing were narrow because of a stubborn 2-2 draw in an earlier group match, a shock result could rejuvenate their chances. These storylines were clear in the build-up to the game, with Bagan fans––Mariners, as they are called––flooding in droves to quickly fill the seats, while the Bengal side slowly became covered in a sea of red and gold. Ferrando’s starting line-up raised some questions among the Mariners as the coach opted to deploy a 4-2-3-1 including Thapa and Sadiku, who played for the first time in this tournament, ahead of options like in-form striker Suhail Bhat and Petratos, who had impressed in earlier group matches. On the other hand, coach Carles Cuadrat announced an expected Bengal line-up including mainstays like captain Harmanjot Khabra and national team winger Naorem Singh. With the stage set for a great match to follow, early indications of rolling storm clouds on the horizon threatened to ruin a perfect evening.
The Mariners set the tempo right from the whistle, easily circulating the ball and maintaining possession. The superb control of Glan Martins and the passing range of Thapa allowed Mohun Bagan to stretch the field and create openings through the middle. Early opportunities via attackers Hugo Boumous and Sadiku tested Bengal keeper Prabhsukan Gill on multiple occasions. Despite these promising opportunities, Bengal’s defense remained disciplined. Down the other end, Singh’s unpredictable dribbling probed the Mariners’ defense, producing some dangerous crosses into the box. However, the composed defending of Ali thwarted many of these chances, keeping goalkeeper Vishal Kaith relatively undisturbed. By the opening half, Bengal’s plan seemed simple: delay, deny, and counterattack. The Mariners slowed the tempo of the game, recycling the ball more and conserving energy rather than taking risks as attacking threats like Boumous struggled to get on the ball in the final third. A hint of tension began to spread amongst the Mariners, as most struggled to hold onto a fading belief in the fantasy they had dreamt of initially. Light rainfall cloaked the stadium as the sun began to set.
The green and maroon flags and banners lay still, as a veil of silence fell over the Bagan half of the stands. The left-footed curled shot in the 60th minute had left the Mariners speechless, as the slurs and jeers from the red-and-gold half carried across the stadium, showing just how the tables had turned. The Mariners had been clinging onto the hope of an eventual victory despite their team’s performance suggesting otherwise and now realized the gravity of the situation: with minimal attacking plays and poor decision-making, the match was slipping out of grasp rapidly. The start of the second half suggested no shake-up in tactics or strategy from either side, and Bagan was now being punished as Bengal took advantage of a counter-attacking opportunity. Now losing by a goal, substitutions from Ferrando proved too little too late, as the likes of Bhat, Petratos, and Sahal struggled to make an impact. The drizzle had become a downpour by now, forcing many fans in the open areas to seek shelter, almost as an omen of Bagan’s misfortunes that night. Frustration amongst the Mariners started to show as rash tackles earned yellow cards late into the final minutes, running down the clock in favor of Bengal. The referee’s whistle etched the memory of an unexpected loss to archrivals into the memories of the distraught Mariners. As Bengal supporters invaded the pitch to celebrate, the green and maroon banners started vanishing as the red flares burned brightly in the torrent.
The 390th Boro Match (“Big Match” in Bengali) certainly did not disappoint, with twists and surprises in store. For the first time in four years, and after eight consecutive Bagan wins, East Bengal finally secured a Kolkata Derby victory. Despite a stacked squad, a sluggish mentality and controversial decisions by coach Juan Ferrando left most fans disappointed. Underestimating Bengal and not maintaining their full intensity seems to have cost Bagan this win. But the flame between the two sides is now burning hotter than ever as Bagan supporters seek brutal revenge in their next meeting, with Bengal confident to prove that they’re more than up to the task.