For close to a century, Kolkata's passionate millions have often gone to a 'war' with each other - a battle of words, numbers, titles, goals, legends. Football may have failed to inspire India to look beyond the contours of cricket, but the most popular sport in the world, has always found pride of place in the City of Joy. Generations of fans for close to a century have lived and breathed football. They have fiercely argued with their own. For over a century now, football has split Kolkata into three. (Tournament preview)
Post-independence, the traditional dwellers identified themselves with rise and fall of Mohun Bagan, while the 16 lakh refugees, driven out of their homes and land in the eastern region of Bengal (now Bangladesh) invested their hopes, joy and aspiration in the meteoric rise of East Bengal.
The East Bengal-Mohun Bagan rivalry remains the most passionate in the city to this day, more than 60 years after a radio commentator built up the hype on air. With passage of time and political history, emerged a third powerhouse -- Mohammedan Sporting Club. The club had suffered major loss of talent after partition when most of their supporters migrated to Pakistan. But smart policy changes (including the recruitment of non-Muslim players) helped the team rise from the doldrums, much to the pride of its Muslim fans.
The intensity in competition between these teams has become the talk of a nation still struggling to find its feet in the international football map. Fans line up at the sprawling Salt Lake Stadium sending security forces into shivers. Football often brings out the worst in disgruntled supporters and nothing is ever left to chance when passions runs so high.
All this however, could change with the advent of the Indian Super League, a product of New India, a brainchild of the affluent and not always so straight and honest. Suave industrialists, rich cricketers and movie stars have come together in a bid to add glamour and money to a sport that has died a slow death for decades after early promise.
And from the new league has emerged Atletico de Kolkata, a team co-owned by Sourav Ganguly, Bengal's greatest ever sportsman, one of India's most successful cricketers. A smile, a wave from 'Dada', nearly six years after he retired, still sends Kolkata to a tizzy. And if it is his team, Kolkata have reason to stand up as one and applaud its players. (Also read: Ganguly not sure about profits at Atletico de Kolkata)
The ISL has raised plenty of questions and promises but this tournament will mark a historic shift in the city's footballing landscape. The Kolkata aristocrat, the 'refugee' and the Muslim will join hands to welcome their own team, for the first time since independence 67 years ago. This will be a momentous occasion.
Visiting cricket teams have often felt the heat at the Eden Gardens and now footballers, some of whom have played for World Cup winning teams, will get to experience the electrifying presence of 1.5 lakh home supporters.
Kolkata has always lived as one, with the exception of football and politics. Even World Cup rivalries, built up in the distant lands of
Argentina and Brazil, have managed to evoke emotions and despair in the Bengali fan.
Ganguly's Atlelito promises to bind them altogether.