Should the Kolkata Derby commence every Indian football season?
The match will be played at a jampacked Salt Lake Stadium after two years and seven months.
The Indian football season formally kicks off in August with the start of the Durand Cup. It will be the 131st edition of India’s oldest and longest-running football competition. This time, the competition will be held in blockbuster fashion, involving some of the country's biggest names. All 11 Indian Super League (ISL) teams will be participating in it, along with five I-League teams. Four teams from the Indian Armed Forces will also participate, per tradition. The Durand Cup will commence with the biggest game in Indian football – the Kolkata Derby.
The first game of the season i.e. the Kolkata derby, is set to be played on August 16, Football Lovers' Day in India. Football Lovers' Day is observed in the memory of 16 football fans who lost their lives on 16th August, 1980 during a stampede inside the Eden Gardens. A Kolkata Derby was played on that day. The Durand Cup will also be the first domestic competition to bring back fans to the stadium once again in full capacity post COVID.
ATK Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will face off in the inaugural game at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. It’ll be the first Kolkata Derby to host fans since January 2020. The Salt Lake Stadium should be packed to the rafters, with fans eager to watch the ‘Boro Match’ after a long absence. But will starting the Indian football calendar with such a major game be a good move? Let’s delve into that.
Let’s get one major fact off the way here. The Kolkata derby is considered as the biggest game in Indian football by majority of the fans. If the Durand Cup wants to start with a bang, why not start with the game that is guaranteed to get the most viewership?
Apart from the thousands in the stadium, millions will be watching the game on their screens. An exciting match is guaranteed to raise the interest levels of football fans across the nation. A Kolkata derby is rarely a timid affair. It’s guaranteed to be dramatic, exciting and unpredictable – everything fans want from the beautiful game.
Moreover, the game taking place in Kolkata itself further raises its importance. The City of Joy is the footballing hub of India and fans here, love watching the game. Having the major Durand Cup games here makes sense as it will attract major crowds and raise the tournament’s prestige.
Last year, even with Covid-19 restrictions in place, the Durand Cup final saw a decent turnout in Kolkata. Indeed, a capacity crowd of over 40,000 watched FC Goa defeat Mohammedan Sporting in the final. This time, the number will only increase, also helping Durand Cup’s reputation.
There is also a community connection that makes the Kolkata derby very special. One set of fans will be ready to celebrate victory with Ilish (Hilsa). While the other is ready to throng on Chingri (Prawn) upon success. For that one day, Kolkata divides into two parts - East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan.
That unique aspect can’t be related to any other fixture in the Indian football calendar. Another unique part is the sheer popularity of the game here, which is arguably unmatched across the country. A capacity crowd of over 65,000 is expected for the game as long as no restrictions are put into place.
No other stadium apart from the Salt Lake can guarantee that in India. There is just no other venue as iconic as this one to host such a gigantic game. The sheer reputation of the Kolkata derby and its charm is the reason why it will be an ideal curtain raiser.
While fans will be waiting eagerly for the first Kolkata Derby at the Salt Lake Stadium in years, the players might not be fully ready for it. Also, the Durand Cup, despite its prestige, will be regarded as a pre-season competition for many teams.
That might include East Bengal and ATK Mohun Bagan. The Red & Gold Brigade are yet to even fully compile a team for this season because of uncertainty around their investors. Their will be mostly new faces in the squad along with a new head coach - Stephen Constantine. The players who the club have claimed to sign pre-contracts, are yet to start training together and are unlikely to be fully ready to play such a massive game at short notice.
Even the Mariners would have preferred this game to be held at a latter stage. Their players also need time to adjust to the new season after returning from a holiday. Safe to say, the game would have probably been a more thrilling one had it taken place when both teams were in better shape, physically and mentally. Form, too, is a major factor.
East Bengal might not even have their full contingent available because of their uncertain situation. Moreover, both teams will head into the game with little match fitness or match practice. As a result, not all major first-team players will be ready to start from the word go.
If the clubs field weaker teams, the fans could be frustrated. That is because doing so will lower the importance and glamour of the Kolkata Derby. But that is a very plausible reality since the game will mark the commencement of the season.
Moreover, fans of the losing team can get demoralized at the beginning of the season. A lot of Mariners are already disinterested because of the ATK-link and East Bengal fans are growing weary of the stuck investor issue. A loss can be the final nail, making some supporters lose interest altogether in the Durand Cup.
The Durand Cup 2022 edition should be an exciting one because of the quality of teams involved. Starting it with a prestigious game like the Kolkata derby should set a nice tone to it.
However, with the competition being considered as pre-season by many, the game might lack the spark and energy it usually has. Irrespective, it should be a thrilling encounter, being the first such game to take place in Kolkata in over two years and kickstart the competition nicely.
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