By Moinak Dutta
There is sufficient justification in the saying that Bengali people are football crazy. After all, we Bengalis have more football clubs than any other place in the country. Historically, Mohan Bagan, a football club of Kolkata, is the oldest national club. And later on, East Bengal, Mohamedan Sporting, Aryans, Tollygunge Agragami originated in Kolkata, making the city, specifically Kolkata Maidan, the mecca of football in our country.
Now that the FIFA World Cup is in full swing, causing several upsets, with defending champion Germany, along with other famed footballing countries such as Argentina, Spain, Portugal, already making an exit, I am thinking of my first tryst with World Cup Football. The year was 1986 and Mexico was the host.
As a nine or ten-year-old kid in 1986, I noticed that our colony had got decked up with flags from different countries. In those days, knowing capital cities of countries, their respective flags and currencies was part of our school General Knowledge (GK) books. So we could relate to those flags, mostly of Latin American countries. At the time, the football world was largely dominated by Latin American countries and football fanatics across the nation were rooting for either Brazil or Argentina. The skill and deft touches of passing and creating patterns on the field, dribbling, defeating defenders by sheer footwork enthralled all and for some reason most of the football watchers in this part of the globe believed that Latin American countries played it better than their European counterparts.
Lack of availability of television sets did not deter us and our elder brothers in the colony from watching football. We would go to one house in the locality, where there used to be that technological marvel, a TV put in a box with shutters made of plywood. At that time, a company called Uptron sold those TVs here and some fortunate people owned them. We were fortunate too for we were allowed to watch the matches in their houses sitting in front of the boxes at wee hours even.
I remember we used to collect posters of our favourite football heroes and put them up in our rooms with a lot of pride. Once I put up pictures of my favourite heroes – Maradona, Pele, Maldini, Roberto Baggio, Caniggia, Kilnsmann, etc. – on the wall of our small drawing-cum-bedroom. My dad, who was a stern person, became very sombre seeing them. I thought he would ask me to remove them. But to my wonder and astonishment, he not only gave a curious smile but quizzed me over their full names and their countries. The full name of Pele was the most difficult one to remember but I did manage after he let me know that. He further encouraged my enthusiasm by promising me to show a documentary film on football, The Giants of Brazil. He did take me and my mother to a charity show at the local cinema hall (the only cinema hall in the locality then).
In those days, a chocolate company started offering free picture postcards of footballers bearing their pictures and their brief footballing statistics. We would buy those chocolates only for those cards. Sometimes we would exchange cards with friends if we found we got two or more cards of the same player.
I remember how we would spend night after night watching football. The elder ones would argue on the passes being made, on penalties missed, on free-kicks going haywire. Like curious and inquisitive children, we would just try to gather from their arguments and debates necessary information, which we would share with our school mates, without actually knowing much about strategies, game plans, football team formation on the field.
We just remembered terminologies like avid students and blurted them out at school or at our afternoon ritual of football matches. Someone would say, that is ‘tiki taka’; someone would yell ‘let’s make a diamond formation’. All those were part of our vocabulary.
Ignited by the World Cup mania, football tournaments would be organised in our locality and we would take on the role of spectators on the sidelines as our elder brothers battled it out on the field.
The World Cup had a curious relation to our studies. It meant we had to slog extra hours studying to compensate for our hours watching TV. Even the most insincere ones in studies like me would sit with books after returning from school without my parents asking me. I knew I had to do it because that would give me the allowance to go to the neighbour’s house to watch a football match.
After the 1986 World Cup, which was made more famous by the ‘Hand of God’ controversy, came Italia 1990. How heart-broken we were seeing our favourite Argentina being defeated by Germany. Brehme became a household name. I remember one kid in our locality being christened ‘Lothar’ after the German captain. For the first time, I found people finding interest in ‘power football’ relying more on strength, grit, and stamina than skill. However, for some purists, that genre of football as propagated by the Germans never appeared visually alluring.
I also pleaded with my mother to give me ten rupees so I could buy a special football world cup edition of a sports magazine, named Sportstar, which had as centrespread a very captivating picture of Lothar. I did not put up that picture on the wall but kept neatly folded in my reading desk drawer. Whenever I felt the monotony of study pulling me down, I would just bring out the picture, take a look at it, and feel good instantly.
In those days, when there were no computer games, no smart phones, no other sources of entertainment, these simple things like cards and pictures brought us immense joy, something which I still miss like the way I miss those black and white TV sets and the warm hospitality of neighbours of a close-knit community living with togetherness and bonhomie.
Moinak Dutta is currently engaged as a teacher of English. He has been writing poems and stories from school days and many of his poems and stories have been published in national and international anthologies and magazines. He was awarded prizes for poetry and short story by Get Bengal, a philanthropic organisation, in 2017. His debut fiction, “Pestilence”, was published in 2009. He has subsequently published two more short stories with Lifi and Xpress Publications. Moinak loves doing photography, apart from listening to music.
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