The evolution of a city is essentially an expression of its adaptability to changing times and staying relevant. From this perspective, Kolkata is still a history in motion — expressed through its myriad social, political and cultural vibes across years, nay, centuries. Football is one such symbolism at the centre of the city’s existence. More than a sport, it’s always experienced with a m ore profound and pronounced emotional force — that flesh-and-blood vitality which keeps the city moving through thick and thin. It is that sanctum sanctorum of our psyche which gives us a special identity and a special bonding to the Beautiful Game. In essence, you can take a Kolkatan out of the City of Joy, but you cannot take football out of a Kolkatan.

Once the heartbeat of the jewel of the British empire, Kolkata — formerly Calcutta — owed its love for the game to its European rulers. Legend has it that in 1877, a 10-year-old Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari, while accompanying his mother to Hooghly, kicked a ball back to a group of British soldiers who were playing at the CFC ground.

Nagendra Prasad went on to be known as the ‘Father of Indian football’, but the ball he had struck on that day set in motion a movement that shook the very foundation of the British Raj some year s later. On July 29 in 1911, Mohun Bagan — founded in 1889 and one of the oldest football clubs in Asia — stunned East York Regiment 2-1 in the IFA Shield final. What the 11 bar e-footed natives — who later came to be etched in our memory as ‘The Immortal XI’ — did on the Calcutta Football Club ground was not just the triumph of a trophy. It defined a belief that the British were not invincible. It gave the Swadeshi movement a shot in the arm and a spine to stand up to adversity.

If the game has this element of collective and historic consciousness in the evolution of the city, Mohun Bagan’s rivalry with East Bengal and the rise of Mohammedan Sporting — the holy trinity of the city’s football ethos — makes its presence both dramatic and symbolic. Mohammedan Sporting became the first Indian club to win the Calcutta Football League five years in a row (1934-38) and their success provided an impetus to the Muslim nationalist movement in the 1930s. However, it’s the rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal that has given the city its defining identity and vibrancy.

East Bengal came into being in 1920 and according to records available, the club was born out of a protest against the arch-rivals, when Jorabagan Club vice-president Suresh Chandra Chaudhury took exception to Mohun Bagan’s move to ignore a player suggested by him for a tournament and decided to break away from the club to form a new outfit.
However, the derby’s lasting significance is deeply rooted in politics. Bengal endured one of the biggest flows of forced migration in the history of humanity twice — first during the Independence in 1947 and again at the time of Bangladesh’s liberation in1971. These people found in East Bengal club not only a lost name and a lost identity but also a platform to rediscover themselves.

The game has since evolved as much as the city itself. From Pele and Maradona to Messi, football gods have descended on the Mecca of Indian football over the years.
As former India striker Dipendu Biswas, who has played for the city’s Big Three clubs, recalled: “The seed of my dream as a footballer was sown in those journeys in the late 1980s when I used to come to the city from Basirhat and watch my football heroes first hand — a small-town boy carrying aspirations and hoping to realize them one day in the big city. ”

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