THE `PHAW’ OF FOOTBALL

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The 2018 FIFA World Cup concluded on July 15 with France taking home the trophy. We wait another four years for the event’s next edition. Bulbul Rajagopal is a final year MA student in Kolkata, the city she grew up in. Here she writes about Kolkata’s craze for football and the ambiance that prevailed there this world cup season. Bulbul is reporting intern and contributor at this blog.  

“ Gabriel Jesus! Maybe if we all call out his name, Brazil might finally score…” groaned Tonoy Dutta as he scanned the screen hosting the group stage match against Costa Rica. Dutta, a student of class 12, was member of Dum Dum area’s Bondhu Bandhab Club in Kolkata. My quest to observe the city during the 2018 World Cup had led me to Kolkata’s outskirts where a local boys club was watching the match. Brazilian flags took much space in their club room, while the odd Argentine ones peeked out. Soon the arena was packed with more of Dutta’s friends, all fans of the Brazil national team. Bathed in the glow of the TV, their faces appeared enlightened. Watching their yellow and green-flecked gods dance on screen, they sat in revered silence before their religion – football.

Scanning the band of boys and old men – the former playing hooky from school due to the heat but mostly because of the World Cup; the latter come out of the woodwork only for the game – club regular, Rajat Basak, noted my bemused expression and laughed. “ Those who don’t even know the phaw of football [phaw denoting the phonetic ‘f’ in the Bengali script] can’t resist the charm of the World Cup,’’ he said.

Every four years, the arrival of the FIFA World Cup envelopes Kolkata – a city known for its long flirtation with the game – in an all too familiar buzz. Kolkata’s obsession with the game’s international proceedings began with what the city calls the “magic of Pele.’’ In the 1970s, television sets were scarce in the city. Communal viewings where entire neighbourhoods huddled over one TV set in a household or two, or even a local club room, were common practice. In spite of this, the 20,000-strong crowd that greeted the Brazilian football legend at the city’s airport in 1977 was testimony to their love for the game. By 2017, Kolkata had played host to both Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi — the latter’s visit drove 75,000 Calcuttans to swell the ranks in Salt Lake Stadium, one of the largest football stadiums in the world.

The footpath leading to Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Preparation for the World Cup is taken very seriously here. It is almost ritualistic. The altar for warm-up is the highly popular Maidan Market, which houses a collection of roadside stalls stacked high with jerseys and flags linked to teams in the World Cup fray. The occasional shirt loudly brandished with the face of Messi or Ronaldo is almost as desired. In the lead-up to the more popular matches, which in Kolkata are mostly the ones featuring Brazil or Argentina, frequent sights include parents inspecting the jerseys of favorite teams with their children, and school and college-goers rifling through the collection hoping for a decent bargain. This World Cup season, almost all store owners reported that their fastest-depleting stock were the jerseys of Argentina and Brazil. Being coveted items, these were priced the highest – about 450 to 500 rupees. For Aziz, one of the salesmen, a constant worry every season is the unsold jerseys of the less popular teams like England, even Portugal. “The public always keeps an eye out for internet updates and the original jerseys they see there. Then only do they come to us. As for myself, I am an Argentina fan,’’ he said. Asked for a reason, Aziz said laughing, “ because their jerseys sell the most.’’

Deep in the market stall upon stall catered to Kolkata’s football fever. Each hawker eyed every passerby beadily trying to guess which team they were loyal to in order to push their ware. Subhroneel Bose wove his way expertly through this maze. On acquiring a target, he studied the stock of Argentina jerseys, all bearing the number 10. Bose has been a regular here since the 2002 World Cup. Time had made him an experienced bargainer. He came away grinning excitedly with a jersey for 180 rupees. “ I’ve bought it for my football trainer, he loves Messi. I’m a die-hard Brazil fan actually. It causes frequent clashes at home since my father is an Argentina fan,” the college-graduate said. Such arguments are a regular feature when the tournament rolls in. Tushita Basu fell in love with football following the matches she played with her father. On a bad day, watching a match together kept the blues at bay. Though the father and daughter started out supporting different teams – Brazil and Spain respectively – Tushita felt “with age I’m becoming more like my dad. I want Brazil to win this year.’’

The Brazil-Argentina divide is one that splits Kolkata in two distinct camps. It is a generational one that is marked by the rise of technology as well. Though Pele had once reigned supreme here, by 1986, with television sets proliferating, the next generation could witness Maradona in all his ‘Hand of God’ glory. By the time his protégé Messi entered the scene, the fanfare for Argentina was set in stone. Though a friendly rift highlighted by the characteristic banter the game demands, this is hardly the first football-related fissure Kolkata has seen. The formation of the historical football teams of Mohun Bagan and (subsequently) East Bengal are symbols of the partition the state underwent when it split into West Bengal and East Bengal. The former stayed with India, the latter came under Pakistan (East Bengal would eventually become Bangladesh). The heavy flow of migrants into Kolkata (then Calcutta) sparked crisis over refugee settlement, identity and communal tensions. However, the first taste of football-induced victory for the Bengalis had nothing to do with the state’s partition – it was Mohun Bagan’s win over East Yorkshire Regiment for the IFA shield.

An alleyway in the Santoshpur area (Photo: courtesy Srijan Mookerji)

Both India, specifically West Bengal, and Bangladesh find common ground in their support for Latin-American teams like Brazil and Argentina. Shahid Imam, an advocate at Calcutta High Court believed that the Latin-American circuit had a huge impact on the playing style of Bengalis: “ It is heavily mimicked, especially the dribbling style. I am a strong supporter of the Brazil team,’’ he said. Imam belonged to a football team made up of lawyers. The football tournament organized by the High Court has no age limit but is open only to members of the bar association. Last year, 16 teams took part. Though it lasts only a day, “it is intense for those 24 hours,’’ the advocate said. The World Cup was a favourite among them as well with regular screenings conducted in the High Court Club tent, situated behind the East Bengal Club’s office. “Judges and advocates all come together to watch. While most of us are Brazil and Argentina supporters, there are quite a few Germany fans since this team has been winning for quite some time,’’ Imam told me.

In my years here, I have noticed that unwavering loyalty is characteristic of the average Bengali football fan. For the past few World Cup fixtures, Brazil and Argentina – both loved by Bengalis – have either clocked out early on or come very close to victory only to be denied it (a greater loss, in my opinion). In spite of this, the city does not budge from its loyalty: the teams’ losses are taken in stride, fans mourn with them with equal fervour as they do when they win. 2018 was no different. With Germany heading home in the group stages itself and Argentina knocked out, Kolkata’s hopes rested on Brazil for the semi-finals. But this too, became dream dashed. A pall of silence shrouded the city, punctuated with the odd joke that Kolkata now had entered a state of existentialism. Alleyways and streets in the city were dotted with flags of blue and yellow. One in Santoshpur was a sea of Argentina flags and resident Srijan Mookerji dubbed it to be “as quiet as a tomb for now.’’ Setting these flags up is a locality-centric event. It happens almost in the blink of an eye. As I waded through the crowd and the waterlogged streets of monsoon, I frequently overheard that there was now no point watching the football matches. This happens every time. It is pointless to pay heed to such statements because as with all those years before; come the World Cup final and the city would shake itself out of collective sulk to huddle around the screen, sides reluctantly picked.

Kolkata boasts eclectic football teams of its own. The Kasba Up-to-Date Club (KUTDC) is one of them. Almost all of its members are above the age of 40, the oldest being 54. Forty-four year old Sudipto Banerjee, club member and supporter of Germany since 1986, ensures that he buys the team jersey from Maidan every time around. So dedicated is Banerjee to the game that he and two of his teammates went to Russia for the group stage matches. Located in the titular Kasba area, KUTDC engages in football rivalry with the neighbouring Amra Shobai Club. “ This rivalry has been going on since my school days. But we play better and are older as well given ours is a pre-Independence club [set up in 1943],” he said. His club organizes screenings in the area as well, but mostly for the semi-finals and the final.

Kolkata sweetshop Balaram Mullick & Radharam Mullick partake in festivities around the World Cup with edible trophy, stadium and players (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

These local or para clubs are deep-seated in the culture of Kolkata and the rest of West Bengal. Belonging to different localities, they make their mark for the community in two primary areas: the yearly organization of Durga puja and small football fixtures and screenings. Peppered all over the city, each has its own band of resident loyalists. Bondhu Bandhab Club usually rents out a projector for the entirety of the World Cup fixture to screen every single match. This year, however, the club had saved up enough to buy a Titan Chrome projector of their own. Bright sunny days do not deter their spirits when it comes to projection, because inside their club room is a small LCD TV they can depend on. The club is open to all and about forty people watch the screenings on an average. During the final, the number easily soars to over a hundred.

Football does not pertain to Bengalis alone in Kolkata. Going against the dominant trends in the city was the majority of the Armenian community. According to Armen Makarien, the Armenian College and Philanthropic Academy on Mirza Ghalib Street favoured rugby over football, as the latter has been played in their home country for the last 130 years. “But we have a formidable U-19 football team, and we follow the World Cup closely,” he said. Makarien – an Iran-born Armenian – supported the Iran national team, while most of the community in the College favoured Spain. “Armenians come to Kolkata from all over Europe and Asia. They prefer to support the countries they come from and call home. There are hardly any Brazil or Argentina fans here,” he said. N. Gopi of the Calcutta Malayalee Samajam had made football-loving Kolkata his home for the past 45 years. He hails from the equally football-frenzied state of Kerala. However, Gopi belonged to a generation that had seen Kolkata’s craze for football in better days: “That traditional spirit of fanfare is fading now, I feel. Everything has become so commercialized. The old enthusiasm is lagging. The craze everyone sees now is only half of what it used to be,” he said.

Subhroneel Bose scouting for the perfect jersey at Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Partaking in the football celebration was a typically male phenomenon and for a city where football is famously equated to life, women and girls do feel overlooked in this regard. Historically, one of the ways the British integrated the sport into Kolkata was through the setting up of football teams in colleges that were modeled on British public schools. Though the odd women’s team exists in colleges and universities here, the attention they get is minimal compared to their male counterparts. Local teams geared for women are practically unheard of. Rahman, a college student and footballer believed that women’s football “faces a vicious cycle. If you pull up statistics, you’ll find that women’s teams earn far less prize money than men’s teams. The visibility is also low since it is treated as a ‘masculine sport’.’’

When Rahman first started playing football, the primary reaction was one of incredulity. She was often branded as an attention-seeker. “Sexism and cultural barriers discourage women from taking up the sport,’’ she said. Rahman was on the lookout for amateur women’s football clubs in the city to hone her skills. Tushita too had been at the receiving end for her interest in the game: “To this day, I have male friends who would rather discuss the World Cup with another guy who is absolutely uninterested in football than ask me for my opinion,” she said. According to her Bengali women are stereotyped into being singers and dancers; the only sport assigned to them is swimming. “Maybe, if schools started coaching girls from a young age and there are at least two academies invested in women’s football, the scenario would change,’’ she said.

However, Kolkata also houses a team that uses football as tool to banish such stigma. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, located in the Sonagachi area of Kolkata, is an organisation that fights for the rights and upliftment of sex workers. “Children of sex workers are stigmatized because of their mothers’ occupation. To counter this, we started the Durbar Sports Academy where football teams of U-13, U-15 and the second division thrive,’’ Chief Advisor Dr. Smarajit Jana, said. Avid World Cup fans, the children regularly watched matches in their club room with their trainers and coaches who explained team strategies to them. Their practice sessions at Baruipur drew the attention of local radio channel Red FM during the 2014 fixture; they organized an awareness programme called ‘Baruipur to Brazil’. For Jana who has seen numerous children being taunted and abused by others due to their mothers’ line of work, the progress these teams had made spoke volumes of how far they had come. They plan to integrate the teams with girls as well. In my interaction with the young footballers here, 18 year-old Milan Sarkar caught my eye. A player for the second division team, Milan was discovered by the Academy when he was nine years old; when a “footballer dada noticed me playing in a nearby field.’’ His mother was a sex worker and for the past few months, the family had been financially hard up. But Milan’s dedication to the game was impressive: “I work as a food delivery boy from 6:30 to 11 PM. I go for practice thrice a week,’’ he said. Practice for them started at 7 AM. It was not an easy feat given his schedule. However, the young right-back managed to see the positive side of the situation: “My shift ends just in time for the 11:30 match, those are the good ones, anyway,” he said. This year, both the U-13 and U-15 teams qualified for the I-League which shares the top spot in the Indian football system with the Indian Super League (ISL).

A section of the Maidan Market (Photo: Bulbul Rajagopal)

Even if the World Cup is a phenomenon that takes the city by storm only once in four years, football is a celebration enjoyed all year round. Come rain, hail or the beating rays of sun, there are very few entities deemed obstacles here in one’s quest to play football. Kolkata never faces a dearth of matches to participate in or even to simply watch from the periphery of its numerous playing fields. As the World Cup rolled in during the monsoon, numerous rounds of hot tea or pints and pegs of beer and rum were counted on by Calcuttans everywhere when matches proved to be nail-biting. With crowd favourites like Argentina, Germany and Portugal by way of Ronaldo knocked-out of this year’s fixture, an unusual silence pervaded the city. Entire stretches of roads had been painted with Messi’s face and club houses acted as shrines to Brazil and Argentina. Fanaticism has always been present in Kolkata and the decorations for the World Cup proved it. The tea shop and living quarters of Messi fanatic Shib Shankar Patra was doused entirely in Argentina colours, earning it local fame as ‘Argentina Tea Stall’. The reason was simple: love makes one do crazy things. The silence was merely the lull before the storm. Even if the preferred teams do not end up playing in the final, it was tough to pry the people here away from the screens because ultimately it is their love for the game that roars through the din.

In the lead-up to the Croatia-France final, viewing parties and outings were the talk of the town. As luck would have it, my TV at home gave out a few hours before kick-off. I was not too worried. Kolkata – Jadavpur University to be precise – came to my aid. University screenings are common in the city, and the camaraderie they trigger well known. I was welcomed that night by a crowd of 200 college students, a few street dogs that frequent the area and the perfume of rum and beer that pairs characteristically with a football game. The constant drizzle did not dampen spirits. The cloth screen and projector were well-protected and banter was on the rise. When the weather turned worse, the usual grumbling was absent; the students merely opened a festoon of umbrellas and life went on. It was almost midnight in Kolkata when French team began their festivities, but the former was awake as well. It was not the victory the city was hoping for, and remnants of its love for Argentina and Brazil remained as their flags were still flying in some areas. That Sunday night was the last vestige of the city’s final hurrah before the waiting period of another four years commenced, Monday morning.

(The author, Bulbul Rajagopal, is a final year MA student in Kolkata. She is reporting intern and contributor at this blog. On her own relation with the game, Bulbul says: I do not actively support any team or club, but I enjoy studying the styles of play. Often, I am biased towards certain teams based on a few players, which would explain my irrational support for Argentina during the 2018 World Cup. Irrational, only because the team was running on the fumes of glory past and the lion’s share of the pressure was weighed down on the shoulders of Lionel Messi. Even while I study the game, I consider it important to look beyond the touchline, towards the people who observe football. To my knowledge, no sporting situation triggers banter as amusing as football does. The game has a history of friendly banter becoming ugly, even morphing into racism. But true ribbing in football is infectious and when done correctly, it is witty. I find it fascinating when minor arguments break out amongst people in this regard. I also thrive on the camaraderie that football offers and demands. I grew up in Kolkata and in my 22 years here, believe this city is right up there on the global list of cities that make the phrase ‘football frenzy,’ real.)

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