In the Guardian last week, Barney Ronay delightfully described football as “descending into a state of toxically vomiting incontinence”. After the recent Manchester derby in which the United captain Rio Ferdinand was hit on the head by a coin thrown from the opposition stands, the faux outrage and brouhaha that followed suggested football in England is so feral that fans should now be caged behind nets to protect the players.
As unpleasant as the Manchester incident no doubt was, on the same day here in Kolkata, India, the mother of all football derbies - East Bengal v Mohun Bagan - lasted no longer than 45 minutes; the game being abandoned at half-time due to a catalogue of incidents that made events at Eastlands seem like a game of tiddlywinks.
Witnessing the Test Match at the glorious Eden Gardens in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), we were grateful to England who were gracious enough to wrap up the cricket early on Sunday. This allowed us to venture across town to the enormous 120,000 capacity Salt Lake Stadium and witness the Indian I-League’s marquee fixture: the vociferous Kolkata derby.
Cricket, of course, is huge in India and it’s true that it transcends all other sports, but Bengal is the spiritual home of football in this country. My only previous experience of Indian football was an international friendly between India and Namibia in Delhi in front of a paltry 3,000 semi-interested spectators, so I wasn’t expecting much in Kolkata. How wrong I was.
We get an idea of what to expect at the game as the roads towards the stadium are gridlocked. Trucks overflowing with drunken supporters from both teams, screaming, gesticulating, waving flags, honking horns, taunting each other with empty bottles of Signature whiskey, and what can only be described as fans waving their penises at their rivals – a peculiar gesture I have been reliably informed is known as “windmilling”.
Finally we reach the stadium, and are engulfed by ticket touts offering us VIP tickets, and young flag sellers and face painters insisting we daub our cheeks in red and gold; the colours of today’s home team East Bengal and the team we choose to follow. Any other deviation of colours worn by spectators we are told is an insult. Glad I’m wearing my black and amber Hull City shirt then. There are men everywhere, not a female fan in sight. One huge rolling crowd of Indian men seemingly heading for the ground but much like the rest of India, a seething mass of humanity.
Finally inside the ground, we squeeze into the lower tier terrace for a side view of the match. It is now apparent how important this derby is. It is not full to capacity but there must be 100,000 spectators crammed into the three-tiered cauldron; red and gold at one end and maroon and green – the colours of Mohun Bagan, the other giants of Kolkata football – at the other. A cacophony of noise hits us and we are instantly mauled by hundreds of East Bengal boys desperate for a handshake and a photo with the English. We are offered some sort of snuff, a random white powder and by the looks of their wild eyes that’s not all these boys are on. It is hot, dusty, overcrowded and there is a stench of sweat and whiskey in the air. It’s an electric atmosphere, one I have never experienced at a football match before, and it is clear the opposing supporters hate each other. A drunken old man, his teeth stained red from all the betel nut (a stimulant) he has been nailing today, gives us some backstory to the fixture. The ruling British split Bengal in 1905 into a predominantly Hindu West Bengal and mainly Muslim East Bengal. Mohun Bagan FC, known as the Mariners, represents the traditionally elitist Hindu Bengalis, and East Bengal FC the lower-caste migrants from what is now Bangladesh. The 85-year-old rivalry is not so much football but a bitterly intense socio-cultural one.
The tension in the air indicates trouble is on the horizon; any incident in the game and this could all go pear shaped. And so it proves. Just before half-time in a match so far devoid of any modicum of skill, East Bengal take the lead; Harmanjot Khabra rises first to nod home a Mehtab Hossein free kick. Bedlam. The noise is incredible. Firecrackers boom, huge flags unfurl, smoke rises. It’s a sea of red and gold. Moments later, Mohun Bagan’s star man, Odafa Okolie viciously remonstrates with the referee and as the Nigerian manhandles the official, he is sent off for his insolence. These two incidents combine and the Mohun Bagan fans decide they have been cheated. Sticks, stones and slabs of concrete rain down on the running track and some reach the pitch. Mariners’ defender Syed Rahim Nabi is hit by a slab thrown by his own supporters and collapses in a bloody heap. East Bengal players rush to help drag his limp body from the pitch. He is hospitalised. Hundreds of police baton-charge two tiers of the away end and the scene is descending into chaos. It is intense and frightening and I wish someone would take me back to the comparatively sedate atmosphere of Eden Gardens, where I can sit and sing along with the Barmy Army aka “the Top Gear audience in sun block”.
We inch our way further toward the relative safety of the home end as more missiles are thrown in our general direction, now from all sides of the ground. More firecrackers, smoke, and baton-charging in the crowd. Carnage. East Bengal fans are taunting the opposition by setting alight to newspapers and holding them aloft in a tribute to their burning torch emblem. Play finally resumes after twelve minutes of injury time for only a few seconds before the referee has had enough and blows for half-time. Mohun Bagan refuse to come out for the second half citing security concerns and the match is abandoned. Our new friend, the old man, confirms they have “surrendered”. Mohun Bagan now face a two-year suspension from the I-League, a punishment that will do no favours to a league striving hard to rival cricket in the hearts and minds of Indians.
We get the hell out of Salt Lake. Sharpish. Later on the news we hear rioting engulfs the area. Over 40 people are injured in fighting and scuffles with police. We also learn it is just one in a long line of bonkers derby days in Kolkata. In 1980, 16 people were killed at the same match in similar scenes and it is by pure chance that something similarly tragic did not happen today. Later that night we watch the Manchester derby in the pub, sink a few Kingfishers and shake our heads at the toxically vomiting incontinence of it all.
Pete Josse is the grandson of Sunderland, Derby, Hull City and England legend Raich Carter, but is living proof that real talent skips a couple of generations. He is a UNFC co-organiser, attacking midfielder-come-centre forward, and is definitely going to win the UNFC Golden Crampon this season. twitter.com/PeterRadiator