From Kolkata to Colorado, India's oldest derby remains 'boro' in size and soul

East Bengal fan Joy Nandi, who is also an avid runner, stays in Colorado, and plans to watch the Kolkata derby for the first time in roughly two decades. Joy Nandi

Forty-nine year old Joy Nandi migrated from Kolkata to Arizona in the late 90s to pursue a Masters' degree in computer science. After college, jobs took Nandi all over the world before he decided to settle down in the western state of Colorado. 'Soccer' has since supplanted 'football' in his vocabulary and Iranian imports Jamshed Nassiri and Majid Beshkar are among the last generation of players at his favourite club, East Bengal he remembers by name.

Nandi hasn't watched a boro (big) match - as a Mohun Bagan v East Bengal Kolkata derby is fittingly referred to - from start to finish in roughly two decades now. East Bengal, the club Nandi vows allegiance to, was officially inducted into the ISL in September, making it the 11th team in the tournament this season, while ATK and Mohun Bagan have entered into a merger.

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This Friday though Nandi plans to scramble out of bed at 7am, an hour earlier than usual, to reignite a forgotten love buried in time.

"Growing up in Kolkata, football was our world around which everything else turned," says the software developer at an auto insurance company, "It was the Big Three - EB, Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, who ruled the Indian football scene then. When we were not watching Calcutta Football League or Federation Cup on TV, we had our radios pressed against our ears listening to Ajoy Bose's commentary of matches or gathering up para (neighbourhood) boys for a game ourselves. Since I moved out of India, that connect has grown cold. Streaming services showing Indian football are few and expensive here. Also, the time difference doesn't make it easy. This time, I heard it's streaming on ESPN+ so I thought to myself why not give it a shot."

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For Nandi, the fullest extent of East Bengal's presence in his expat life comprise mentions that crop up during conversations with old Kolkata friends, occasional snippets of match highlights and the sports pages of Indian newspapers he skims through online. "The football landscape back in the country has changed quite a bit since I left. The names I knew from back then... Surajit Sengupta, Bhasker Banerjee...sorry, Ganguly ...are slowly fading too. This is perhaps a good time for me to rediscover my club, my roots. It could be a starting point to finding my way back. Before the derby on Friday morning of course I need to do some serious Googling and acquaint myself with the ISL, its teams, players, coaches and past season results."

Fellow Colorado inhabitant and Bagan fan, Bodhayan Chakraborty, 39, in contrast, has been following the league somewhat regularly. What he misses is the smell-the-blood proximity of a Kolkata derby.

Pre-derby hours during his years in college at the industrial port town of Haldia, West Bengal, followed the routine of crashing at a friend's place, dissecting match-ups, tactics and formations for endless hours and finding a good spot in front of the TV. "I managed to watch some ISL highlights. In the opener (against Kerala Blasters), Roy Krishna missed two chances in the first half. I'm hoping it won't happen in the derby. Of course it's not easy for players to come straight out of quarantine and score goals," says Chakraborty, "I'm not sure what the East Bengal team looks like this season. If I was back in India now, together with friends, we'd already have had several rounds of heated debates on how each of their players could be foiled."

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The nature of rivalry between the Kolkata clubs - built on a sharp cultural divide pitting immigrant aspirations against the ascendency of natives - necessitates one needing the other's presence to struggle, win, survive and stay relevant. In both teams finding a place in the country's biggest, most-moneyed league in the sport, Indian football has met its fantasy. They will be playing before an empty Tilak Maidan in Vasco, Goa as opposed to being spoilt by enormous crowds letting off bangers in ear-splitting decibels. It's a tough new normal for the new entrants.

A Manchester United loyal, Nandi has found greater affinity in English and European football clubs in his years away from India. He frees up weekends to man the midfield playing alongside predominantly Mexican and a smattering of Indian colleagues. "After Covid broke, we stopped playing. Only recently, we started getting back on the field again," he says. "I also started following the NFL a few years ago. The rules are a bit overly complicated and it took me some time to get a hang of what was happening." An avid runner, who's competed in a bunch of races, Nandi has a full-marathon at the top of his to-do list. Before that, though he wishes to compete once at the annual half marathon hosted by his hometown, Kolkata.

Much like Nandi, Chakraborty too followed a religious weekly schedule of playing football in Colorado before an ACL surgery had him switch to cricket. He confesses to never being the kind of Bengali football fan who'd give a limb to be at the crammed, deafening Salt Lake stadium in Kolkata for a derby along with one lakh spectators. "Somehow," he says, "I found the stadium culture during derbies to be more about abusive, boisterous behaviour than enjoying the game. I usually watched most matches with friends at their place or at home with my father. I've only been a few times to the stadium, the last time probably was in 2008, when Bayern Munich played Mohun Bagan for Oliver Kahn's farewell game."

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He'd also been juggling his love for English clubs all the while. "In the 90s all we got to see of international football in India were World Cups," says Chakraborty. "The initiation into club football for us was slow and it happened through the players we saw once in four years and tracking where they played for outside their national sides. Now, I'm a totally Barcelona guy because of Messi."

Despite the years away from thick of action, the scant viewing of Mohun Bagan matches he manages for himself and the 13,000-km distance separating him from the team's emotional heartland, Chakraborty is sold on the pre-derby anxiety. Whether it's phone calls with his father back in Kolkata, eventually meandering to Indian football or his buzzing college WhatsApp groups turning into derby war zones, each has played an active part in keeping him invested in the city's and now ISL's biggest battle.

Closer home in Colarado, Chakraborty found a new team to pin hopes on four years ago - NFL side Denver Broncos, fresh off their Super Bowl 50 win against Carolina Panthers. "NFL is there wherever you go. It's playing on local channels, in pubs, on our office TV screens, colleagues talk about it all the time and you want to know what it's all about. You also don't want to feel left out. I've been following the Broncos' matches, and have grown to like them."

But his love for Mohun Bagan and the Broncos is vastly disparate.

Or as he puts it: "One feeds my curiosity, the other, my soul."