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Friday, September 25, 2020

When a derby turned deadly in Eden Gardens in 1980

On August 16, 1980, 16 people were killed in a stampede and riot inside Eden Gardens during a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal Calcutta Football League (CFL) match.

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Updated: August 16, 2020 10:01:03 am
On August 16, 1980, 16 people were killed in a stampede and riot inside Eden Gardens (Source: Twitter)

Shyam Thapa, a former India international and the current chairman of All India Football Federation’s technical committee, was a Mohun Bagan player in that game and recalls the horrific incident.

It was a season of upheaval in Calcutta football. In 1980, eight frontline East Bengal players left the club to join Mohammedan Sporting, while after a four-year stint as Mohun Bagan coach, the legendary PK Banerjee had returned to take charge of their arch rivals. Forty years down the line, the word, upheaval, might sound a little exaggerated, but back then Calcutta football revelled in crazy fanaticism and the changes had rocked the maidaan.

A Bagan versus East Bengal game has always been a high-octane affair in the football-crazy city. But the lead-up to the Calcutta League match on August 16, 1980 had made the atmosphere electric.

A weakened East Bengal, following the departure of several frontline players, had brought in Majid Bishkar, the Iranian sorcerer, and his compatriots, Jamshid Nassiri and Mahmood Khabaji. In the previous four years, Bagan had won almost everything Indian football could offer, allowing them to establish a clear dominance over the red-and-gold brigade. Majid’s arrival gave East Bengal fans hope. Before the league, Bagan and East Bengal had met in the Federation Cup and the match ended 1-1.

There was no Salt Lake Stadium then. Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting used their home grounds for other league matches, while Eden Gardens used to be the venue for the derbies. More than 70,000 fans turned up at Eden on August 16 and the Ranji stand, the cheapest segment, looked overcrowded.

Dilip Palit was a tough left-back who had a lot of physicality in his game. Pradip da (PK Banerjee), however, used him as a right-back in that game, maybe to counter the pace of Bidesh Bose, our left-out. Early in the game, Dilip fouled Bidesh. It was a bad challenge but referee Sudhin Chatterjee didn’t book Palit. Then, midway into the second half, Dilip unleashed another rash tackle on Bidesh. It was a bad foul and Bidesh retaliated. There was an on-pitch scuffle between the two, which made things explosive and the reverberations were felt in the crowd. The referee gave marching orders to Bidesh but didn’t punish Dilip initially, as far as I can recollect. Then, almost as an afterthought, he red-carded Dilip.

Suddenly, there was commotion in the Ranji stand. It was very noisy as well. I was substituted before the incident and from the Bagan dugout, I saw young fans jumping off the upper tier, hurting themselves badly in the process. From one part of the stadium, the riot spread to the entire stadium, although during the match I didn’t have any idea about the seriousness of the whole incident.

Earlier also, some fans clashed during Bagan-East Bengal matches. People threw stones even, but police controlled that. What happened on August 16, 1980 was a disaster. Only in the evening, when we got the news on radio and TV, did the gravity of the situation dawn on us. Sixteen lives had been lost.

There was no segregation between the two sets of fans in that game. No separate enclosures for Bagan and East Bengal supporters, and they sat cheek by jowl in the Ranji stand. The authorities realised afterwards that segregation was necessary, but the damage was already done. Fans rushed towards the exit gates to save their lives and 16 of them were killed in a stampede.

People still ask me if the referee made a mistake by not calling off the game. See, to start with, nobody on the pitch had any idea that the incident was turning out to be that serious. Both teams wanted to continue. Also, as per rules, the referee had to continue.

After we came to know about the tragedy, every player was extremely sad. It shouldn’t have happened. Maybe, the players should have behaved more responsibly, the organisers should have been more professional with regards to seating arrangements, and the authorities should have been more proactive. Hindsight made everybody wiser, but it was a black day for Calcutta football. Even after 40 years, we still grieve over those young lives lost. They had come to watch a game of football.

(As told to Shamik Chakrabarty)

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