There is no news in Kolkata these days except Messi-spotting. The problem is the Argentine football superstar says next to nothing.
So after 600 words in a front page story we only learn that Lionel Messi smiled as the elevator doors closed.
The real story is happening outside. Outside the plush hotel where Messi and team are ensconced. Outside the Yuba Bharati Krirangan where Argentina and Venezuela will play in front of thousands of football crazy fans this evening.
That’s where you’ll find the real diehard fans. Like Barun Biswas, an Apollo Clinics employee who says he’s actually just waiting for a bus. But he’s wearing Argentina’s blue and white colours. “Just in case I see them,” he smiles. Or twelve-year old Biswajit Gayen and his friends who have been hanging out outside the Hyatt since early morning. “No bathing, no eating, nothing,” he says. “Some uncle gave us a Thums Up.” Or Sabuj Sarkar who’s propped up a homemade poster of Messi on his bicycle. It reads “Argentina and Venezuela are great. We are sorry. Play, India, play.”
“Our team Mohun Bagan defeated the British in 1911 but now we cannot even qualify for the World Cup even though we are such a big country,” says Sarkar. There are more football fans in West Bengal alone than the entire population of Argentina.
In a way the madness about Lionel Messi is also a story about the failure of Indian football.
“If Argentina had played India that would have been such a great gain for us,” says a teenager standing outside the hotel.
“Oh are you crazy?” scoffs the man standing next to him. “We would have needed twenty players on the field just to keep up.”
In fact, when Pele had come to Kolkata in 1977, he had played against Mohun Bagan at Eden Gardens.
“There definitely was that Mohun Bagan spirit then,” admits Utpal Ganguly, the general secretary of the Indian Football Association. “But there is a different excitement about seeing two high profile teams. I don’t think Argentina would have come all the way here to play India.”
“This 90-minute match won’t improve the standard of Indian football,” he says. “We have the passion. But we need to get our act together.” He wants to start an IPL-like football league in West Bengal next year.
What has also changed since the Pele days are the viewers. Back in those days, Kolkata football was all about its two arch-rival teams, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. As a Kolkatan you had to peg your identity to one or the other. When the two teams clashed, life came to a standstill. The price of hilsa went up if East Bengal won. The price of prawns shot up if Mohun Bagan prevailed. Football agnostics, like my family, just happily ate the losing side’s fish.
Everyone knew about the kings of football — the Peles and the Maradonas. But now television has brought the rest of world football into Indian homes. Nineteen year old Rudra Pratap Roy says he’s a “great fan of East Bengal.”
“But I am a die-hard fan of Liverpool,” he says. “Ever since I saw Robbie Fowler’s three minute hat trick against Arsenal.”
This generation of fans knows as much, if not more, about the strikers and midfielders of Manchester United and Newcastle as about the local teams that play in Kolkata’s muddy maidan. That’s good news for the organisers and sponsors of the Argentina-Venezuela showdown. The fans standing outside the hotel and the stadium are passionate not just Messi, but also Pablo Zabaleta and Xavier Mascherano and Gonzalo Higuain.
On the other hand, many are just happy to watch it on television. Roy says he cannot make the match. The teenager is also a punk rock guitarist and he has a concert on Friday evening. But someone will probably tape the match.
That’s been the nagging worry for people like Bhaswar Goswami from the Celebrity Management Group which bought the rights to the Messi games in Kolkata and Dhaka for Rs 22 crore. There are 1.2 lakh seats to fill in Kolkata. On Tuesday Goswami was ruing that only 55,000 tickets had been sold. The prices are on the higher side, ranging from Rs 700 to Rs 5000. There are more hyperbolic television headlines about: “Messi madness” and “Messi unmadona (craze)” than there are lines at the freshly painted ticket counters of the Yuva Bharati Krirangan. But ticket sales have picked up since Messi actually landed. The lower denomination tickets have sold out.
“I came to buy two tickets,” says Sanjay Basak. “But I only had enough money for one.” His friend might just have to watch on television.
“I don’t mind seeing the replay on television but it’s a different excitement to watch it on the field,” says Indranil Pal. He works for Rose Valley, one of the sponsors of the game. He remembers going to a neighbour’s house to watch the Pele match 24 years ago. Now he cannot wait to watch this match live.
As for ticket sales, with typical Bengali sang-froid, he says “Ticket sales hoye jaabe (will happen). At least 85-90 percent.” But then he adds, “You have to remember this is not cricket. Women don’t come to watch football the way they come to see IPL.”
That is true. Two middle aged women in salwars and sneakers show up for their afternoon walk in the stadium. When the security guard tells them that it’s closed for Messi and they’ll have to come back on Saturday, they are nonplussed.
“Who’s Messi?” says one indignantly. “But we come here every day for our walk.” Parimal Das, an auto driver standing near the gate shakes his head. He says he doesn’t understand all this hoopla about Messi. He doesn’t understand how people are spending 2,000 rupees to watch a football match.
He complains that ever since the new government came to power he hasn’t been able to ply his auto even though he has a permit. “I used to belong to CITU,” he says. “So now the Trinamool boys won’t let us get our cars on the road. We are just wandering on the streets. I have gone to every politician I can find, from the MLA to the police to the mayor, but nothing happens. I am close to suicide.”
“The journalists are here to cover Messi not auto rickshaws,” laughs the security guard.
“But they are all here, newspapers, TV,” he says hopefully “Everyone will be here. Maybe even Didi. I have to get this to her ears.”
Parimal Das might be out of luck. The newspaper reports today that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is skipping Kolkata’s match of the decade.