If cricket is akin to religion, football is a way of life in Kolkata. While in the city you can hardly escape football fever. As you can’t escape its warmth, so is the heat and ultimate high of the game here. If the city is heart, football echoes its beat. If it exudes passion, in football it finds expression.
Football and Kolkata match so seamlessly because both the city and the sport can create magic out of little. If there are a group of boys, a spherical object and some space, there has to be a match. A unique scuffle follows. Crowd gathers instantly.
The other day, a nondescript lane in a cosmopolitan area of south Kolkata was closed to public vehicles and local pedestrians. Apparently nonplussed, people gathered that local boys had their final match of Para Football (sponsored by a soft-drink major) to be held there. Soon the vicinity populated by a flock of residents, living there for ages, turned into a cauldron of excitement and emotion. Both veterans and newbies showed up at the windows of buildings on either side of the narrow passage, each stared down below; a few even craned their necks out of their terraces to watch the proceedings of the match. “It’s not only Bengalis, whoever lives in the city becomes a football fanatic,” says Kebal Singh Wallia, a Punjabi young man. “Nowhere in India does football leave local residents in a state of sheer craze.” Rajesh Parikh echoes a similar sentiment. In Kolkata, football unites people from all creeds, castes, religions and beliefs.
Next time you don’t need to lie through your teeth to get away from office, slip a ticket for the derby match into the drawer of your Boss’s desk. Your leave will be sanctioned. In the peak season it stops mattering whether you are a corporation clerk or a corporate captain or a business baron. It is football that breaks all the barriers and sets a kind of passion in everyone. It is perhaps the excitement; the die-hard supporters of clubs and the thrill of a ball being shot into the goal-post leaves the spectators of Kolkata enthralled over generations.
Idolising the game Kolkata worships football and footballers. It, literally, deifies the star footballers. In many homes, posters of Sony Norde, Ranty Martins, Katsumi Yusa, Cornell Glen, Mehtab deck the walls. Football competes hands down with film in Kolkata. Graffiti of Borja Fernandez, Ofentse Nato, Juan Jesus Calatayud Sanchez, Stiven Mendoza, Bruno Pelissari – star footballers in Indian Super League – on the walls still draw attention of public. In fact, during the peak season, attention shifts from matinee idols to star footballers, Debjit, Bikramjit, Balwant or Arnab and others.
Football reaches even kitchens in Kolkata. If we trust rumours a bit, the mild banter between mother-in-law from Opar Bangla (Bangladesh, erstwhile East Bengal) and bride from Epar Bangla (West Bengal) culminates in a lukewarm argument. Both are equally vociferous to prove the supremacy of their favourite team, as Jeje Lalpekhlua bombards a right-footer into an East Bengal’s net or Dong Hyun-Do dribbles past the Bagan-defenders to level the score line. If the mother-in-law is a die-hard supporter of East Bengal, then the daughter-in-law is a Mohun Bagan fanatic. Leg-pull continues until the father-in-law reminds that out of 11 Mohun Bagan players of the legendary 1911 team, eight players had their ancestral homes across the Padma, now Bangladesh. The stubborn East Bengali and the loyal Mohun Bagani had no option but to accept the fact.
Even prices of fishes fluctuate following the results of matches here. If Mohun Bagan wins, prices of tiger prawns and jumbo lobsters shoot up; East Bengal’s victory sets the price of hilsa to a sky-high level.
Be it gruelling summer or nagging monsoon, tempo of the game remains pumped up as ever. If you want to call yourself Kolkatan – you must have interest in football and fish; poetry and politics and Rabindranath-Ray-Rosogolla.
However, as Calcutta changed to Kolkata; can change even further; but the camaraderie between the city and football never does and perhaps will never.
Written by Partha Mukherjee & Priyanka Mukherjee