No madness such as this

Runs in the blood. Almost every boy has a connection with football in Kolkata, here they practice at the Kolkata Maidan   -  Ashoke Chakravarty

Maradona's oldest lovers. Pannalal Chatterjee and his 70-year-old wife Chaitali will attend their ninth World Cup this year   -  Ashoke Chakrabarty

C-grade pass. Younger players often lament the lack of stadia and sponsorship   -  Ashoke Chakrabarty

Heart on one's sleeve. T-shirts supporting Kolkata Knight Riders have given way to t-shirts brandishing the names of players from Spain, Germany and Brazil   -  Ashoke Chakrabarty

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With the World Cup starting this week we meet some of its biggest fans, fanatics and promoters — all to be found, but of course, in the city of Kolkata

Squeezed around the edge of Kolkata’s busy Chowringhee and its expansive Maidan, a small cluster of shops has long catered to the city’s many sporting needs. Awash with the purple of Kolkata Knight Riders jerseys until recently, Maidan Market is finally showing signs of more colour. Sheikh Amin, a salesperson at AH Sports, points to a row of freshly arrived stock. “Holland, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Argentina — we have all their shirts. The football World Cup comes once every four years, and given our sales, that one month starts to feel like a religious festival.” Each of Amin’s imitation jerseys is priced at ₹300 and he hopes to sell more than a thousand in the days to come. When asked which team is his favourite, he laughs. “I support the team that helps me sell the most.”

Just a few shops down, Amin’s materialistic predilections are clearly considered the stuff of blasphemy. In the merchandise business for 35 years, 63-year-old Jacky first rattles off the names of many a local great. “They have all played either in my boots or in my jerseys.” With the World Cup just days away, the shop owner is paid a visit by Narayan Mukherjee, one of his first customers. Mukherjee, who once played professionally for Eastern Railway FC, is accompanied by his 22-year-old son Akash. Together they place an order for nine jerseys, six of which are in a Brazilian yellow.

“There is one thing that you must know,” says Mukherjee. “No sporting event will ever be able to match the football World Cup.” As Akash inspects Brazil’s No 10 Neymar Jr shirt, he finds it hard to contain his excitement. “From Ronaldo to Ronaldinho to Neymar, I have always worn a Brazilian jersey when watching the game. Most of my friends and family are Brazil fans, or should I say, we are Brazil fanatics. Since the team is playing at home this time, we have a 100 per cent advantage.” Meanwhile, Akash’s father and Jacky have already started arguing over who will be Brazil’s opponent in the final — Argentina or Spain. “You’ll only see this in Calcutta,” says Akash. “If football were a person, Kolkata would be its heart. Cricket is a religion, yes, but football is our faith.”

Oldest and biggest fans

Amongst all of Kolkata’s football faithfuls, it might perhaps be hard to find a fan who can match the zeal of 81-year-old Pannalal Chatterjee and his 70-year-old wife Chaitali. Ever since 1982, the couple have successfully made their way to all World Cup venues in order to watch at least a few games of the tournament live. “And this year, we are travelling to Brazil, the Mecca of football,” gushes Chaitali, “Our ninth World Cup.” Living on a meagre pension that Pannalal Chatterjee receives as a retired employee of Kolkata’s Dock Labour Board, the aging couple save every possible penny. They have even given up fish. Chaitali sells sarees from home. When the Sikkim Football Association sends its founding member Pannalal an air ticket to travel, he opts for a train’s sleeper class instead. “We suffer four years of hardship, but at least this way I can go with my head held high. I wish I could describe to you the joy of being able to sit in the stands,” says Chaitali.

As her face lights up and her gestures turn more animated, Chaitali’s disposition becomes endearingly childlike. She talks of living in a hotel adjacent to Pelé during the 1986 Mexico World Cup. “I was barely introduced to him, but years later during the 1994 US World Cup, he recognised me instantly. I’m sure it was because of my saree. He asked, ‘Madam, you’ve come again?’ I just smiled and smiled.” She points to her picture with the Brazilian legend as proof. When it comes to matters on the pitch, Pannalal and Chaitali finish each other’s sentences. They discuss Diego Maradona’s ‘Goal of the Century’ against England in 1986 as if it were scored the previous night. But it is usually Pannalal, a former club footballer, who delivers the final analysis. “I’ll never forget the ’86 final between Argentina and West Germany. When the Argentinians came out on the field, it looked like they hadn’t eaten for a fortnight. I thought they would bite the flesh off this well-fed German side. They obviously won 3-2.” But for all his 1986 memories, Pannalal remains a diehard fan of the team in yellow and green.

While a local tour operator has subsidised their airfare to Rio de Janeiro, a sports management firm has helped buy tickets that will allow the Chatterjees an opportunity to watch at least four games this World Cup. Thrilled that he might possibly get the chance to witness Brazil play in the tournament’s Round of 16 stages, Pannalal still has to allay some of his wife’s immediate fears. Even though FIFA has promised to provide them free accommodation, Chaitali is worried for her husband’s and her own safety. “Many people have asked us to avoid lanes and stick to main roads. We’ve been told that if a criminal spots two rings on your fingers, you risk losing your hand.” Her octogenarian husband, however, tries to stay upbeat. “This may well be our last World Cup,” he tells her. “Who knows how much our health will deteriorate.” For someone who still can’t tire of debating Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal, it’s hard to admit that his World Cup future “is now in God’s hands”.

Team loyal

The industriousness and fervour of the Chatterjees doesn’t come easily to most, and for those left behind, a more distant enjoyment must suffice. Trying to shorten that gap are several television companies. Assuring ‘stadium-like thrills’, one in particular is advertising its new curved TV as a ticket that will help you ‘bring Brazil home’. Manager of electronics retailer Great Eastern Technocity, Sanjib Sardar says, “I have been in this trade for seven years and I can safely say that each time the football World Cup comes around, the demand for LCD and LED TVs in Kolkata goes up by at least 30-35 per cent. In just this first week of June, we are seeing the whole circumference turn.” Though Sardar believes that cricket still has an edge over football, he thinks the last decade has seen a paradigm shift for the latter. “I’d say the number of people watching international football has increased by a good 40 per cent. By following European leagues, people become more aware of football talent.”

Having watched Kolkata’s Manchester United Fans Club grow from a Facebook page in 2010 to a registered society that now organises regular screenings and events, Sayan Chakraborty believes that the sport’s popularity can still be taken for granted. Agreeing with Sardar, the fan club’s former president says that before each World Cup, football followers have had enough time to make up their mind about which players they like the most. “This determines their preference for a national team.” For 25-year-old Chakraborty, though, it wasn’t just television that proved a likely catalyst. His passion for Argentina was reaffirmed when he watched Lionel Messi play Venezuela in Kolkata in 2011. “Pelé, Maradona and Oliver Kahn — they have all played in the city, but I was too young then. I got to see Messi. I had never seen an international star. It was brilliant.”

In a city where Brazil and Argentina often dominate allegiances, Chakraborty is aware that his choice of team isn’t unusual. “But you just need to look harder and you’d find a supporter for almost anyone,” he says. Chartered accountant Subham Pugalia remembers the night in 2002 when Brazil lifted the World Cup. “The people in the building opposite ours went crazy. It felt as if Diwali had arrived a few months early or like India had just won the cricket World Cup. I remember being very infuriated.” The cause for 25-year-old Pugalia’s anger was simple — he always prefers supporting an underdog. This year, for instance, he’ll be cheering for Belgium. “They have the best young talent.”

With time, the reasons for lending support to a side have also come to border on the absurd. Twelve years ago, a 6-year-old Suraj Sharma sat down to play FIFA Football on his PlayStation with a neighbour. “I still remember it as clear as day. David Beckham had scored me my first goal. Ever since then, I support England.” Being an England fan, says Sharma, helps him feel safe in a city where almost everyone else is hoping for a Brazil or Argentina win. “When I say I want England to lift the Cup, they just give me a strange look and let me be. It’s then that I start making fun of them,” he says.

Raise high the goalpost

The young Suraj Sharma would perhaps be better advised to avoid any kind of backtalk in and around Chetla, a South Kolkata para (neighbourhood) reputed for its love of football. Avijit Bhanja, a site engineer working on a construction site in the area, says, “Almost every boy here has a connection with the sport. Someone is just practicing; someone is playing in a tournament. Football is in every drop of our blood.” Bhanja, who used to play for the neighbourhood club at one point, says that Chetla is divided into four groups. “North, South and East support Brazil. West supports Argentina. If you want to watch skill, watch Brazil. For teamwork, watch Argentina.” Clearly an Argentinian supporter, the 34-year-old is visibly excited that the World Cup is only a week away, but he cannot help a frown mid-sentence. “I just wish India was good enough to qualify by now.”

A few blocks away from Bhanja’s workplace, the club room of Alipore Sarbojanin is busy preparing itself for what some of the society’s members are calling ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. The sewing machines that help the society fulfil its promise of social work are now being pushed to the corner. Brazil’s flags are being stuck to the walls and there is also some talk of a new LCD television being rented. Cultural secretary Satyajit Kotal says there is only one word that can aptly describe the World Cup for him — “Madness”. After describing in great depth some of Pelé’s 1,283 goals and post a realistic analysis of Brazil’s chances this year, Kotal starts talking of yesteryear Brazil forward Bebeto. “He weighed only 60kg,” he says. “If someone with that kind of weight can play at the international level, am I to believe that we don’t have 22 players in this country to represent us?”

Pradip Mondal, cashier of Alipore Sarbojanin, chimes in. “If countries like Cameroon and Australia can play in the World Cup, why can’t we?” Kotal and Mondal together bemoan the lacklustre forms of popular club teams such as Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. “Why don’t we have better stadia,” asks Kotal. “Why do we have to play on C-grade grass?” Anuj Kichlu, CEO and director of football management firm The Football Edge, feels the real problem may lie elsewhere. “The biggest issue here is the development of talent into a final product. It’s around the ages of 15-20 that someone turns from a talented sportsman into a professional player. That’s where we have a gap.” Kichlu hopes that by hosting the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, India can finally assess its talent and its infrastructure.

With tournaments such as a football Indian Super League in the pipeline, Kolkata’s fans have greater reason to localise their support. But for now, all their concerns seem international. Given the vast time difference between Brazil and India, most World Cup games will be broadcast after midnight. “It isn’t a problem,” says Mondal. “We’ll only sleep for an hour or two. As far as our jobs go, our bosses can expect some slacking off. The World Cup will always come first.”

(Shreevatsa is a freelance writer in Kolkata.)

Published on June 06, 2014
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