AS THE CROWDED BUS tried to inch through a heavy-traffic lane on a sweaty summer evening, one twenty-something boy had little time for life's usual lamentations. He had pushed his upper torso straight through the bus window, hanging dangerously on the outside, yelling at the top of the voice to the passing trucks a single, two-syllable word, "Hexa! Hexa! Hexa!"
The conductor angrily intervened. The boy withdrew, a baby-like smile still spread across his face. But by that time the virus of his persistent chanting had spread. At least four trucks, all stuck in the same traffic and carrying as many people on their open docks as a crowded weekday bus, was reverberating in one voice with the same chant of "Hexa! Hexa!"
The boy inside the bus, and the people on the trucks, were all draped in red and gold. Some carried flags of the same colours, sometimes bearing the emblem of a burning torch. They were fans of East Bengal Football Club, on their way back from a memorable 4-0 victory over arch rivals Mohun Bagan, a win that also sealed their 6th straight Calcutta Football League title.
The nearest Mohun Bagan fan was an embodiment of shame. A middle-aged bank clerk, he comes from a family of staunch East Bengal supporters. Before the game he had told everybody the hilarious story of how every time he left to attend a Derby game his mother would say to him, "Curse you, my son, come back defeated." Throughout the game he had looked on horrified, as if his worst nightmare was unfolding before his eyes.
It was true that East Bengal had come into the game as favourites. The CFL title was practically theirs. They had taken care to keep much of their I-League side intact, in order to make sure their efforts to secure a record-equalling 6th straight CFL title did not fall short. Adding to the fact was that a lot of the CFL clubs who had a reputation of coming out as the wild card giant killers has pretty much messed up with their team-building. Tollygunge Agragami, who were title contenders last season, are battling relegation. And like a well-oiled machine East Bengal delivered under pressure. Twice they went down 2-0 early on in the game then came back to win the match 4-3. They came into the Kolkata Derby on the cusp of victory, riding on an unbeaten CFL contest.
In contrast, Mohun Bagan were missing most of their I-League squad, having sold them to ISL (some to be loaned back) while others were away on national duty. They had in their team 6 players who played occasionally got to play in the I-League. A number of the players were untested. 7 out of the starting XI were playing their first Kolkata Derby. The officials took the CFL too lightly and had to pay for it.
East Bengal did not allow their opponents to settle down at all. At the outset, it was Do Dong's unstoppable left footed free kick that left the entire Bagan defence along with keeper Shilton Paul dumbfounded as it soared into the net, getting them the lead in the very 2nd minute. Thrown off guard, Mohun Bagan tried hard to get back on even terms. Lewis and Lalkamal put together certain onslaughts but most of them were aimed at finding Dudu, who was double marked. Bello Razaq shadowed the Bagan striker and blocked every attempt at getting behind the East Bengal defensive line.
The referee appeared to be a bit harsh as well. Dudu was shown a yellow card for a relatively light tackle on Robert. It was followed by two quick yellows; Sanjay Balmuchu saw it for a foul, and Lalkamal got it for arguning with the referee. The resulting free kick, almost from the same position as East Bengal's first goal, saw Do Dong line up again, and put an almost identical free kick into the net.
In the second half Bagan coach Sanjay Sen tried to strenghthen the midfield by introducing Katsumi Yusa, who started on the bench in order to make room for Judelin Aveska. From the very first minute Katsumi's fast raids showed signs of crack in the East Bengal defence. But before he could settle into the game, Bagan were dealt the decisive blow that killed the game for them: Dudu was flashed a second yellow for a tackle on Harmanjot Khabra. The replay showed he got the ball and Khabra went down on his own, but the referee failed to see this. A shell-shocked Dudu was forced to walk off the pitch. He broke into tears in the tunnel.
Mohun Bagan never really recovered from that. East Bengal led multiple charges into their box as the Green and Maroons tried to hold on. Around the 60th minute mark, Rafique sent a ball in to Bikash Jairu who beat the Bagan keeper but Sanjay Balmuchu was there to clear the ball from the goalline. But the scoreline did not hold for long.
It was the same Bikash-Rafique combo that got the third goal for East Bengal. Bikash sent in the cross with his left foot and Rafique put the finishing header on it. And at the death of the match, East Bengal extended the margin as Saumik Dey's corner fould Rahul Bheke's head, and then the net.
To make things even worse, Lalkamal lost his head and and pushed the referee right after the full time whistle and was shown a red card for his misbehaviour.
After the match, the East Bengal half of the gallery took on a psychadelic appearance with thousands holding up burning torches and several others setting off flares with red and gold smoke. The players, awestruck, soaked in the atmosphere. Do Dong was carried around by his teammates on their shoulders; his debut campaign for the Red and Golds had found him a place in history.
The celebrations outside the stadium carried on till late evening, and spread to the other parts of the city as night wore on. Motorcycles and trucks full of East Bengal fans waving their club flags and yelling "Hexa, hexa" at the top of the voice was a common sight in the streets of Kolkata even after midnight.
It is not the custom to present a trophy to the winner in CFL, but IFA have announced that starting this year, there will be one, presented at the Bengal football governing body's annual meeting. It is unlikely that East Bengal will hold a parade with the trophy, but their fans made sure it wouldn't leave a void. Fans celebrated all over the city, setting off crackers, playing an impromptu session of 'Holi' with red and yellow gulaal.
With only one match to go in the CFL campaign, East Bengal are close to achieving another prestigious feat: of finishing the CFL unbeaten. It would be the perfect way to top up an already incredible start to the season they have had, and put them in an ideal mindset before flying to Bangladesh to take part in the newly-created international tournament Sk Jamal Gold Cup in October.
Mohun Bagan on the other hand will try to win their remaining 3 matches and finish their CFL campaign in a respectable fashion. Frought with technical errors and controversies, their run in the local league has been something of an anti-thesis of their arch-rivals' near perfect record. Lack of experience and finesse has repeatedly left their defence exposed to quick counters and well-placed set pieces. But choosing to bleed in a number of young players in the CFL has led to discoveries like Kean Lewis, Safar Sardar, Azharuddin Mallick and Sanjay Balmuchu who may go on to play an important role for the club in the future. In that sense, Mohun Bagan have done that bad, but seen in contrast with East Bengal's historic title win and a 0-4 loss at the Derby, the average fan will remember the past one month as nothing short of a nightmare. They will hope that the experience gathered at CFL will come in handy in the Sk Jamal Gold Cup, and their officials will significantly strengthen the squad ahead of the I-League.
But for Indian football in general, the biggest takeaway is the 80,000+ crowd that showed up at the Derby. At a time when ISL is ruling the roost in the domestic football scene, this massive turnout has once again proved that the Kolkata Derby is still the best advertisement for Indian football.
The two arch rivals will meet again, twice, in the I-League. Before that, they might meet in Dhaka, if both manage to make it to the semi-finals of the Sk Jamal Gold Cup. If that match-up happens, it will be a rare moment when the biggest sporting rivalry of the country will be showcased abroad; another landmark event for Indian football.
But that's in October. For now, it's time for East Bengal fans to enjoy their historic feat. And for Mohun Bagan fans to count the days until they get a chance to get back at their old rivals.