From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.34 :: NO.37 :: Sep. 15, 2011

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FOOTBALL / FOCUS

Bengal & football — the honeymoon continues

Beginning with the iconic goalkeeper from the former Soviet Union, Lev Yashin, who visited the city in 1955, the guest list continued to swell over the years. With more names joining the list, Kolkata held on to its stature as a great host of international football stars, writes Amitabha Das Sharma.

ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

Mesmerising Lionel Messi of Argentina works his magic against Venezuela in a FIFA international friendly in Kolkata.

It's Bengal (read Kolkata) more than any other place that has always been possessive about football. The people here are so passionate not only about the game but also its giants. This best explains the devotion of the people for international stars who, in turn, have acknowledged their enthusiasm by accepting the State's invitation to visit Kolkata from time to time.

Despite losing some of its prominence to Goa, which has been making rapid progress in football at the National level, Kolkata leans on its hoary past to beckon the luminaries of world football — both former and current.

Beginning with the iconic goalkeeper from the former Soviet Union, Lev Yashin, who visited the city in 1955, the guest list continued to swell over the years. With more names joining the list, Kolkata held on to its stature as a great host of international football stars.

Fresh on the list of Kolkata's illustrious visitors was the ruling deity of world football, Lionel Messi, who helped the people of the city realise a long-standing dream of watching a football star during the peak of his career. The FIFA international friendly between Argentina and Venezuela, thus, provided India the chance to improve its own football, according to the experts.

“The presence of these international stars brings football back in the minds of the people; this is one of the biggest positives. There is a lot of talk about football and this definitely heightens the interest in the game,” says India's biggest football icon, Baichung Bhutia.

Having devoted the best part of his career to the best of football clubs in Bengal, Bhutia admits that the great passion for football in the state is the reason why there is such a big craving for the international stars.

“One could see that people from other regions of the country too had come down to see Messi in action. His presence near home would definitely influence a lot of young kids in the country to take up the game,” says Bhutia, who is a strong votary of youth development, having started the Baichung Bhutia Football School in association with the noted Portuguese coach, Carlos Queiroz.

Putting the clock back, one would find that a big array of stars had visited the country even before. There was a big congregation of stars in the initial editions of the Nehru Cup, hosted by Bengal and Kerala alternately. The brainchild of former All India Football Federation secretary Asoke Ghosh, the Nehru Cup attracted teams such as Hungary, Poland, Uruguay and even Argentina in the 1980s, giving people a feast of international football.

“Such a match (the FIFA friendly) gives Bengal and India a place on the world (football) map, making the people outside realise our passion for the sport. But there is no direct benefit apart for the interest that the presence of players like Messi generates,” says former India captain, Prasun Banerjee. Prasun was an important member of the Mohun Bagan team that played against the Cosmos Club, led by the great Brazilian, Pele, in front of an over-flowing crowd at the Eden Gardens in 1977.

The list of football luminaries to arrive since Pele is long and includes players such as Enzo Francescoli (Uruguay), Jorge Burruchaga, Lazlo Kiss (Hungary), Roger Milla (Cameroon) and Oliver Kahn (Germany). The iconic German goalkeeper played his farewell match at the Salt Lake Stadium, the same venue where Messi showed his magical skills against Venezuela. And among those who did not play include the all-time great Diego Maradona, Brazilian Zico, the great German striker Gerd Mueller and the latest Uruguayan sensation Diego Forlan.

“Bengal's initiative is significant; by bringing top teams of the world like Argentina and Venezuela it is making us realise the professional viability of football.

“By seeing players like Messi, (Javier) Mascherano and (Gonzalo) Higuain one could gauge the real star qualities and how big an industry football is,” says Biswajit Bhattacharya, a former international and now a noted coach. “We should learn a lesson from their professional attitude and try to better our own infrastructure,” he adds.

Biswajit Bhattacharya is of the view that more such matches should be organised to keep people's interest in football alive.

* * *

THE MESSI MANIA

Lionel Messi's star appeal is not restricted to just the stadiums where people become delirious on seeing him invoke magic on the pitch. He is a crowd puller off the field too. The superstar and one of the greatest players in contemporary football had a first-hand experience of the ‘Messi Mania' in India as he arrived at the Netaji Subhas International Airport in Kolkata.

While a sea of fans gathered outside the gates of the airport, eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of their hero, the security officials and Messi's own special group of bodyguards from Argentina, had a tough time deciding how to take the star player to his hotel safely. And compounding their problem were the officials of various departments on duty at the airport, for even they wanted to get close to Messi. A number of such officials, along with their families, quickly gathered around the Argentinean, which prompted the security men to escort the player to a safe location. After a good wait of over 30 minutes, the security men managed to liberate Messi from his overzealous fans and whisk him away through a ‘secret' gate.

Messi later said that he was overwhelmed by the reception.

WHAT A MESS!

The Venezuelan team, hoping to post its first ever win against Argentina, had a rude shock when it learnt that the players' kit (boots, jerseys and other equipment) had gone to the Spanish capital, Madrid, instead of arriving in Kolkata. The team missed a vital day's practice ahead of its match against the mighty Argentina.

Celebrity Management Group, the sole rights holder of the FIFA friendly, tried to help, but in vain as the Venezuela players refused to wear the jerseys it had arranged from one of the big clubs in the city. The reason: the replacement kit did not have the logo of the team's sponsor.

Fortunately, the original jerseys arrived a day before the match. The Venezuelans, though, never mentioned the fiasco as the reason for their loss (18 in total) against Argentina.

TOUGH FOR THE REAL FANS

Football in Kolkata is kept alive by a legion of fans who hail from a modest economic background. There is a big section of supporters that comes from the suburbs to witness the city clubs, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, fight for supremacy.

The tickets are priced nominally — less than Rs. 50 — and that ensures a crowd of around 1,00,000 at the Salt Lake Stadium when the two city giants face off. But the price to see the giants of world football, Argentina, in action was beyond the reach of these die-hard fans; the organisers of the friendly had set the minimum price of the tickets at Rs.1000.

With the vast majority of the fans unable to afford tickets for the match, Messi became a preserve of Kolkata's so-called elite fans who are so used to watching the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and the Bundesliga on television.

A crowd of 70,000 watched the FIFA friendly, but the majority of the fans, who always brave the elements to see their favourite local teams play, could only wait outside the gates to catch a glimpse of Messi.



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