Last Tango in Kolkata: Football-mad city split over Argentina and Brazil

Argentina does not know it but its fate in the World Cup depends on Chandreyee Chatterjee thousands of miles away in Kolkata.

She is sure that unless she is wearing her Argentina t-shirt, and a particular pair of white shorts, and sitting in a particular chair with a particular person next to her, Argentina will be unable to score.

She is also on hostile territory. Her father and her husband both root for Brazil.

Argentina vs Brazil. It’s as if the old prawn-hilsa Kolkata rivalry of Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal has been globalised.

“Absolutely,” says Chatterjee. “I am a Mohun Bagan fan. My father is an East Bengal fan.”

That football rivalry traditionally had its origins in lineage, whether one’s roots lay in East Bengal or West Bengal. That rivalry was often a de facto one - assigned by bloodline. This newer rivalry is about conscious choice. It’s about stars like Messi and Neymar. Or sometimes it’s just in the stars. Or star-crossed.

Argentina/Arsenal/Mohun Bagan fan Indrajit Hazra recounts in Mint the Dibeyendu Palit short story of Kinkor Dutta, a harried bank clerk in Kolkata who has only one thing to look forward to – Brazil defeating France in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.

On the morning of 21 June 1986, after offering prayers at the Kalighat temple, on his way to work, Kinkor asks himself why indeed he loves Brazil. “He found no answer. Then he thought, ‘Why do I love Shomu (his son)?’” After finding no answer to this question either, his eyes well up with tears. The story ends in tragedy, with Brazil losing in a penalty shoot-out.

This Brazil-Argentine last tango in Kolkata is a generational one. Pele (1977), Maradona (2008) and Messi (2011) have all come here making Kolkata perhaps the only South Asian city which can boast about hosting that trinity.

When Pele came TV was still new. Entire families crammed into a neighbour’s house to watch the game on a black-and-white television. Mona Chowdhury remembers Dum Dum Airport bursting at the seams with fans brandishing Hotshot cameras at 1:30 in the night when he landed. They pelted cars with stones when they learned he had been whisked away in a bus instead of being paraded in an open jeep.

Fans of Argentina player Lionel Messi in Kolkata. AFP

Fans of Argentina player Lionel Messi in Kolkata. AFP

By the time Maradona exploded onto the scene, the world had changed. Indrajit Hazra became an Argentina fan in 1986 when he saw on his black-and-white EC TV “a Minotaur in blue-and-white stripes knifing a meandering 60m air corridor in 10 seconds and tearing through six scrambling figures whose collective name I would memorise forever as Beardsley-Reid-Butcher-Fenwick-Butcher-Shilton. That was my moon-landing.” Over 20 years later police had to resort to a lathi-charge as delirious fans broke through the barricades when Maradona called on the ailing Jyoti Basu.

Messi came in 2011. By then cable had made Kolkata’s fans as up on European club games as they had once been about their local stars. Standing outside Messi’s hotel in Kolkata, fans discussed passionately not just Messi but Robbie Fowler’s three-minute hat trick against Arsenal and debated the potential of Gonzalo Higuain.

No wonder this World Cup some sculptors in Kumartuli took a break from making Durga images and made idols of football’s demi-gods instead. The Argentina Football Fan Club (of course, there is one) in Gangulybagan in South Kolkata commissioned the football-thakurs. Uttam Saha, the club’s founder secretary painted his 2006 Fiat Palio in his team’s sky-blue and white stripes. The next lane, however is full of Brazil fans.

“I think Argentina and Brazil are supported by a lot of countries that are themselves not represented in the World Cup,” says former footballer Chirag Paul. “It’s purely because of their style of play, the passion they play football with and the talent they have.” He says Kolkatans relate to their “Latin flair”, the way they run with the ball. It’s not "boring football” says Paul.

Paul started out at the football academy for East Bengal, got a transfer to Sao Paulo in Brazil and then played a few seasons with Birmingham City and Nottingham Forest in England until a knee and ankle injury forced him to slow down. Now he runs Koshe Kosha, a chain of Bengali food restaurants and the World Cup means a happy union of Bengal’s two great loves – football and food. Their special menu has Nimble as Neymar – grilled chicken breast marinated in Gondhoraj lime and rolled into a silver ball. Or French Flair which pays homage to the fiery Ribery by stuffing a soft French croissant with spicy Indian keema.

The Eden Pavillion’s bar has concocted cocktails with names like Brazilian Blast and even the notorious Hand of God. Kolkata’s sweet tooth is cashing in on the football craze with their World Cup sandesh. At Nalin Chandra Das and Sons manager Surajit Das proudly shows off the Spanish Tikitaka and Brazilian Samba and Argentine Defense – a gooey mélange of Cadbury’s dairy milk chocolate and butterscotch and cashew nuts that would make sandesh-purists shudder.

But in all this commercial hoopla, the actual spirit of football, that muddy game in the monsoon rain, is not quite lost. On a quiet Saturday night, Kolkata streets are empty except for street dogs and the occasional bicyclist, but a collective "Goaaaaalll" rolls through the darkness, passing from house to house, as Argentina scores against Belgium.

Viv Sarkar co-founded the Football is in Our Blood group on Facebook. It now has over 76,000 members. This year they had their own mini-World Cup in Kolkata with eight teams representing eight former champions. The group’s members from abroad bought them through an online auction.

“Everyone wanted to own the team of Brazil or the team of Argentina,” laughs Sarkar. “ Our base price for all the teams was 30 dollars. Brazil went as high as 151 dollars.” There were divided loyalties. An Argentina supporter ended up having to play for the Brazil team.

France won that tournament.

But the Argentine-Brazil rivalry continues unabated. Three-wheeler autos ply the streets with fluttering flags from either country. There are little tree-side shrines to Messi and Neymar while Brazil’s flags flutter in front of a small Shitala temple. Trinamool has been active in supporting neighbourhood clubs and those clubs have made the World Cup a sort of early Durga Puja. Even Saradha-scam accused Kalyan Ghosh, a former Trinamool MP, was photographed coming out of the courthouse in an Argentina jersey. Sadly for him, Mamata's blue-and-white passion does not extend beyond Kolkata's buildings and bridges.

But the nagging question amidst this full-throated embrace of Messi-Neymar is whether it just throws into even sharper relief India’s own dismal FIFA ranking. In 1911, Mohun Bagan, barefoot and dhoti-clad, under Sibdas Bhaduri created history by defeating an English team. John Abraham will star as Bhaduri in a Shoojit Sircar film based on that landmark game. But those days are long gone. Pele’s Cosmos played against Mohun Bagan but Messi’s Argentina came to play against Venezuela. "There definitely was that Mohun Bagan spirit then," admits Utpal Ganguly, the general secretary of the Indian Football Association. "But there is a different excitement about seeing two high profile teams. I don't think Argentina would have come all the way here to play India."

Viv Sarkar says looking at all the blue-and-white and green-and-yellow flags fluttering around Kolkata, he is more hopeful than despairing. “We have such a passion for other countries like Argentina and Brazil,” he says. “Imagine what it will be like when our own country plays. It can actually act as motivation.” Paul too does not see Kolkata’s Latin love as Argentina or Brazil’s gain and the local clubs’ loss. “Local clubs and teams will start getting support once the sport itself is more popular,” he says. “It’s good to watch the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona on TV. We can see the standards we need to reach. We have the potential. We have the talent. But we are just good up to a certain age.”

Argentina and the Netherlands slog it out tonight. Though Brazil's semi-final loss to Germany means an Argentina-Brazil dream final will not happen, the city will not forsake its Latin passion. After all, if Argentina loses, they will end up playing Brazil for third and fourth place.

But there is a limit.

The runaway favourite on Paul’s World Cup menu is not Brazilian or Argentinean but the English one. That’s not nostalgia for Kolkata’s colonial heritage. Rendezvous with Rooney is a desi take on an all-time English favourite – fish and chips, with betki filling in for haddock and pudina-jeera-dhania spicing up the chips.

It seems if there’s anything that can trump Bengali passion for Argentina or Brazil, it’s their all-conquering love for fish.

Updated Date: Jul 09, 2014 08:24 AM

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