MADE OF 18 carat gold, the FIFA World Cup represents two human figures holding up the globe. History pages are filled with the feats of emperors and conquistadors; yet when the tale of our age is written, the story of how a round ball conquered the world in a short span of time must evoke wonder. Football has many rivals in sport that claim the globe as their own, but no sport has matched its intensity and reach across continents. The game is absorbed, assimilated and reshaped in ever-new cultures, but its simple essence remains.
Even as we spend sleepless nights to catch the endless action and tension on television, we seamlessly negotiate issues of class, race, colour and much else that divides, while fixing our allegiances with alien nations — and maybe, just for that moment, transcend boundaries to become one with the world.
In this special package, we look at the beautiful game with an Indian lens — recounting the glorious era of Indian football in the postwar years, its spectator-driven present, and in a remote village in Jharkhand, a glimpse into its possible future.
Football In Sun And Shadow
As the FIFA World Cup gets underway, the bastions of the beautiful game are ablaze. We travel amidst the madness to Kerala, Bengal and Goa
THE FAMOUS resident of 30B, Harish Chatterjee Street, a dingy by-lane near Kalighat Temple in South Kolkata, swept the recent municipal polls. In barely two weeks, the writing on the wall has changed — every lane of the city, wide or narrow, North or South, that were strewn with the Left’s red and the Trinamool’s tricolour are now festooned with the blue and white of Argentina and green and yellow of Brazil. The football city’s polarisation is complete.
Ajay Kar, a railway employee, is working overtime to paint the wall of Ballygunge Siksha Sadan, on Harish Mukherjee Road, with the stars in action. This is the seventh World Cup in succession that he is graphic designing for his club Samparka, to inspire children in the claustrophobic locality to take up the beautiful game. “We can relate to Brazil easily,” says Pappu Das, who supervises Kar’s art and is a sworn Brazilian for a month. “It is a poor country, just like us. And football is the poor people’s game. They have shown that poverty cannot rob you of your creativity.”
Lanes strewn with the flags of the Left and Trinamool are now decked with the riotous green and gold of Brazil and the blue and white of Argentina
For decades, football in Kolkata has been defined by the Ghoti-Bangal rivalry. Bangals, the refugees from erstwhile East Bengal identified with the ruthless and never-say-die spirit of the German football team, and found salvation in the buccaneering spirit of their own club. The Ghotis, sons-of-the-soil of [West] Bengal, loathed the Bangals, supported Mohun Bagan and the purveyors of samba, Brazil.
This history — the fulcrum of the traditional rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, has now lost some of its intensity as Kolkata has changed over the decades. The linguistic and sectarian distinctions have blurred, and the crowd that thronged the derbys at the Salt Lake stadium now pine for the flamboyance of Brazil and Argentina, jostling for space in para club rooms to watch the World Cup.
Brazil has been a traditional favourite, while Argentina’s star soared after Maradona lit up the World Cup in the 1980s. Both Pele and Maradona have visited the city — Pele in 1977 with the New York Cosmos and Maradona in 2008.
In the middle class neighbourhood of Beltala, there are hordes of unemployed men looking for jobs. Shruti, a primary school student, plans to mop her hair to become a Lionel Messi look-alike, will go to school deprived of sleep for a month as most matches kick-off at midnight. Her father, a local grocer, will open shop late. But that can wait — like the rest of the City of Joy, they have been bitten by the soccer bug.
IT IS raining colours in Ninanvalappu, the coastal village near Kozhikode. This tiny village abounds with huge cutouts, banners and hoardings of favourite teams hoisted in every nook and corner. Autorickshaws and bikes in footballing colours and youth wearing their favourite team’s jerseys are crisscrossing the roads. “We have fans of all the 32 countries, from Argentina to New Zealand, in our membership book,” says NV Subair, secretary of Ninanvalappu Football Fans Association (NFFA). “Football is the binding force between the villagers here which also keeps the communal disharmony at bay,” he says. NFFA is in association with FIFA— they are sent a copy of the new rules, brochures and miniatures. It even has a mini FIFA museum.
PK Maradona, named after father Chathakutty watched El Diego in the 1986 World Cup, would love to name his son after another famous player
The fanfare is not confined to Nainanvalappu alone — the whole of northern Kerala is under the grip of this cacophonic fever with Malappuram being its epicentre. PK Maradona, a 24- year-old, works with a small private company. His father Chathukutty named him after seeing Maradona’s exploits in the 1986 World Cup. “Convincing my teachers to call me by this name was the toughest of tasks in school,” remembers Maradona, who is now a big fan of Lionel Messi. The Malayali Maradona, still a bachelor, would love to name his yet unborn son after other football greats. “But only if I manage to convince my future wife,” he laughs.
In Tevara, Kochi, three brothers are named Donadoni, Baggio and Zamorano, after Italian stars Roberto Donadoni, Roberto Baggio and former Chilean captain Ivan Zamarano, by their father Snehajan. A daily wager, he dreams of his kids playing football for a living, but as of now, is unable to afford it.
Former India captain IM Vijayan used to sell peanuts and soda during local games in Thrissur. “Here, football is not just a game but life. Even a child has views on the prospects of each team and player,” he says.
On a rainswept night in Goa, as the wind howls outside and heavy drops clatter on the tall roof, football fans sit glued to a giant TV screen at the Clube Gaspar Dias, at Miramar beach on the outskirts of state capital Panaji.
Football is big sport, and big business, in Goa. In recent years, India’s smallest state has seen itself propelled to the top of national football achievement.
Goan fans often support Portugal, sometimes seen as a politically incorrect choice, given the colonial past. But it is more than that — ultimately across India, in the pockets of football madness, the World Cup is an unadulterated celebration of life.
Reporting by Partha Dasgupta in Kolkata, Shahina KK in Kerala and Frederick Noronha in Goa