Bengaluru FC vs Mohun Bagan, when the stands fanned the flames

A simple internet search for "the finger" calls it an "obscene hand gesture" intended as insult and belittlement. Just after half-time in Saturday's match between Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan, with the score goalless and the mood still nervy, 'Eddie', the mascot of the home team turned to the Bagan supporters and showed them 'the finger'. The Bagan fans were, as expected, angered and some choice words were hurled at the eagle-shaped mascot. A few even informed security about the incident, following which Eddie, wings clipped, was kept away from that section.

The mood, fair to say, was competitive.

The I-League has a rich history, but the key foundation of a good league is vocal, passionate fan support creating rivalries - something that has been almost missing until BFC came up as the new kids in town. Since their debut less than four years ago they have swiftly and emphatically emerged as the country's top football club, and with a strong fan base to boot.

Their closest challengers have been Mohun Bagan, with whom they have swapped the last three league titles. And now, it seems, that on-field rivalry has spread to the fans. As one Bagan fan said, when asked what was the one thing he doesn't like about Bengaluru FC: "After a long time we have one team that gives us a fight."

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Sitting on opposite stands of the Kanteerava Stadium, the blue banners of the reigning champions were facing a sea of maroon and green - shirts, banners, scarves and other items of clothing. They were looking into each other like two heavyweight boxers in a ring. One wanted to take the other down.

There was plenty of context to the contest; apart from those three title races, the more immediate significance was Mohun Bagan fighting to stay in contention this season, and Bengaluru, lying fifth in the table and seemingly out of it, struggling to hand over their crown with dignity intact.

The Bengaluru faithful, as expected, started the party two hours before kick-off. Shouts of "Ganapati Bappa Moriya, Bagan just can't sing ya" were hurled right in front a handful of quiet Bagan fans.

"Why aren't you guys singing?" this reporter asked the away fans.
"We will sing in the stadium, not here," came the reply.

There was a sense of antagonism in the air.

The architecture of the Kanteerava doesn't do justice to the noise its fans have been known to produce; the acoustics are wrong, allowing the sound to escape. Yet this contest tried to defy that logic. The average football on the pitch didn't help, but the stadium was buzzing.

Just like the goalless scoreline the two sets of supporters cancelled each other out. If bragging rights, not for winning the game but for being the loudest, were on offer, this was a pretty fiery contest.

One thing was established in Bengaluru - the blue and maroon don't mix easily. 'The finger' was shown, and whether a mascot showing it was fair play is a different debate.

Indian football hasn't seen too many rivalries among clubs other than the Kolkata giants. Bengaluru against Mohun Bagan, though, has the potential to become one of the classics. Especially if the fans have their way.