Shyam Thapa’s Bicycle Kick and Other Kolkata Derby Days

East Bengal and Mohun Bagan
East Bengal and Mohun Bagan (Source: EBFC and MBSG/X)

Shabbir Ali kathberali/Ulga bajay dhol/Aay re bangal dekhe ja Shyam Thapar goal.” It’s difficult to capture the nuances of Bengali in the English language, but let us give it a try. “Shabbir Ali is a squirrel/Ulaganathan is playing drums/Oh, the folks from East Bengal, come and see Shyam Thapa’s goal-scoring charm.” That was this hack’s first memory of a Kolkata derby, as a four-year-old boy.

Some memories never fade and Thapa’s bicycle kick that gave Mohun Bagan a 1-0 win over their arch-rivals East Bengal is one. You don’t understand football as a four-year-old, but when the entire household celebrated and fish fries were ordered from a nearby restaurant, you knew something great must have happened. Even without realising it, you became a Bagan fan, for you had no other choice. And yes, even to a little boy, the doggerel was wonderfully attractive, which eventually became timeless.

Cut to 1997. The little boy is now a cub reporter, doing local sports beats and collecting quotes from the Bagan and East Bengal camps ahead of a Federation Cup semi-final. Those who followed Kolkata football in its halcyon days knew the craze about the derby. They also knew about the rivalry between Amal Dutta and PK Banerjee, the two top coaches in Indian football.

Dutta was a master of rebranding. Vaclav Jezek, a Czech football manager, was probably the first to use a midfield diamond, at Sparta Prague in the mid and late 1960s. Dutta, then Bagan coach, rebranded it and told the media that he would decimate East Bengal with his ‘diamond system’. Bagan fans fell for it. Seemingly bereft of something that was tactically catchier, PK, then East Bengal coach, stuck to his ‘vocal tonic’, powerful enough to motivate a certain Bhaichung Bhutia. East Bengal won the game 4-1 in front of 131,000 fans at the Salt Lake Stadium. Bhutia netted a hat-trick and darkness descended on the Bagan fans, including this correspondent (to heck with the reporter’s neutrality in this game).

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Since the turn of the century, Kolkata football has witnessed a rapid decline. Third-rate foreigners – a massive letdown for someone who has seen Majid Bishkar – infested the two big clubs, at the expense of local players. The derby gradually started to lose its charm. Then a time came, when both Bagan and East Bengal were struggling at the national level. Joining the Indian Super League became their only option and it meant embracing a corporate culture where old-school emotions barely had any place.

Bagan made a bright start to their ISL journey, while East Bengal struggled. The green-and-maroons started to beat the red-and-golds for fun; a trend that was reversed at the Durand Cup earlier this season and then, at the recently concluded Super Cup. For the first time in many years, East Bengal are going into an ISL derby as favourites. They have an excellent coach in Carles Cuadrat, who is making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Bagan, on the other hand, have a new coach in Antonio Habas and his unit looks unsettled. The team is also suffering from poor transfer business during the close season – offloading certain players and bringing in replacements who aren’t up to the mark. No wonder then, that East Bengal fans hold the bragging rights on their Bagan counterparts, at least until the game is played.

Never mind Bagan fans, current results are transient. You have something ever-lasting to be proud of, an achievement that no Indian club can ever match. Like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, who always had Paris, this club will always have 1911.  

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