Friends Arijita Bhattacharya and Subhendu Chatterjee show where their loyalty lies against the backdrop of a near-empty stand at the Salt Lake stadium on Saturday. (Rith Basu)
The Mohun Bagan-East Bengal derby at the Salt Lake stadium last Saturday missed a passionate, houseful audience more than the goal that neither of the two sides could score.
In raising ticket prices and turning the stadium into a fortress, the authorities ensured the match didn’t lapse into the rowdiness and mismanagement of the December 9 derby that had left Bagan midfielder Syed Rahim Nabi with a fractured cheekbone and the police with a bruised reputation.
The price to pay for sanitising Maidan football was the fandom. The turnout of barely 30,000 in a stadium that can hold a lakh was the lowest in memory for a match starring the traditional rivals. “I watched the match on TV. Sitting in the living room, I could make out that the boro khela (big-match) feel was gone,” said a regular who didn’t go because he didn’t want to pay Rs 200 for a ticket.
Metro was there to find out what had changed between December 9 and February 9.
The base price of a ticket being raised almost three-fold from Rs 70 to Rs 200 meant the match would lose a section of fans almost immediately. But nobody expected the Tata 407s and 410s loaded with noisy fans in Bagan or East Bengal colours to stay away.
“So many empty spaces in the stands on such a day is a huge disappointment. I have not seen or experienced anything like this before,” said Ranjan Chowdhury, 54, from Belgachhia, wearing a red-and-gold jersey.
There was hardly a collective sigh when an Odafe Okolie free-kick hit the far post or a roar of approval when Mehtab Hossain made the perfect centre.
|Cops patrol a sparsely populated Salt Lake stadium before kick-off on Saturday. Picture by Rith Basu
Ashok Kumar Chowdhury from Garfa, who has been a regular at Bagan matches “from the time of Chuni Goswami”, thought a low turnout was better than what had happened the previous time the two teams met. “Must admit what happened last time (on December 9) was very embarrassing. Something drastic (the security scale-up and the increase in ticket prices) was sure to happen,” the 65-year-old fan said.
Arijita Bhattacharya, a 25-year-old IT employee who is also a derby regular, said she was all for extra security but pricing tickets three times higher was unfair. “I have seen elderly people count small change to see if they can afford a ticket. The police should tighten security but hiking ticket prices is robbing the fan of an opportunity to come to the ground.”
The one bright side was the absence of the usual match-afternoon traffic chaos on the Bypass and the nearby Salt Lake roads.
The police deployment was up from 800 for the previous match to 2,000, around 400 of them on patrol outside. A 100-strong RAF contingent was also at hand.
Frisking was strict and any possible tool of disruption was seized, though a few did manage to smuggle in matchboxes or lighters to smoke in the stands. A few firecrackers too found their way into the stadium but weren’t used until after the final whistle.
Sip and bite
Bottles — even plastic ones with caps — were banned inside the stadium for the first time. Thirsty fans needed to buy water pouches for Rs 3 each and those who wanted something to eat had reasonably priced biriyani, noodles, pakora and beverages to choose from. Many said the quality of food provided by Sundaram Catering was better than the Eden Gardens fare.