The Kolkata Derby is back and it brings its festive fervour along with it. Emotions are running high once again as intense pressure builds around the players because no one wants to lose the ‘boro match‘ (big match). But there is something missing in the air — that one thing that adds a spark to the entire event, that binds warring factions of the two clubs — you guessed it right — the fans.

Supporters of both the clubs in a packed Salt Lake stadium, weaving a sea of red-and-yellow and green-and-maroon, on the backdrop of the age-old Bangal-Ghoti (East and West Bengal) rivalry, is a sight to behold. But all of it is missing this time and divided they may be in their support but together, fans of both the clubs are distraught that they will have to sit in front of television screens and watch the contest. With the COVID-19 pandemic raging last year, it was the first derby in the history of Indian football, where the two teams faced each other without the crowd. Hence, this time, hopes were really high that they will be allowed in the stadiums to watch live-action. Especially after fans were allowed to return to Eden Gardens for the recent T20I encounter between India and New Zealand. However, the match will be held behind closed doors in Vasco, Goa on Saturday.

“The Kolkata Derby is not the same sans the fans. What I cannot understand is why allow spectators to enter stadium to watch one sport and not the other. Does COVID-19 differentiate between cricket and football? We are not trying to make this cricket versus football but we would love to know if anyone can provide a rational experience,” said Shreya Bannerjee, an avid supporter of East Bengal.

Hrisav Bhowmick, member of East Bengal Ultras (an East Bengal club fan group) said that this move reeks of step-brotherly treatment. “We feel that cricket gets a preferential treatment compared to Indian football. Durand Cup and CFL matches were held with fans and then Durga Pujo happened in the city but when it comes to football there is this differential treatment. All-India Football Federation (AIFF) and ISL also seem least interested,” he said.

“The feeling of watching the game inside the stadium is never the same as compared to sitting in front of a screen,” he added.

“The league should at least allow 50 percent attendance of fans vaccinated with one or two doses,” voiced Siddharth Bhunia, a supporter of Mohun Bagan.

“Indian football has now been reduced to that poor cousin of Indian cricket,” rued Goutam Ghose a die-hard football fan.

Parth Jindal, owner Bengaluru FC, had spoken his mind and tweeted: “Is there a reason why in the same country cricket can be played in front of packed crowds and football is being played in front of empty stands? How is Indian football going to grow? Home and away needs to be brought back as that’s the football way.”

It is worth noting that during the India-New Zealand T20Is, the crowd capacity was around 50,000. The Durand Cup held in Sep-Oct had witnessed a crowd of more than 30,000 (knockouts) and CFL final (held in Kolkata) saw a crowd of more than 40,000.

However, when it comes to decision-making, it does seem like in the same country, there are two different boards with two different mindsets, with two different approaches to the game. While the AIFF feels it is still unsafe to allow spectators to return to the stadia, the BCCI thinks it is okay.

With fans unable to be present at the stadium, many of them have taken it upon themselves to bring back the festive spirit and will watch the derby along with fellow supporters. Various screenings have been organised across the city and other parts of West Bengal.

East Bengal Club has also organised an event ‘coffee with football’ where East Bengal supporters will cheer for their favorite team in their very own club’s cafeteria.

The first official Kolkata Derby was played on the May 28, 1925 at the Calcutta Ground (now known as Mohun Bagan ground) in the Calcutta Football League.

Since the first Kolkata Derby in 1925, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have faced each other 370 times. East Bengal have a slight upper hand with 129 victories while Mohun Bagan have 121 wins to their name.

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