Monday, September 5, 2011

As always, a Messi affair in Calcutta

The title of this post is inspired by the social networking messages of one my clever friends, who obviously did not take the trouble of coming down to the city for the match. While it is true that the match did little to raise the profile of the city or of Indian football, perhaps no other city in the country would be able to bring in some 85,000 spectators, all of whom paid good money to catch a glimpse of Lionel Messi. I have little new to offer in terms of words to describe the brilliance of Messi, but what impressed me the most was the fact that he took the game very seriously and played at full pace for the entire 90 minutes even in the humid climate of Calcutta.

Though the organization of the game was a major improvement from what IFA/AIFF dish out to spectators during the I League or the Federation Cup, there was still a lot left to be desired especially with spectators having to queue for nearly 2 hours outside the stadium. What also struck me was the composition of the crowd which had come to see the match – it was a family crowd with a fair share of females and non Bengalis thrown in for good measure. In the couple of dozen club games I have seen at the Salt Lake Stadium over the last 10 years or so, I have never seen a single female attend any game. The stadium is never more than half full and the crowd almost exclusively consists of teenage boys and young men from the suburbs. I think this game is ample proof that with better organization, scheduling (who but the unemployed can attend a game on a Wednesday afternoon), marketing and creating enough hype and tamasha we can get a larger and wider spectator participation in local football games. I know people will bemoan the lack of quality in Indian football, but I would only point out to the fact that there were enough tight and entertaining games at the back end of the last ILeague which Salgaocar won playing a very attractive brand of football, edging out East Bengal in the last few games of the season.

There is also a need to create stars out of our Indian footballers other than Baichung Bhutia. Bhutia has been a great servant to Indian football and East Bengal, but his time is gone and it is time that the establishment started creating stars of other Indian footballers. I consider Mehtab Hussain, Rahim Nabi and Sunil Chetri to be among the best Indian players today, but while some people might just about recognize Chetri, very people have even heard of the Mehtab and Nabi. I am going to write something controversial here: may be the fact that they are Muslims and come from humble backgrounds is a factor in them not getting sporting headlines. In the past week I saw people literally mobbing Baichung at a pub in Kolkata while at Delhi Airport no one recognized Mehtab and Nabi even though they were in Indian colours.

I think I have ranted enough about the wrongs in Indian football and hence bored and turned off quite a few readers; let me now describe my entire experience of watching the Argentina vs Venezuela match at the stadium. My two friends Zubin and Rohan (of meeting with the girl in the taxi story fame) had come down from Delhi and Mumbai to attend the match. After picking them up from the airport and my friend Captain Vyom from his flat, we went to Affraa in City Center for a couple of drinks before heading to the stadium. This was very similar to the experience I had a couple of weeks ago when I had gone to see United play Spurs at Old Trafford and had few drinks with the Red Devils’ faithful at the Tollgate pub outside the stadium before and after the game.

We had to wait for nearly two hours outside the stadium – our tickets were for Gate 3 which had the longest queue; it was so long that some spectators were overjoyed just at reaching the end of it after walking for nearly 1 km. Still we managed to enter the stadium well in time and managed to get hold of fairly good seats near the half way line. The players had not yet started warming up but soon Messi emerged from the underground tunnel and this was greeted by a huge roar, something that was repeated for the next 2 hours every time Messi touched the ball. The game finished only 1-0 in favor of Argentina but Messi gave a memorable performance with scintillating bursts of acceleration and some unbelievable turns and almost all Argentine attacks went through him. After the game we tried going to Park Street to get dinner and then listen to the live band at Some Place Else but after being stuck in the stadium traffic jam for more than an hour, we settled for the much humbler Azad Hind Dhaaba in Salt Lake Sector V.

The next day we (Zubin, Rohan and me) went to Flury’s (it is pronounced as “Floory’s” for the uninitiated) for brunch and then we went to our college in Joka. We all three were from the same hostel and hence were a bit apprehensive as we had heard stories that our hostel (New Hostel) had almost become defunct and our regular haunt, Kotlerda’s shop had shut down. We were pleased to find that people were still staying at New Hostel (NH), but also disappointed to learn that people no longer played footer volley. We had the our regular drink of Lemon Soda at Kotlerda’s shop and thereafter went to have a look at the newest hostel of the campus, also called Land Vihin Hostel by some NH people as it is situated in the middle of a lake. We were shocked to see this hostel – it looked so modern and brilliant that it was almost out of place in the rest of the campus. We also happened to meet some of other people in campus like the mess workers, the 2 guys who run the coffee shop in the academic block – it was good to see that these people who have been associated with the college in their own small way for years now and have not really reaped any great benefits from the college, still remember ex students like us who have just spent 2 years of our lives here.

In the evening we went to Shisha Bar in Camac Street. I was 3rd time lucky having being refused entry due to lack of female company and shoes on two previous occasions. I felt that for the kind of publicity it gets, it is just an ok sort of place – but then I went during the early evening when the place was quite empty and not really buzzing. Post Shisha Bar, we went to another of our college day haunts, Oly Pub on Park Street. As usual we had to wait for nearly an hour to get a table and were told off by the waiters numerous times for obstructing them, but in the end it was worth it – not only for the heavy dose of nostalgia but also for the excellent continental food like the steak and the mixed grill. No visit to Oly Pub is complete without a visit to the Mecca of all Joka students, i.e. the Some Place Else pub in the Park hotel. We reached there to find the place already crowded with the blues band on stage. We stayed there for a couple of hours and we bumped into some present day students from Joka. Rohan was delighted to engage in some banter with the leading lady of the band, who actually really took his case over him pronouncing the song Layla as Laila (of Laila o Laila, Har koi chaye tujhe milna akela fame).

Overall it was a great weekend as I could visit my college haunts with my college buddies; at the same time I think a part of me has begun to painfully realize that while Calcutta may be great for the odd weekend of nostalgia, culture and the Pujas, it may be not really that exciting for staying permanently.