Cover Story | Football

Bend it like Bengal: Every four years, the cup comes home

The red-light area of Sonagachi is in Brazil colours this season.   | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

“G. Jesus? Like Jesus Christ? Maybe if we all call out his name, Brazil will finally score,” groans Tonoy Dutta as he scans the TV screen where a group stage match between Brazil and Costa Rica is on. Dutta, a Class XII student, is a member of Bandhu Bandhab Club in Kolkata’s Dum Dum area. Brazilian flags swathe the club room, while the odd Argentinian flag peeks out from a corner. Soon, the concrete arena is packed with more of Dutta’s friends, all fans of Brazil. Their faces bathed in the glow of the TV screen, where their yellow and green-flecked gods dance, the fans sway in devout silence, paying homage to their religion, football.

Club regular Rajat Basak observes the band of boys and the old men — many of the former have skipped school for the World Cup — and laughs: “Even those who don’t know the ‘phaw’ of ‘football’ (‘phaw’ denoting the phonetic ‘F’ in the Bengali script) can’t resist the charm of the World Cup.”

Everyone knows of Kolkata’s everyday obsession with football, but every four years, the World Cup envelops the city with a buzz that is almost impossible to contain. The city’s mania for the World Cup ostensibly began with the ‘magic of Pele’. In 1977, a 20,000-strong crowd landed up at Kolkata airport to welcome the Brazilian football legend in a mesmerising testimony to the Calcuttan’s love for the game.

By 2017, Kolkata had played host to two more legends, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. When Messi visited, 75,000 Calcuttans packed into Salt Lake Stadium, one of the world’s largest football stadiums, to watch the man kick a ball.

It begins with the run-up to the World Cup — which takes on ritualistic proportions. And the altar where this warm-up is performed is the popular Maidan Market, where a series of pavement stalls are stacked high with knock-off jerseys and flags in all the team colours. T-shirts with Messi or Ronaldo’s face emblazoned on them are stacked high, and flags flutter in the breeze. The shops are crowded every day, but in the lead-up to some of the more popular matches (which in Kolkata are mostly the ones featuring Brazil or Argentina), you will find parents marching children purposefully down the pavements to inspect jerseys, and students haggling over flags with extra animation.

World Cup-inspired street art in Patuli.

World Cup-inspired street art in Patuli.   | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Argentina and Brazil jerseys are priced the highest, at about ₹450 or ₹500 a pop. For Aziz, a salesman, a constant worry every season is the bunch of unsold jerseys of the less popular teams like England or Portugal. “The public always keeps an eye out online for new original jersey designs. It is only later that they come to us. I am an Argentina fan myself,” he laughs, then adds sheepishly, “After all, their jerseys sell the most.”

Walking deep in the market, I find stall upon stall given over to the paraphernalia of football worship. Subhroneel Bose weaves his way expertly through the maze of merchandise and wheedling shop-owners. He has been a regular here since the 2002 World Cup and is quite the experienced bargainer. Bose, fresh out of college, expertly studies a stack of Argentina jerseys, all bearing the legendary number 10. He comes away grinning with one he has got for a steal at just ₹180. “This is for my football trainer; he loves Messi,” says Bose. “I’m a die-hard Brazil fan myself. It causes frequent clashes at home because my father is an Argentina fan.”

 

Heated rivalries

Not for nothing did it take a Bengali to write The Argumentative Indian, because arguments are the life-blood of the Calcuttan. And they increase in volume and intensity as World Cup season rolls in. Families feud at the dining table, brothers stop talking and lifelong friendships might be soured by the high passions the game raises. Tushita Basu began falling in love with football during the matches she watched with her father. Father and daughter started out supporting different teams, Brazil and Spain, respectively, and bickering bitterly; but now “with age, I’m becoming more like my dad; I want Brazil to win this year,” says Basu.

As much as the fabled East Bengal-Mohun Bagan divide, the Brazil-Argentina rivalry splits the city into two distinct camps. It is a generational one, marked by the rise of technology as well. Pele once reigned supreme in the city, but that was pre-television, his face seen only on grainy newsprint. By the 70s, entire neighbourhoods were huddled around a single television set in a neighbourhood home or clubhouse, worshippers much more intimate with their gods. And when the 1986 World Cup came by, a new generation was watching Maradona in all his ‘Hand of God’ glory. By the time his protégé Messi entered the scene, the Calcuttan’s love affair with Argentina was set in stone.

Interestingly, like their counterparts in Kerala with whom they share an overpowering love for fish, Bengali football fans too devote their love almost exclusively to the Latin American teams. Messi fanatic Shib Shankar Patra has painted his tea shop and home entirely in blue and white stripes, earning himself local fame as the ‘Argentina Tea Stall’ owner. Blue and yellow flags flutter along streets and alleys. One street in Santoshpur, a South Kolkata residential area, is a sea of blue. Every neighbourhood puts up these flags, and they come up like magic, overnight.

Young fans.

Young fans.   | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Shahid Imam is an advocate at the Calcutta High Court, and a member of a football team comprising fellow lawyers. He believes the Latin American circuit has had a huge impact on the playing style of Bengali footballers: “It is heavily mimicked, especially the dribbling style. I am an intense supporter of the Brazil team.” The Calcutta High Court organises a football tournament each year, open only to members of the bar association. Last year, 16 teams took part. It’s a day-long match, but “it is intense for those 24 hours,” says Imam with a laugh. And, no surprises, during the World Cup, matches are screened in the High Court club tent that’s located behind the East Bengal Club’s office. “Judges and advocates all come together to watch. While most of us are Brazil and Argentina supporters, there are quite a few Germany fans too, as they have been winning for quite some time,” says Imam.

Age is no bar for the Kolkata football fan. Kasba Up-to-Date Club (KUTDC) was set up before Independence, in 1943, and boasts of a membership that is almost entirely 40-plus, with the oldest member being 54. The club plays mostly with its die-hard rival, the neighbouring Amra Shobai Club. “Our rivalry dates back to my school days,” says Sudipto Banerjee, 44, a fierce KUTDC member, “but we play better, we are older.” Come World Cup, these neighbourhood rivalries are subsumed; everyone goes to Maidan Market for jerseys, and this year, Banerjee and two teammates even went to Russia for the group stage matches in June. The club is all geared up to hold its ritual screenings of the semi-final and final matches, where the members and their families can cheer together.

Come rain or shine

The local or para club plays a huge role in everyday Kolkata life, but it’s during World Cup season (and Durga Puja) that it comes into its majestic own. Most clubs have televisions but many hire projectors to screen the matches in the neighbourhood park or square. This year, Bandhu Bandhab Club even saved up enough to buy its own projector. Audiences range from 15 to 40 to well over 100 for the finals.

The World Cup invariably rolls in with the monsoon, but that’s hardly a deterrent for never-say-die Calcuttans who just organise endless rounds of cha and shingara, fortify themselves with tots of rum, and move to the indoor TV set when the showers begin.

But this year has been mournful. Argentina, Germany and Portugal have all been knocked out. An unusual silence pervades the city where entire stretches of road are still painted with Messi’s face. The Santoshpur street is “as quiet as a tomb,” a resident says. But this is temporary — come finals, and the noise will be back because ultimately it’s about the football.

Back in Dum Dum, at Bandhu Bandhab Club, cheers and hoots have erupted. Brazil netted two goals in injury time in the match against Costa Rica. Perhaps Dutta’s half-joke, half-prayer worked. For the pedestrians outside, on their way home, the sound of jubilation is assurance that the beautiful game, however international, has come home.


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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 8:38:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sport/football/bend-it-like-bengal-every-four-years-the-cup-comes-home/article24358647.ece

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