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World Cup 2014: Who do you love?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 06-06-2014 Indrajit Hazra

Six people sitting in a circle while out on a picnic are playing a memory game. Each person repeats the names of the famous personalities that the earlier one has rattled off and adds another to the list. If anyone forgets a name or makes a mistake in the sequence, he or she is out of the game. The first person chooses Rabindranath Tagore, the second Cleopatra, the third (West Bengal Congress leader) Atulya Ghosh, the fourth Helen of Troy, the fifth Mao Zedong, the sixth William Shakespeare. New names keep getting added, each player dropping off one by one, until there’s a winner.

Satyajit Ray used this scene in his 1969 cinematic adaptation of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Aranyer Din Ratri (Days And Nights In The Forest) to highlight how the choice of name reflected the character’s personality. In a variation of that memory game, I have the names of three footballing sides, my loyalty to each of them being the most faithful display of my personality:

Mohun Bagan.

Mohun Bagan, Arsenal.

Mohun Bagan, Arsenal,


On paper, there is nothing odd about supporting three entities engaged in the same enterprise. We have shuffled our way closer to cheering both the Indian cricket team as well as an Indian Premier League side of our choice. And yet, there is something odd about pledging one’s heart to a football club, any football club, that plies its trade in a country which occupies the No.147 spot (shared with Singapore) in a Fifa ranking list of 207. And it seems nothing short of moronic if the club you cheer for is No.9 in the 13-club I-League, even if that’s like supporting an embarrassing favourite uncle.

But then, how odd is it to cheer for a north London football club sitting in east Delhi? The only purpose in doing so would seem to be to make folks believe that one is, like the preening owner of an iPad in a village, part of something shinier, better and not provincial.

To love football as it is performed in India, you have to love the inconsequential. Top-notch football is about players crafting moments of control from stretches of chaos. Luck, not to be scoffed at, is wheedled into the equation. Author David Winner, in an interview with Dennis Bergkamp, asked the former Dutch and Arsenal striker how he could see “the possibilities” on the field in advance.

“I always had a picture in my head of how it would be in 3 seconds or 2 seconds,” explained Bergkamp. “I could calculate it, or sense it. I’d think, ‘He’s moving this way, and he’s moving that way, so if I give the pass with that pace neither of them can touch it because they are moving away from my line’.” This is football as precognition.

In almost every match in the Uefa Champions League, the Copa Libertadores, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga and English Premier League, not to mention the world cup, you get to see streams of this calculating, sensing, thinking play. In India, even in the best games with the best footballers, chance is left to be the star player. So why watch a toothless version of the game?

Because what is lacking on the pitch is made up for by the mythology swirling around a club like Mohun Bagan and by what it means to belong to an imagined tribe. Which is why each time I see Mohun Bagan’s Odafa Okolie, Ram Malik or Pankaj Moula make a run for it down the flank and enter the goal mouth, my heart leaps the same way it does when Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud, Mesut Özil or Jack Wilshere cluster forward in a raiding mission.

My origins as a Bagan fan lie in my pre-teen years in 1970s Kolkata. Mohun Bagan was a default choice since being a “west” Bengali in the city, our family was “maroon-green” in football and “hammer-sickle” in politics. I read about (Narayanswami) Ulaganathan, Xavier Pius, Bidesh Bose, Jamshid Nassiri, Majid Bishkar (which we all mispronounced as “Bhaskar”) and Shyam Thapa along with match reports in the Anandamela, Khela, Shuktara and Sportsworld magazines, cutting out their photos for my scrapbooks.

This relationship was sealed in 1978 with a miracle. In a Calcutta Football League match against East Bengal, Mohammed Habib received a cross that he headed towards Shyam Thapa, who was standing with his back facing the East Bengal goal. The glorious Thapa executed a “back volley”—a bicycle kick—and slung the ball into the East Bengal net.

As television entered the house in the early 1980s, I became a more devout football spectator (and an unsatisfactory footballer). Magazines had also started carrying features on international football. The likes of Soviet footballers Anatoliy Demyanenko and Oleg Blokhin entered my bloodstream. I sketchily followed the 1982 World Cup in Spain, growing especially fond of the “coolest human being on Earth”, the Brazilian captain Socrates. International football slowly became an exotic supplement to my Indian (read: Kolkata) football diet.

All that changed on the night of 22-23 June 1986, as our black and white EC TV screen, covered by a blue “anti-glare” plastic filter, beamed the image of a Minotaur in blue-and-white stripes knifing a meandering 60m air corridor in 10 seconds and tearing through six scrambling figures whose collective name I would memorize forever as Beardsley-Reid-Butcher-Fenwick-Butcher-Shilton. That was my moon-landing.

After that mouth-gaping world cup quarter-final match, I came to realize that a substantially higher form of football existed outside the purely tribal arena of scrappy-scratchy Kolkata football. Running alongside my Mohun Bagan, I chose to explore this enticing, intelligent and beautiful form of football through epic heroes such as Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Zinedine Zidane, Bergkamp, and that footballer about whom George Best said: “I don’t recognize myself in the players I see today. There’s only one who excites me, and that is Thierry Henry. He’s not just a great footballer, he’s a showman, an entertainer.” I chose Arsenal as my third and final pit stop during Henry’s first season with the Gunners in 1999. It was love one last time.


Arsenal, Mohun Bagan.

Arsenal, Mohun Bagan,


Argentina’s Lionel Messi during a game. Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty ImageSo now I cheer on Mohun Bagan even as a far more professionally run neophyte such as Bengaluru FC (where are their fans?) topped this season’s I-League. I also hold steady by Arsenal, no matter how pointless things get. As for Ar-gen-tina!, with their sheer football à la rock ‘n’ roll, it’s time God lends them more than a hand so that they can wreak vengeance for making me weep in the company of German strangers in a New Delhi bar when the trio of Thomas Müller, Miroslav Klose, Arne Friedrich and once again Klose mutilated Argentina—Lionel Messi’s Argentina—and flung them out of the 2010 South Africa World Cup.

In Dibyendu Palit’s short story Brazil, 57-year-old East Bengal-supporting Kinkor Dutta is a much-harried office-goer who has only one thing to look forward to: Brazil beating France in the quarter-final match at the 1986 Mexico World Cup. Sitting in Kolkata, his support for Brazil is as manic as it is tragic. “It’s the country of Pelé, Garrincha, Tostão, Jorginho—they don’t know how to lose,” he tells his son, who corrects him: “They couldn’t do anything in the last two World Cups.” When a colleague asks Kinkor why he’s so fanatical about his team, he mutters, “I don’t know why but it feels like Brazil is my team, as if they are like us...”

On the morning of 21 June 1986, after offering prayers at the Kalighat temple, on his way to work, Kinkor asks himself why indeed he loves Brazil. “He found no answer. Then he thought, ‘Why do I love Shomu (his son)?’” After finding no answer to this question either, his eyes well up with tears. The story ends in tragedy, with Brazil losing in a penalty shoot-out. Kinkor’s firm belief that Brazil would win that night had been his strongest protection against a hostile world.


Argentina, Arsenal.

Argentina, Arsenal,

Mohun Bagan.

Indrajit Hazra is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist.

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