Football's drive to push back the boundaries...

In the shadow of Eden Gardens, unlikely rivals are determined to end cricket's dominance
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Frankly, it came as a shock. The distinguished gentleman, beautifully groomed greying hair, kempt moustache, crisp white shirt, well-cut suit, leant across the desk with a twinkle in his venerable eye.

"Cricket," he said, "has to die." He leant back again in the chair, paused for a moment and glanced at his fingernails, as if pondering whether it should be shot there and then without trial. It was within his sights, too, since Eden Gardens, the cathedral of Indian cricket, was about 100 yards across the road from where Anjan Mitra spoke.

Mitra is the long-serving honorary and honourable secretary of Mohun Bagan AC, which is as distinguished and venerable as he is. Mohun Bagan was formed in 1889 as a multi-sports club, which it remains. But its driving force, almost its raison d'être, is football.

Like many, probably most, Indians who are passionate about football, Mitra is distinctly miffed about cricket's elevated status in society. "Cricket is like cinema, it is a pastime. It isn't a physical contact game like football, it's easy to play and football hasn't been lucky enough to have the royal patronage."

Football people in Kolkata feel extremely hard done by. Although it is seemingly kept a secret from the outside world, the game is big potatoes in this city. When Mohun Bagan play their local rivals, East Bengal, in an I League match on 20 November, they will be watched by 120,000 spectators in the Salt Lake Stadium. They always are whenever they meet.

The clubs share this concrete monstrosity, which was built on the outskirts of the city centre, miles away from their traditional homes, 27 years ago. Other matches do not attract such crowds but both are playing there this weekend – Mohun Bagan today, East Bengal tomorrow – and can expect to be watched by between 30,000 and 40,000.

It is as deep-seated a rivalry, as acrimonious a derby match, no matter how many times it is played, as any that exists. Matches are marked by fighting and perpetual flares and while there are few seats at Salt Lake there are always fewer after MB and EB have played because fans hurl them at each other.

The clubs can barely agree on anything, except the suspicion that their sport is given unfair treatment by some clandestine, unknowable dealings among the elite. Swapun Ball is the general manager of East Bengal, the club being in his soul as deeply as Mohun Bagan is in Anjan Mitra's.

"Cricket can't beat football, it will never beat football," said Swapun. "We're crazy about football. The media plays a big part and the government isn't taking any initiative with regard to football, but I can tell you East Bengal isn't our club, it is our emotion. Football isn't getting bigger than cricket in India, it is bigger."

This argument would be difficult to sustain in any objective forum but it reflects both a genuine passion and undoubted animosity. Football is certainly beginning to assert itself. The Premier League has spread here, as have La Liga and Serie A. In the I League players are earning an average of around 40 lakh rupees a year (£50,000), but spectators pay barely 100 rupees (£1.25) for entry. The standard, it has to be said, is not high and an East Bengal training session yesterday revealed a low level of technical competence.

Not that this disturbed Trevor Morgan, the club's affable English coach. Morgan was hired last year. He was a journeyman footballer in the widest and nicest possible sense, who played more than 450 matches in the lower echelons of the Football League.

He started his career late, having been spotted playing for Leytonstone at the age of 24, and was signed by Bournemouth. Harry Redknapp started his managerial career at the club when Morgan was still there. "I heard him say the other day he was celebrating his 28th anniversary in football," recalled Morgan. "In his first game for Bournemouth we got beaten 9-0 at Lincoln. I got man of the match, I kicked off nine times and never gave it away once. Harry will never forget and I don't think we will."

Morgan, who was reserve team coach at Hull in 2008 but has had his permanent home in Australia since 1994, never supposed for a second back then that he would end up coaching in India. But he is clearly relaxed and happy about it, not least because in his five matches so far against the arch-rivals, Mahun Bagan, he has yet to be defeated. "To the supporters I think sometimes that where you finish in the league is irrelevant compared to beating them three times in a season," he said.

In one respect, however, East Bengal can never match Mahun Bagan. This year is the centenary of Mohun Bagan's epic defeat of the East Yorkshire regiment in the IFA Shield Final. It was the first time that an Indian team had beaten English opposition, not bad considering that 10 of the locals were playing in bare feet. More than 100,000 people watched the match as the great maestro and captain, Shibdas Bhaduri, jinked his way through the Yorkshiremen's clogging defence.

Aware that proficiency is not perhaps as high at present as in Shabdas's day, Morgan sees hope for the future. He has recruited Alan Gow, late of Notts County and several other Scottish and English League clubs and he is clearly the side's outstanding player.

"It will only improve with sponsorship and infrastructure," Morgan said. "There are good players here but if you ask any coach they'll say there's not the system where kids of 13, 14 are picked up and coached the right way. We're doing things with the lads now that should have been done 10 years ago.

"I don't think it's because of the cricket, it's that nothing is available to them at that young age that there is in England. They can get it right but it's going to take investment and I think it's the working-class game as it is in so many places. Look at this stadium, 120,000 and there is nothing here for a sponsor." He was looking out on tiers and tiers of concrete stands as he spoke, without an executive box in sight.

According to Anjan Mitra, Salt Lake should have been built as a new cricket stadium. Eden Gardens, which is close to the traditional homes of his club and East Bengal should, in his opinion, have been converted for football. "It was a huge blunder. Our fans still come, but what a journey they have to undertake across the city."

But television has given the I League a huge boost both in funds and confidence. Each game in the 14-team league is now televised on Ten Sport. Crowds are growing – more locked out than can get in many places, Mitra reckoned – and in Goa, down south, where there is a healthy number of European settlers, it is also prospering.

Cricket has to watch out, but by any strictly unemotional view it remains superior in Indian eyes. "At least 60-40," said Aftab, a taxi driver. On the way into Mahun Bagan's cosy, traditional home, as charmingly ramshackle as small league grounds everywhere and which they have kept as offices and for Calcutta League games, there is a huge photograph of their triumphant 1911 side. Emblazoned above it are the words: "Immortal XI of 1911. India's first fight for independence on the sports field." Anjam and Swapun might just agree that came before cricket as well.