Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

Get Caught Up in an Old Rivalry

The derby match between Mohan Bagan and East Bengal — the top two soccer clubs in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata — is certainly not the best example of the beautiful game in Asia. But it is probably the most intense. The two teams claim a long and, at least in the Indian context, glorious sporting legacy, with a rivalry that dates back to well before India's bloody independence from Britain in 1947: Mohan Bagan represents the city's old and established West Bengali community; East Bengal, as its name suggests, is for those who arrived fleeing persecution and violence in what is now Bangladesh. For decades, tensions between the two clubs epitomized fissures in Kolkata society; riots were not infrequent side effects of meetings on the pitch. Things have calmed down a bit, but any match between the two is still a spectacle to behold, when upwards of 150,000 fans cram into the city's major stadium. And given the state of soccer in India, it's probably best to focus on the colorful banners and firecrackers set off around you than the less exhilarating encounter taking place on the grass below.

— By Ishaan Tharoor