Millennium Post

Our football, Their football

Football! The very word brings together a collective hurrah be it a small hamlet or a giant metro. We play football in every nook cranny and nukkad of this nation, but the only problem is everyone here is either a Neymar or a Messi. There is nothing desi about our football. Only this week the
L M 10’s birthday was celebrated across Kolkata with such din and fervour that at one point I wanted to confer upon him ‘Bangasree’ and replace SRK with him as the brand ambassador of the state.
We as a nation are great football lovers and Kolkata is the veritable hotspot for the game.

Be it winter or summer, monsoon or autumn football is the staple diet of every Bengali. And with the World Cup returning to the home of football-Brazil – this year the energy and effervescence is all the more electrifying. Each locality is dressed up armed with the definite flags, festoons and standards of their teams. Hotels have churned out delicacies keeping World Cup in mind. Confectioners are not far behind either. Whole of Kolkata looks like an extension of Rio or Brasilia. Then why do we languish so far below as a football playing nation?

The answers are not easy. In fact Sunil Chhetri, Indian captain, was stumped in one of the post-match shows on television when a caller asked him if he would lead India to the World Cup stage. It looked really sad that the Indian skipper was groping for a politically correct answer that would bear a flicker of hope at least. When quizzed on the fate of Indian football one of my friends joked that there are far to less grounds for the players and far too many cattle and sheep vying for the same plot of grass. While this is too far-fetched a sarcasm, perhaps the fault lies with one and all. In all our love for football we have not been able to create a Sachin Tendulkar of soccer. Indian
football has none to look up to.

West Bengal’s population is more than that of Honduras, Costa Rica, Ivory Coast, Ecuador and Columbia’s combined and we have sent perhaps more journalists collectively than these countries to cover the World Cup from every possible angle. This is because we have mouldered into a nation of critics, analysts who have the luxury of fence sitting without actually having to toil. Every country has an essential philosophy and national pride that is reflected in their sport. They wear it like a badge of honour.

Perhaps, we have taken our words ‘Atithi Devo Bhava…’ far too seriously to our football grounds I think. But it was always not like this. Football meant a lot more when Mohun Bagan won the IFA Shield in 1911. The battle lines were drawn. Then we cast an opinion. And that was that. No one really crossed the lines and fought the battle to take football to greater heights. Our football degenerated into ‘sound and fury signifying nothing’.

In the late’80s football was dying in the city from where it should have spread wings. We still played 70 minutes, when world football had gone on to 90. When Nehru Gold Cup came to India, suddenly people realised that the glory days for football were long gone. As the teams from Europe and Latin America swamped us we returned home with a new grammar of the game. Then in 1983 India won the cricket World Cup and with it the last nail was struck on the coffin of football.

Even today East Bengal and Mohun Bagan meet around four times a year. The city still gets dressed in the respective colours and converges on the Eastern fringes of the city. But the euphoria lasts merely for a day. While the two clubs here are happy amid the decadence of their tumbledown premises, the office bearers corner glory distributing tickets for the derby and mudslinging against each other. The pettiness set about the two clubs is as obscene as their inertia of AIFF towards seriously doing something to bring about a change. The fact that India also qualified for the World Cup in 1950 to play in the same Maracana in Brazil is merely a footnote now in our sporting annals. The golden opportunity lost, India had handed over the baton of football back to its destiny and conditioned itself to be a nation of spectators of the sport that had once stood out as an insignia of patriotism against the British.

Undoubtedly we love football. Make no mistake this state is in fact obsessed with the game. Every World Cup, Kolkata gears up for the football frenzy as the quintessential Bangali Bhadrolok cannot imagine missing a single match of the quadrennial soccer fest. In fact our love for football is so famed that big European clubs are looking for opportunities to come and market themselves here; start official fan clubs and sell merchandise. Indeed a telling sign for a nation of voyeurs glued to the screen, in turn salivating and swooning at the rise and fall of the distant stars, hopelessly aware that we won’t ever be a part of this elite group.

The author is a senior journalist
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