Kolkata: The seat I’m standing on is not that safe, but I have to stand on it if I want to watch James Santos Colado take this freekick. And I have to watch James Santos Colado take this freekick.
In the eons leading up to this freekick — it is the 85th minute, there was a red card, a feigned injury, a stretcher called on, a mini protest, a shifting of the wall, Diwali — I mouthed off the bold prediction that we were about to witness a goal. To provide credibility to my soothsaying, I stand on my seat, pull out my phone and put the video mode on. I train it on the East Bengal fans in front of me. Earlier in the first half, Colado had one in a similar position and the ball bounced off the post. This is all I know of him, but it seems enough. He will score. He should score. He must score.
So, while the rest of the press are comfortably ensconced in the air conditioned press box, and a part of the stands I’m on is grumbling about the Army Red team’s time wasting, I’m standing on this wobbly seat with a phone ready to record video.
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Colado scores ( of course he does) and after the first wave of goal celebrations, I am serenaded too. Hands are shaken, hugs are offered. Once I’m officially confirmed as a legitimate soothsayer, advice began pouring in about where I should take my skills next. Far away from the Durand Cup. Didi’s offices where I could help make plans for the state elections. Quess offices, where I could help find them a safe investment for their money. To Kalighat metro, for an alternative career. In the final five minutes of the game I pulled a hat-trick. I predict: a substitution, a goal and the correct amount of injury time (it is always three). At the final whistle, those that don’t jump the fences shake my hand. Again.
There is a reason Kolkata is called the spiritual home for Indian football. The reason is that the devotees all flock here. A football game in Kolkata is like Shravaan for the Kanwars. The crazy, the lazy, the truly and the funny all take in some sunshine. Without them Indian football means nothing. It is tough to admit this, especially considering all the baggage that Kolkata, and the Kolkata clubs bring to the table whenever we discuss Indian football. But the reality is, that on the stands, and on the club galleries, you always find the truth.
Earlier in the afternoon, over some chicken pulao (I’ve had it confirmed, it wasn’t biryani because the chicken was an afterthought) at Mohammedan Sporting, the discussion is a post mortem of their season opener. Albeit with light hearted banter.
“That Spanish striker [Salva Chamorro] costs Mohun Bagan Rs. 18 lakh. Flat, car, wages, shopping sab kuch. Hamara poora team 18 lakh nahi hoga (our entire team is not worth 18 lakh).
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“Do teen game aur harenge toh coach [Subrata Bhattacharya] khood chodh dega (two or three more defeats and the coach will leave on his own).”
Through the course of lunch Mohammedan coach Bhattacharya’s absurdities are vividly described. Complaints are lodged that he doesn’t actually contribute much to the squad, and if anything may be hindering the way they play. Last but not the least: he has a memory problem.
“Accha, East Bengal game ke liye jaa rahe ho? Toh phir jaldi jao. Bheed hoga (if you are going for the East Bengal match then go quickly, there will be a huge crowd).”
Packed stands are always a great advertisement for the sport. Empty stands are poor television, everyone knows that. Knowing this, it seems baffling that tournaments refuse to reduce entry to the bare minimum and allow maximum audience participation. At the Durand Cup, the ticket prices are amazingly cheap (my rickety seat ticket costs Rs. 50) but in the black, prices rocket up threefold.
Before you enter you have to endure. The gates for the North Stand (where the crazies sit) of the East Bengal Stadium only open when the police decide it does. Hopefully before kickoff. The warmups, the introductions and the pre-match fare are like blank noise. You are standing outside, 50 yards from the action but can only hear it. Five minutes before kickoff, the stands started filling up like a raging tide. Prepare to be captivated.
There is an immeasurable charm to a small stadium. The distance to the real action (so close you can smell the grass), the intimacy with the players (Borja and Ralte take it in turns to pump the crowd), the groundnut sellers, the tea, the compulsive obsessive chain smoker in the seat next to you. Safe to say Naipaul never wrote about the architectural marvel that was the Lords’ press box. He took the stands. In a time where the game is trying to become regimented and sanitised, fans will get left behind. The hair gel, the neon boots, the microscopic monitoring, controlling and ridiculous hyping does nothing for the people who come just to watch football.
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“ISL ki league,” screams the young fan on my right. We have established that I have come from Delhi, and so get to watch very little live football through the year. Delhi Dynamos, he laughs. “League hobe jaikhane fans hobe (there should be a league first to have fans around).” This leads to a bit of a debate in the aisles. The fans are here, but the money is over there (the Indian Super League). The love is here, but the players are there. Unanimously it is agreed that it’s the officials who are idiots.
“Do they talk about East Bengal in Delhi?” the fan asks. No. Because they hardly talk about football in Delhi.
The match ends and everyone walks off together. Literally. It takes an hour to get out of the mess. And even then the football isn’t over. Passerbys have to cross the Mohammedan Sporting park, where their Under-13 team’s practice is in session. Inevitably, they stop to watch, point and comment on the skills of a young 11-year-old destroying his clubmates. He is tiny for his age, but far better that many older. That’s a story for another day, though!
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