The most storied football contest in India will see a first here on Sunday when Haitian frenemies Sony Norde and Wedson Anselme square off as East Bengal host Mohun Bagan in the I-League derby here on Sunday.
From being an all-Indian affair to the arrival of Anglo-Burmese forward Fred Puglsey in the 1940s, the derby, now in its 91st year, had imported players mainly from the sub-continent till Nigerian David Williams fetched up at East Bengal in the 1970s. From the trend of foreign students transforming into household names, the sport has evolved to attract professional talent from countries as varied as Costa Rica and Scotland.
On Sunday, a Ugandan, a Haitian and a Trinidad and Tobago international would be under an English-Australian coach at East Bengal. Mohun Bagan will be a united nations where Brazilian, Scottish, Haitian and Japanese seamlessly mix.
But never before have two Haitians been on opposite sides. At 27, Sony Norde is in his third season with Mohun Bagan and with a following that would envy Wyclef Jean, his compatriot and rapper. Having joined East Bengal this term, Norde’s friend and former teammate in Bangladesh, Wedson Anselme, 30, doesn’t yet know what playing a East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan match means.
“Over time, foreign coaches and players have come and understood the flavour of this derby. It is very important for football in India that this (teams becoming an assimilation of cultures) is happening,” said Sanjoy Sen, the Mohun Bagan coach here on Saturday.
That isn’t the only talking point. There is East Bengal’s Mehtab Hossain who would be playing his 54th derby. When he first played one, Hossain, 31, said he spent a sleepless night “thinking about playing against Bhaichung (Bhutia) bhai and with (Jose) Barreto.”
That was in 2003 when Hossain wore a Mohun Bagan shirt. Nearly 17 years later and despite international appearances being few and far between till 2015 when he quit the national team, Hossain has kept India regular Rowlin Borges on the bench at East Bengal this season.
“I am enjoying my football now and want to go for a few more years unless I become am a victim of club politics,” said the defensive medio who said at this season’s launch that he would quit should East Bengal not win their maiden I-League.
Catching Constantine’s eye
With India coach Stephen Constantine due to be present, this tie would also be a platform for Mohun Bagan central defender Anas Edathodika and East Bengal medio Lalrindika Ralte, among others, to get noticed ahead of the 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers. Just as it would be for Robin Singh to show Constantine that he is ready for the India shirt again.