TWO BIRDS, ONE FOOTBALL

At Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata (Photo: courtesy Arpit Nayak)

Kolkata is India’s football capital. Late September 2018, Legends of Mohun Bagan AC and FC Barcelona engaged in a crowd and brand-pleasing face-off. Bulbul Rajagopal was there at the stadium in Kolkata. She sent in this article about the sentiment behind a clash of legends. There is sport and there is what you can do with sport. Two birds; one football…..

By the time Jofre Mateu netted the sixth and final goal for FC Barcelona in the second half of stoppage time, sealing absolute victory for his team, the stands of Kolkata’s Salt Lake stadium were already singing a different story. The throng of 25000 had risen to their feet, chanting: Mohun Bagan, in the manner of a fevered anthem. On the night of September 28, the legends of Mohun Bagan faced tremendous defeat – 6-0 – at the hands of their rivals; that too, on home ground. But in the city’s eyes they had won by dint of spirit.

To the average Calcuttan, 2018 has been quite the year for football. Much like the city’s revered Durga Puja and the lead up to it, what had kept fans’ blood pumping was the countdown to the FIFA World Cup. Midway through its proceedings, Football Next Foundation struck while the iron was still hot. Towards the end of June, Kolkata was treated to the announcement of a tussle between the legends of Mohun Bagan Football Club and FC Barcelona. From a pool of 51 former players, 30 were selected to play and wear the jersey on match day. Mohun Bagan is India’s oldest football club and among its most respected. It is also one of Asia’s oldest football clubs and in Kolkata, the club traditionally favored by the social group of Bengalis native to West Bengal since the partition of India. The reasons for staging a match between legends from the Indian and Spanish clubs were several. Needless to say, football as market was one of the leading thoughts. Kaushik Moulik, the founder of Football Next Foundation believes football is a tool that can bump up brand and engagement value. “ Few in the western world know that India is a force to be reckoned with in football; fewer still know of its untapped marketing potential,’’ he said. One of Moulik’s prime concerns was that in spite of steady clamoring for the promotion of heritage, “ no one is really doing anything about it to further the cause. This is where Football Next stepped in.’’

Asked if football was being showcased in the light of cricket being generally more favored in India, Moulik was quick to state that football has always ruled the roost. “ In the corporate sector, it is football that is played by most employees. It builds teams and character,’’ he said. With the Barca-Mohun Bagan match, his organization wanted to send across the message that football can not only be viewed and played in the Indian market, but it is also relevant to shaping social development and business opportunity. Barca Legends were no stranger to this line of thought. The Legends initiative was set up to promote the global image of FC Barcelona and to help its players earn livelihood after retirement. Moulik justified the choice of pitting the local team against the Spanish giants on grounds of popular appeal. “ Barcelona has always featured in the group of names that crop up when you think ‘football’. Besides profit, this choice was made because it was governed by people’s tastes,’’ he said. The match was not a venture of Football Next alone. A partner in the scheme was real estate brand – Merlin Group. Their involvement concerned development of sports infrastructure in the city. “ We want to bring out hidden sports talent from the lower strata of society and into the limelight,’’ said Merlin’s Joint Managing Director, Saket Mohta. Amid corporate influence, philanthropy also featured as a cause. All proceeds of the match – with tickets ranging from Rs. 250 to almost Rs. 1500 – were to be donated to West Bengal’s Liver Foundation.

Game in progress (Photo: courtesy Arpit Nayak)

This was not the first time Salt Lake’s Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan (VYBK) Stadium saw such high-powered action. Back in 2008, the stadium was the farewell ground for Bayern Munich’s then-captain Oliver Kahn. Hailed by most football lovers in the city as “ King Kahn,’’ the German goalkeeper played his last competitive club match against none other than Mohun Bagan to a crowd of 120,000, with Bayern winning 3-0. In 2010, Football Next, ever an analyzer of football trends and in an effort to fund underprivileged homeless children, went on to organize a charity match between Bayern Munich and Mohun Bagan’s age-old rival East Bengal. The timing of their next venture could not have been more perfect. Weeks prior to the much-awaited Barca Legends match, the first Kolkata derby of the season had occurred between the sparring clubs of Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Unlike matches against international players, sentiments run wild during derbies purely because the outcomes are taken personally given the histories of both teams. Spectators see the derby as the remnants of the rage – now diluted into strong banter – caused by the division of their homeland. Having ended in a 2-2 stalemate, Mohun Bagan’s fans were more charged than before, hoping for some sort of vindication in the match against Barcelona.

However, the match bore different result. Under the combined strength of Javier Saviola, Roger Garcia, Pedro Landi, Jani Litmana and Mateu, each of the six goals that were driven home were met with outrage from the home team’s supporters despite the fact that many of them were Barcelona loyalists as well. Outnumbering the scattering of Barcelona’s blue, red and maroon jerseys (many bearing the name of Lionel Messi) were the green and maroon of Mohun Bagan. “ These colors are more of an emotion for us,’’ said die-hard fan, Arka Roy. Confronted with the dilemma of which team to support, Roy pointed to his friend Ritam Sinha who in spite of being a Barcelona supporter, had turned up in Mohun Bagan colors, complete with face paint. “ I’d like to think I am Indian first, so I am favoring Mohun Bagan. The rest come later,’’ Sinha, an independent filmmaker, said. The crowd at VYBK mostly shared Sinha’s sentiment of supporting Mohun Bagan being a “ necessity’’ even as getting to watch their opponents play was a rarity, not to mention, luxury. Anjan Mitra, Honorary Secretary of Mohun Bagan AC believed that both clubs matched each other in legacy. FC Barcelona was founded in 1899 while his team was established 10 years earlier in 1889. “ We might not match them in terms of the heavyweight World Cup and national players they have but we are no less in terms of richness in football history,’’ Mitra said.

The home team had former star-players like Bhaichung Bhutia, Ashim Biswas, Habibur Rahman and Jose Ramirez Barreto. For months on end, there was uncertainty about the match as questions regarding permission from football bodies like FIFA, UEFA, and the Spanish Football Federation arose. However, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) permitted the match to occur with the release of a No Objection Certificate (NOC). Here too, the timing was impeccable and throws light on the planning and business acumen. The AIFF slotted the match days before the start of this year’s Indian Super League (ISL) season at Kolkata. All this point to how over time football has permeated almost all aspects of the city. Kolkata and the game are now one.

From the match (Photo: courtesy Arpit Nayak)

The Friday night of the match in Kolkata, Javier Saviola was a little over two months shy of marking his first decade since retiring from international football. Thunderous uproar shook Salt Lake Stadium in the seventh minute of the match when the former member of Argentina’s national squad opened the account for FC Barcelona. He netted the first of half a dozen goals Mohun Bagan collected in the outing. A few fans, probably those inclined to be with the winning side of things – cheered as Barcelona forged ahead. The majority of the crowd felt let down. The Mariners – that’s what Mohun Bagan’s fans are called – clung to hope; it was evident that they were pepped up by the spirit of competition. Nevertheless every goal that Barcelona’s players expertly weaved into the post was simply another nail in Mohun Bagan’s coffin. In their worst moments, the home team was roused by the loyalty of their fans. At one point, almost the whole stadium showed its support by turning on the torchlight in spectators’ cellphones – the new-age counterpart of lighters being waved in the air at rock concerts – accompanied by chants of Mohun Bagan. However, frustration was palpable towards the end. Some even kicked the stands in anger while their friends in the opposing camp mocked. When it was all too certain that this was a lost battle for Mohun Bagan, humor kept the Mariners going;  laughter, more towards self for losing since each fan felt an extension of the team, mingled with dejection. By the end of almost two hours, Mohun Bagan – after putting up a fight – had won the hearts of those watching. Amidst cries of “ Well, they were no match for Barca…I have seen better para matches…’’ were also hopeful strains of “ Next time…we’ll win next time.’’

(The author, Bulbul Rajagopal, is a final year MA student in Kolkata. She is reporting intern and contributor at this blog. She does not actively support any football team or club but enjoys studying the game and its league of fans. She grew up in Kolkata and believes the city is right up there on the global list of cities that make the phrase ‘football frenzy,’ real.)

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