INCIDENTS OF RACIST ABUSE, stone-pelting, abusive language directed at female fans and incidents of violence targeting the fans of NorthEast United marred the occasion of the first semi-final of Durand Cup 2023.
The situation got bad enough to require police intervention, and army trucks were called in to safely transport NEUFC fans to their destinations.
As East Bengal pulled off a remarkable late comeback at Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium and won the match in penalties, interactions between hometown fans and NEUFC fans seated in the C2 block (an area in between two stands meant for home fans) got heated. Video clips of abuses being hurled and pictures of stones that were thrown at the Highlanders supporters were posted on social media.
Some East Bengal fans have claimed that when NEUFC were leading the match 2-0, the visiting fans abused the home fans calling them "Bangladeshi." However, no video showing this has surfaced as yet.
Violence between fans in Kolkata's football stadium is a routine occurence; with the Kolkata Derby rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan being notorious for its violent incidents. However the racial abuse involved in this incident where one side of fans were vastly outnumbered did create a much more volatile condition.
In a statement, NEUFC have appealed the Durand Cup organisers and the Bidhan Nagar Police to investigate the matter and bring the offenders to justice.
The incident has also raised questions about the security and seating arrangements for away fans available at the stadium during this competition. While the recently held Kolkata Derby imposed clear divides between the two sets of fans to avoid violent clashes, this match had little separation between the EB and NEUFC fans. At first, tickets were sold online and offline without any designated away fan area. Later, the Durand Cup social media handles posted a notice saying that the NorthEast United fans were to sit in the A2 stand which was designated for away supporters; and asked them to swap any previously purchased tickets.
Predictably, many fans did not know about this going into the game and entered the C block with their previously bought tickets, which put them in the same blcoks as the East Bengal fans. To manage the situation, they were seated in the C2 section which was meant to be kept empty due to security reasons. This led to them being surrounded by sections full of home fans on the left, right as well as above, and ended up face to face with them when exiting the stadium after the match.
The organisers' failure to properly sort home fans and away fans into separate sections while they were purchasing the tickets (or entering the stadium as NEUFC fans could be re-directed to A2 section by ticketing personnel at the gates and the ramps) played a role in creating a confrontation between the two sets of fans, and things devolved from there.
This is not the first incident of racist remarks being hurled at the Salt Lake Stadium. However, there has never been an exemplary punishment given to the offenders by the law enforcement. This incident, if properly investigated by the police, provides an opportunity to create a safer environment for football fans in future matches.
But the match organisers also have a big role to play in taking preventative measures in the future, by clearly marking away fans' sections in every match and publicising it beforehand so there is no confusion among the visiting supporters as to which blocks they should be sitting in.