The players warm-up before a football game has no structured time.They come out for a warm up and kick about dependent on when the coaching staff feels. They stay on for as long as the coaching staff feels. There is no defined set of directives that mention exactly how long before a game the players can come off and practice, and how long before they must go in to change. A game being broadcast live will start at the allotted time (flexible for a few minutes both ways) but no one can tell how long the teams will stay out. The Indian Navy players trudge off to change before the Mohammedan Sporting men.
When everyone is off the field, and as the officials walk on, the barefoot hawker wearing a dhoti, selling the lemon tea, recognises and acknowledges me. We have seen each other for four days in a row at separate venues, and different games. We have no affiliations when it comes to football. Both of us are doing a job. One of us genuinely enjoys the perks that come with it. Both of us are privy to conversations that are acceptable only at a football game. Heard in the first half of Mohammedan vs Indian Navy:
“Shot keta marchish? Punjabi?” [Who hit the shot? The Punjabi?]
“Haan Punjabi.” [Yes, Punjabi]
“Indian Navy ki stamina!” [Indian Navy has great stamina!]
“Ki naam? Harbhajan?” [What’s his name? Harbhajan?]
For the record, the Punjabi’s name is Sarbjith Singh, and the Indian Navy’s stamina is considerable because the Navy has no off season and no pre-season.
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East Bengal beat Jamshedpur in the Durand Cup but lost to George Telegraph in the Calcutta League. The first is a national headline, the second dominates the local language papers. Most of the fans would prefer them winning the Calcutta League to the Durand Cup. Winning the league would show more consistency. But winning the Durand would delay the introspection. Or at least, kickstart the season.
Even in the press box for the Mohammedan game (at Mohun Bagan!), the conversation is about East Bengal’s 0-1 loss to Telegraph. The season is only two games old, but everyone is speculating if Telegraph could win the league.
The Bagan press box is an architectural miracle. It was designed as a metal container with transparent sides, which could perhaps be detached in an apocalyptic event and sent up to space. Everyone inside talks about the game, but not really. It is mostly in questions. Who made that pass? Who was that header by? What happened? Tell me if anything of note happens.
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The answers to these questions are always divergent. It is the manner of delivery that settles its correctness. How emphatic are you that No. 23 hit that cross for the header? Are you sure it couldn’t have been 26? How about 22? Punjabi? As the game goes on, the effect of the AC is clearly visible on the glass. It fogs up. Now, we are in the realm of fiction. One thing may have happened, but another was seen. It remains to be seen what will be remembered. The press box lives by Marquez’s lines.
There is an Indian Navy fan contingent at the game. It consists mostly of cadets wearing Indian Navy t-shirts. They create a stir with some chanting, loud screaming and general excitement every time their team launches an attack. The Mohammedan fans stay silent. Best they do. In the first half, Navy have 10 shots at Mohammedan’s goal. There is a one-on-one, a header off the crossbar, an empty net, two goalline clearances, and one exquisite bit of play that ends with a shot dragged wide. It’s ridiculous that Mohammedan aren’t down by at least four goals.
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“Gareeb ko hamdardi milti hai, aur ameer ko khushi. Middle class ka kuch nahi hai,” an out of job Hindi teacher driving an Uber had once told me in Delhi. A thousand kilometres away, a Mohammedan club official echoed a similar thought. He complains that they are a poor club forced to be middle class, because they can’t look poor. Keeping up appearances is a middle class necessity.
At the game the hawker offers me tea. He waves the money away. “Jaise eith ka jawaab pathar se hota hai, waise hi garmi ka jawab chai hota hai [Just like the answer to a brick is a stone, the answer to heat is hot tea].” It is hot. It is humid. There is a threat of rain, but it hasn’t rained yet.
For all of Navy’s first half brilliance, Mohammedan score the opener in devastating smash and grab fashion. Their supporters go wild! Shirts are ripped off, umbrellas are thrown in the air. Within five minutes of the goal, a torrential rain belts down. For the third Mohammedan Sporting game in a fortnight, there will be heavy rain. Some of the cadets scuttle for cover. From the press box window the game resembles a Monet painting. Mohammedan score six, Navy twice.
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