A CURIOUS SCENE IS UNFOLDING AT A nondescript yard near Salt Lake, Kolkata.
Fans of two of the most bitter rival clubs in the country are hunched over a large piece of cloth with brushes, wipes and tubs of colour, for hours at a time. They crawl from one end to the other, making sure not to step where the paint is still dry. From time to time, they ask each other to check if the colour looks right, if the shade needs to be a bit darker.
After a while, they take a break, going out together for a cup of tea and cigarettes.
Even a couple of hours ago, it was impossible to imagine this scene.
Members of East Bengal the Real Power, Mariners Base Camp and many other fan groups who support the eternal rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan are riding the wave of a century's worth of shared history and on every step they have been rivals. In the old Maidan stadiums, at Eden Gardens and then in the fabled Salt Lake Stadium (Vivekandanda Yuvabharati Krirangan), whenever they have met, it has always been as bitter rivals; with large barriers in the stands keeping them separate.
Constant banter, flurries of abuses fly mutually. Clashes between them are not uncommon and on a couple of the worst instances, they led to deaths.
So bitter was their rivalry that when the West Bengal Government constructed the mammoth Salt Lake Stadium, they ensured to arrange the outer gates in a way that would ensure the fans of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan would enter from the opposite ends, about 2 kilometers away from each other. Yet, isolated incidents of violence continued, and remained a constant part of the narrative as the two top division clubs entered the 21st century, facing each other at least thrice a season in I-League, Federation Cup, CFL and other competitions.
And all this time, there was never a reason for the rival fanss to break bread together. Even when the national team visited and they sat together cheering for the same team, their camaraderie lasted only 90 minutes; not before, not after.
But 2017 changed everything, due to two factors.
First: India was hosting the FIFA U-17 World Cup. And second: tensions between the All India Football Federation and the two Kolkata giants had increased to a fever pitch over their entry into the Indian Super League.
These unusual set of circumstances, which saw fans of the two clubs come together to work towards a common goal for the very first time, took place over two acts.
The first one took place in New Delhi where a new fan group called Blue Pilgrims, a united supporters' organization for the Indian football team, began its activities for the first time.
A number of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans had travelled to the capital to support the India U-17 team during their historic World Cup campaign. Some of them were there along with supporters of Delhi Dynamos, Bengaluru FC, Mumbai City FC, NorthEast United, and other clubs from across the country in painting the banners, gathering the drums and supporting the national team together.
The second one, a show of force of sorts, took place on 15th September during the final of the U-17 World Cup. Thousands of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans came to the stadium wearing jerseys of their own clubs, and chanted the names of the clubs from time to time. The idea was to let the AIFF, AFC and FIFA officials present in the stadium know that the two most popular clubs in the city, long sidelined by the ISL's closed-door structure and the infamous "one-city-one-club policy" (which came to an end last season), were still an indispensable part of Indian football.
What started in 2017 continued in a small scale for the next two years. Fans of these clubs travelled all over, including to the Asian Cup, working together along with others under the Blue Pilgrims umbrella, standing together with hundreds of members of Manjappada, the Kerala Blasters fan group.
And now, the long journey has come back home. Blue Pilgrims, although a collective of fans around the country, rely on local fan groups to take the lead in ensuring activities take place smoothly; the way Mumbai City fans did in Mumbai and the Highlanders Brigade did in Guwahati.
Now it's the turn of the East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans.
Following India's draw with Qatar, this match has had a lot of enthusiasm from the get go. The last time a match involving India had such a huge demand for tickets was in 2004, when Kolkata hosted the India vs Japan World Cup Qualifier. About 90,000 fans turned up for that game, and the attendance for the India vs Bangaldesh match would have been just as much if not more had the FIFA security rules not limited the crowd to 65,000. The tickets sold fast both online and offline. 3 days before the match, hundreds of people were still standing in the sun lined up in front of the stadium's counters when a "sold out" sign was posted in front of the booking windows.
The Blue Pilgrims were also doing their own arrangements for weeks. A fundraiser for a gigantic TIFO was arranged online which got enthusiastic response from fans across the country. Even a number of fans who were living in Europe contributed to the project.
What followed was days of toil. And this is where the eternal rivals, who used to roll up their sleeves for a brawl near the bus stand outside the stadium, are now doing the same to work together to put on a memorable display of support for their national team.
On Tuesday night, when India take on Bangladesh at the Salt Lake Stadium, the crowd will be as big as a Kolkata Derby. The pre-match build up will also be just like a Derby, with fans from faraway towns in South and North Bengal arriving on trucks, buses and cars throughout the day.
By afternoon, the roads surrounding the Salt Lake Stadium will turn into a sea of people. Hawkers selling tea, jhal-muri, tri-colour flags, headbands and face-paints will make a killing. There will be a march accompanied by drums, songs, chants and bright blue smoke show to the North gates which lead to Block B2; where all the members of the Blue Pilgrims will be.
Taking part in that will be thousands of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans who, for once, will not be donning their red-yellow or green-maroon colours. Dressed in blue and holding the tri-colour, long standing rivalry will be put away as the enemies united to form a larger front; to be there for the national team as the Blue Tigers seek to get their World Cup Qualifiers campaign back on track.
Only this time, it will not be a momentary occurence of 90 minutes. When they depart from the arena late in the night, they will still remember the shared toils of the weeks leadin up to the game, and an unlikely bond of friendship that formed during it.
How will that change the way East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans treat each other in the future, if at all? That remains to be seen. The national team has always been a great unifier in Indian football, and if they, with a little bit of help from the Blue Pilgrims, can have a positive effect on the biggest rivalry in Indian football that leads to less hooliganism and violence in the future, then it will all be worth it.
And it will be a break-through that no one has achieved in over a century.