Like a lot of under developed football nations, low attendance is a significant problem in India. While sports bars often overflow with people when European clubs play, matches in the I-League, India’s 17 year old top division, are often played out in front of empty stands.
There is however one match which routinely draws crowds of between fifty and eighty thousand. Played in the football crazy city of Kolkata in Eastern India, the derby between two of India’s most successful clubs, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, is usually the biggest and most eagerly anticipated match on the Indian football calendar.
On 13th July, 1997, all records in the usually well attended derby were smashed forever and may never be equalled when an incredible 131,781 spectators attended a Federation Cup semi-final between the two clubs. To date, it remains a record attendance for any sports event in India. Indeed, unofficial reports suggest that over 8,000 people may have crammed inside illegally, which would put the unofficial attendance at around 140,000.
The origin of disharmony between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal goes back to the early 1920s. Their football rivalry is bi-product of a larger socio-political bridge. East Bengal is mainly supported by, as the club name suggests, people who originated from Eastern Bengal; present Bangladesh. A large number of these people were migrants after the partition of India in 1947 and the Bangladesh independence war of 1971. Mohun Bagan on the other hand, is backed by individuals who originated from the now Indian part of Bengal. These two groups were radically different in terms of behaviour, food habits, even dialect and there was always an undercurrent of enmity between the communities.
Started in 1977, the Federation Cup is the premier knockout competition in India. An Indian version of the English FA Cup, winners qualify for the AFC Cup. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are the two most successful teams in the tournament’s history and both began the 1997 edition well. East Bengal dispatched Integral Coach Factory 3-0 in the round of 16 before scoring four goals without reply against cross town rivals Mohammedan SC in the quarter-final. Mohun Bagan scraped past Punjab Police in their first round tie, but recorded a significant 6-0 win over dark horses Churchill Brothers in their quarter-final. The form of both teams was a major contributing factor to the eventual attendance but what added more spice was the legendary rivalry between respective coaches PK Banerjee and Amal Dutta.
Former players and team-mates for the national team, Banerjee and Dutta are two of the most respected coaches in Indian football history. They are sharply different as well, which adds more edge to the rivalry. Banerjee is an Indian Jose Mourinho; preferring working with superstars, a famed motivator and utiliser of tactics which emphasise a solid defence. Dutta was Zdenek Zeman in comparison. He made stars out of unknown faces, placed the highest priority on tactical acumen and out and out attack. He was also an infamous loud mouth and often made bombastic statements before and after games.
Always the innovator, Dutta had introduced the Diamond formation in India that year. Often attacking with seven players at the same time, Mohun Bagan scored freely in the system thanks to the skills of Abdul Khaleq and the Nigerian Chima Okerie. Okerie started playing football in India in 1980s and it was his power and speed that heralded the trend for Indian clubs employing Nigerians. After a stint in England, Okerie was back in India in 1997. He was slower than in the past, but still had a fearsome reputation as a goalscorer. Banerjee’s East Bengal were not weak either. For one, they had Baichung Bhutia, the most dangerous Indian striker in their ranks along with a solid defence which was yet to concede in the tournament.
Dutta stayed true to his reputation and came to press mocking Baichung as “Chung Chung” and dismissing Kenyan defender Samuel Omollo - “I will eat him like an omelette”. Days before the match Anandabazar Patrika, the most circulated newspaper in the region, carried a picture of Banerjee on its front page highlighting Bhutia Dutta’s blast in the paper. He had started to motivate (his motivational speeches even have special name in Indian football – “vocal tonic”) his players by using Dutta’s derogatory comments
Banerjee made two important tactical changes before the match kicked off under a blazing summer sun. He changed his full-backs – replacing veteran Illias Pasha and rookie Falguni Dutta with the energetic pair of Dulal Biswas and Amitava Chanda. The second change was a calculated gamble as he fielded Kenyan ‘keeper Agende who was yet to play a match of this magnitude in his East Bengal career.
As expected, Mohun Bagan kicked off at a blistering pace. Okerie and Khaleq frequently swapped positions with Satyajit Chatterjee and Basudev Mandal picking out their runs with defence splitting passes. East Bengal was defending desperately; throwing bodies around the box. Defensive general Samuel Omollo was keeping a close watch on Okerie, whilst lanky Noushad Musah worked to minimize the aerial delivery toward the striker. Mohun Bagan earned seven corner kicks in the first 25 minutes but somehow managed to fluff their chances.
After the first half hour Mohun Bagan players began to show signs of fatigue owing to the humid weather. Banerjee was waiting for this opportunity as he was most comfortable when his teams played counter-attack. His third tactical master stroke came around this time when he deployed Baiching Bhutia slightly towards the flanks with young Nazimul Haq as centre-forward. A sudden burst of acceleration with the ball was Bhutia’s biggest strength and he was asked to exploit the empty space behind Mohun Bagan full-backs Ranjan Dey and Odiambo who were pushing high up the pitch but were not too tired to constantly track back defensively.
Before half time East Bengal took the lead against the run of play as Nazimul Haq scored a thumping side-volley after a well drilled corner from Somatai Saiza.
Soon after the restart East Bengal doubled their lead as Bhutia looped over a header after another corner from Saiza. Desperate for an equaliser Mohun Bagan pushed up even more, though their forays no longer had the same bite. Okerie finally managed to shake off Omollo for once as he pulled back a goal from a powerful close range finish. Then the Bhutia show began in earnest.
Exploiting the poor positioning of the Mohun Bagan full backs, as well as their high line of defence, Bhutia broke the offside trap time and again, speeding past his markers. His second came after typically shambolic defending from Bagan as he dribbled past his opponents ‘keeper and a diving Ranjan Dey to bulge the top corner of an empty net. For his hat trick, he sprinted inside the box and selflessly tried to pass towards Nazimul but his pass was intercepted by a Bagan defender, who bizarrely failed to control the ball and gifted it back to Bhutia for a tap-in. It was almost as if he had saved his greatest performance at club level for the historic occasion of the highest attended derby. For the first time in the derby’s 72 year old history a player managed to score a hat-trick. To date, Bhutia remains the only Indian player to achieve this feat.
Surprisingly, East Bengal didn’t win the Federation Cup that year despite their huge confidence boosting win in the semi-final. Salgaocar SC won the final 2-1 in extra-time. Amal Dutta, typically refused to taken any blame for his tactics but instead singled out the short statured goal-keeper Hemanta Dora. To his credit, Dutta ironed out the flaws in his Diamond system and won trophies later that season and also exacted a revenge on Banerjee in a 1-0 derby win later that season.
Mohun Bagan and East Bengal play out at least 2 derbies every season but this particular match will never be forgotten by any of the fans of either team.