The season has building up to this. One will triumph, one will fall. A city divided. Three points, but much more pertinently, pride, all consuming pride, at stake. The title may not be decided here but today’s result will go some way to determining the champions.

Welcome to The Salt Lake Stadium, venue for the Kolkata derby, the third biggest match in Asian football, East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan. It’s Super Sunday and it’s Live.

…ly. Very, very lively.

Our taxi scrambles on through the gathering storm. Tightly packed truckloads of fans are ferried in from all over the city. Flags draped around shoulders, shops, bus stops. Supporters bedecked in club colours, knock-off replica shirts and the local fan wear of choice, the official un-official bandana complete with inevitable hari-kiri connotations, swarm anxiously around the stadium as kick off looms.

Not for the first time, if you’ll forgive the travel writing cliche, India takes the breath away. And not for the first time it’s in the unlikely spots that don’t make it into the travel guide that do this.

Salt Lake Stadium is a hulking, ungainly concrete bowl of a place; Cold War Soviet era in its construction and design. To my left East Bengal take two thirds of their allocation while Mohun Bagan half fill their end.

That’s ninety thousand football crazed Kolkatans, going absolutely bananas for their team. Comfortably outstripping the, by contrast, sedate following at Eden Gardens in terms of numbers as well as fanaticism.

Mohun Bagan are the earlier established, mainly Muslim team, dating from the late nineteenth century and the port area of town. Resplendent in maroon and green, their colours are reminiscent of Rio’s Fluminense. “Mariners on The Move” and other such banners, firecrackers and hysterical support marks their territory.
Lucky Paul, Matt and I are in with the home team fans, East Bengal. Established in 1920, more white collar than blue, the arriviste team are the side to beat in The I-League again this season. More firecrackers, banners, more hysterical cheering. The colours of East Bengal, meanwhile, evoke for the romantic, Melchester Rovers, for the cynical, Galatasary, or for the sadist, Watford.
Yes, that’s right, as a Luton Town fan of some years standing I’m going to be spending the next hour or so cheering on a team in yellow and red. And, to add to things, they’re also the team of Kolkata’s Hindu population….
It’s not just the asphyxiating atmosphere that’s causing the mildest sense of discomfort here.

After the entirely pointless display of the FIFA Fair Play banner, the inevitable presence and presentation of some dignitaries or other and the lumping of training balls by the substitutes in to the stands, we’re almost ready. The police force in their phalanxes take their place sitting cross-legged by the side of the pitch. The referee gets the match underway.

The football is honest. Early on, both teams trade long balls in search of their gangly strikers (I’m saying nothing here Watford fans…) before settling to try and get the ball on to the almost-lush astroturf. It’s apparent, fitness isn’t a priority here. Balls are brainlessly pumped down the channels to no-one in particular with no one following up, let alone making the running off the ball. East Bengal look the better side. For Mohun Bagan, a couple of corners and half-hearted efforts are as good as it gets then, near side, their diminutive attacker gets possession (they love an old fashioned left-winger down here in Socialist Bengal), beats two men before squaring a dangerous looking ball across the East Bengal six yard box just out of reach of the on rushing number nine.
The home team shrug this off and begin to exert the pressure through a higher corner count and possession. Mohun Bagan’s keeper tips over but his team mates keep gifting the ball back to their rivals. The free kick tally begins to tell too as the Mariners start to lose their opponents and, tellingly, the plot. Forty minutes in, a set piece on the edge of the area the ball is floated into East Bengal’s number ten whose flick header takes an age to drop tantalisingly just inside the post.
Delirium. The firecrackers like gun shots ring out around the stadium. Sixty thousand East Bengal fans celebrate wildly. It’s like being at a wholly inappropriate, sulphurous Last Night of the Proms. On acid.

Mohun Bagan try, comically, to take the restart while the opposition aren’t looking. The referee pulls them back. Then infuriates them further by giving yet another free kick to East Bengal on the far side. It becomes too much for the mardy Mariners. A twenty two man brawl ensues and it all kicks off. An ambulance drives on to the pitch, Mohun Bagan’s centre forward gets red carded for dissent, their keeper takes his boots and gloves off in protest, riots break out in the away end, there’s baton charges and even more firecrackers before a moments peace manages to squeeze in the last thirty seconds of play of the half.

Mohun Bagan refuse to to take to the field for the second half. Their fans wreak their revenge for their perceived injustice by ripping their part of the stadium to shreds. The police get stuck in again.
Pitch side, the referee pompously stands with his assistants in the centre circle. Carnage, but no communication. The East Bengal players amuse themselves and their fans by doing performing some keeps-puppy and an impromptu rendition of Oops-Upside-Your-Head.
Still no word, despite the jostling journos and TV crews training their equipment on anyone who looks important for some kind of clue. Fires are lit in the away end. Police charge again. Nothing, not a word, spellbound, we watch all this unfold. The Maroon and Green banners start to be withdrawn. We make educated guesses as to what will happen next. Then fires in the home end. East Bengal’s crest depicts a hand holding aloft a flame and tradition dictates this is what the home fans do in victory. It looks like a hallucinogenic Tory Party Conference. Enough’s enough. We turn down another cup of tea from obliging East Bengal fans and decide to get the hell out of here.

On our way out of the ground we encounter other inquisitive English cricket fans who have popped into take in the I-League’s big fixture and have got a lot more than they bargained for. The match has been abandoned, officially. We wander aimlessly in among the crowds, the dust and the dusk in search of a taxi and a route out of this Bengali bedlam.

Solace, eventually, is found away from the madness in a couple of cold beers on a roof top bar trying to make sense of the last few hours.

It’s not like this at Gresty Road says Matt.

Advertisements