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Millennium Post

This cup is our cup

My wife was in for a rude awakening when the Rajdhani Express slowly came to halt in an unnaturally quiet Howrah Station on a sunny 7 June morning back in 2002. The station, arguably the busiest in the world, seemed completely removed from its usual hustle and bustle and even the taxi stand outside wore a completely deserted look.

Being new to Kolkata, she just couldn’t believe when I told her the reason for this unnatural occurrence: Argentina were pitted against England in a FIFA World Cup Group D fixture in Sapporo, Japan. ‘What’s the connection between the two,’ she asked as we finally managed to get into a private car, paying double the usual fare. ‘Didi aj Bangla Bandh, shobai khela dekhche (everyone is watching the game, it’s like a strike),’ replied the driver as the car dashed down the empty streets at top speed, ensuring we reach just in time for the kick-off. Two hours later, a pal of gloom descended on the City of Joy as a 44th minute David Beckham penalty cut short Argentina’s World Cup journey.
The quadrennial showpiece is back again, this time more than 15,000 km away in Brazil. And India, a poor 154th in FIFA rankings, are nowhere near the big league. But like always, legions of soccer fans in Kolkata have transformed their metropolis into the second ‘home’ of the ultimate football fiesta. Adding to the frenzy this time is the game itself. Half-expecting patched up stadia and large street demonstrations had many worried that the return of World Cup to football’s spiritual home after 64 years could be the most troubled in recent memory. But with a flurry of goals and no major backlash from protesters so far, it could just as well turn out to be the best in over half a century.

Neymar kicked Brazil into gear on the opening night, Robin van Persie soared and scored with one of the most spectacular headers you’ll see while Argentina wizard Lionel Messi conjured up a little left-footed magic at the iconic Maracana Stadium. Thomas Mueller scored a hat-trick for Germany in a shock 4-0 rout of Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal while Clint Dempsey hit the net just half a minute into USA’s cup opener to fashion a 2-1 win over Ghana, the same team which knocked the Americans out of the 2010 World Cup.

The feeling among the fans in Kolkata of being part of the World Cup is even more this time with hosts Brazil being the most favoured team, largely due to its players’ traditional flair and silky ball control, notwithstanding the Selecao’s slump in form in recent World Cups. Following closely on Brazil’s heels are another Latin American giant – Argentina.

Both nations enjoy huge fan following in football crazy Kolkata where presently bright yellow jerseys are jostling with blue and white stripes at markets as favourites of the season. Puffy-eyed employees now walk into offices and discuss the finer nuances of previous night’s games which concluded at 5.30 am. Soon after work they warm-up in all possible manners before again donning respective team jerseys, ready for another night out. Like every WC year, the Argentina Fan Club in southern Kolkata has installed life-size idols of icons like Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain on an elevated land along with a giant replica of the World Cup. ‘This time we are more enthusiastic because we know our team will win. And for a change, the supporters of Brazil will root for us in the semifinal and final as their team is bound to make an early exit,’ said club secretary Uttam Saha who has also bagged tickets for six World Cup games and will be off to Brazil on 27 June.

Rival youngsters rooting for Brazil too have set up their own canopies in different corners of Kolkata where walls sport colourful graffiti and frescoes featuring Neymar, David Luiz, Thiago Silva and Dani Alves, among others. ‘We are doubly sure Brazil will lift the Cup on home soil. And whatever the Argentina Fan Club may say, we will have the last laugh, along with countless other supporters of Kolkata who traditionally favour Brazil,’ said the secretary of a local club.

No story of football fever in the city can be complete without mentioning the elderly soccer crazy couple, Pannalal (81) and Chaitali (71). The couple, who live in a narrow bylane at Kidderpore, Kolkata’s port area, has not missed any World Cup since Spain 1982. It all began when they spent a summer at their friend’s place in London and decided to go to Spain to watch the World Cup. Four years later in Mexico their fervour reached a different height after witnessing Diego Maradona’s ‘goal of the century’ against England besides bumping into Pele – two of their fondest memories at the World Cup till date. A former Port Trust employee, Pannalal gets a small pension of around Rs 7,500 and runs a saree business. They save money every month to meet their quadrennial expenses. The couple always carries the Tricolour and keeps it flying high, notwithstanding the occasions when curious spectators ask them whether India play football.

The popularity of the sport has cut across all sections of society. Little ahead of the annual football tournament which brings together children of sex workers from across West Bengal, budding footballers of the city-based Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), the biggest body of sex workers in the state, now have only two things on their minds – World Cup in Brazil and Cristiano Ronaldo. As many as 40 budding players are looking forward to picking up useful tips from matches involving Argentina, Brazil, Portugal etc. They have ditched textbooks for the beautiful game these days and with their annual soccer tourney  just a couple of months away, they are all hooked to the biggest football carnival in the planet.

‘There is only a small TV set at our sports centre in Baruipur (25-km from Kolkata). However, that does not stop these children, mostly teenagers, from crowding around it well past midnight into the early hours of the morning,’ Biswajit Majumdar, sports trainer for DMSC said. A few of the players even represented India at the Homeless World Cup last year. And Portuguese forward Ronaldo is their hot favourite. ‘Most of them support Ronaldo and root for Portugal. However, Argentina and Brazil fans are not far behind when it comes to fervour,’ Majumdar said, adding even some of the girls are fans of the game.

Very similar to Kolkata, the football fever in Goa around the World Cup is almost unreal. To say that everybody here wants Brazil to win would be an understatement. But there’s always Portugal to fall back on if Brazil stumble along the way, and vice-versa. After all, Goa was Portuguese India until a little over half a century back. There are many whose mother tongue is still Portuguese and that umbilical cord which binds them to the Portuguese-speaking fraternity is still very much there. If Portugal loses an important match, people break down and an air of mourning pervades for days.
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