As we walked towards Pannalal Chatterjee’s house in Khidderpore in Kolkata, campaigning for the civic elections was at its robust, chest-thumping peak. At a street-corner meeting, a high-profile candidate loudly declared his contribution to the sporting culture of the locality, especially his proven ability to organize football tournaments.
“Bunkum," responded 77-year-old Chatterjee, sitting in his second-floor apartment, visibly ruffled by the “noise pollution" all around. “These politicians think football is a soft target and will easily influence people. If all politicians did so much, India would have been playing in the World Cup."
Soccer fever: (from top) Wall paintings done by Kar during the 1998 World Cup; the Chatterjees have been attending every World Cup since 1982; and Kar. Photo: Ajoy Kar and Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The self-confessed “football fanatics" say it’s their way of ensuring that India does not go unrepresented at football’s biggest global extravaganza—in the stands, at any rate. As if to underline the point, the Chatterjees bring out a photograph of them draped in the Indian tricolour at a World Cup game—it has been an essential element in their travel bags to Spain, Mexico, Italy, the US, France, Japan/South Korea and Germany, all World Cup tournament hosts since 1982.
Then there is this photograph of them with Brazilian football legend, Pelé, taken outside a New Jersey stadium during the 1994 World Cup in the US. Eight years earlier, at Mexico, the Chatterjees had got themselves introduced to Pelé, who was staying in an adjacent hotel. In New Jersey, says Pannalal, Pelé picked them out from the long queue of spectators—Chaitali’s distinctly Indian sari reviving memories of their earlier meeting.
Travelling with the Chatterjees to South Africa are the cost-saving regulars—puffed rice (muri), biscuits and dry Bengali savouries—ensuring that their food bills are not exorbitant. “I never earned a lot, but saved every penny possible for our World Cup trips," says Chatterjee, a retired employee of the Dock Labour Board in Kolkata and a former first-division footballer who has been a key functionary at the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and has helped organize the Sikkim Governor’s Gold Cup. The Chatterjees don’t have children, so they are able to spend on football. “After all, we don’t need to save for a daughter’s marriage," giggles Chaitali as we get ready to leave.
Cut to the sprawling green expanse of the Maidan which lies at the centre of the city. It is also the nerve centre of Kolkata’s football tradition. On the way to the club tents of the Big Three of Kolkata football—Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting—one has to walk past the playing arenas of dozens of cub footballers battling it out in the summer heat. It’s still football over cricket here.
At the Mohammedan Sporting Club, Haji Nausaad dutifully turns up every evening at the canteen. It is the venue of the club’s 85-member strong fan club, where followers sit around and post-mortem Mohammedan Sporting’s matches, all of which they unfailingly attend. Even outstation games, says the club’s office secretary Akbar Ali. “You’ll find them even during the World Cup. Discussions then often focus on comparisons between Mohammedan Sporting and international football," says Sulaiman, the canteen in-charge.
“Everybody you see here is a football fanatic. We don’t know or care about anything else," adds Swapan Ball, a senior East Bengal club official. The curtains in his chamber are red and yellow, matching the team’s jersey. A framed photograph of Ball with German World Cup-er Gerd Muller when he visited Kolkata hangs on the wall. Club members are excited that one of them, Gopal Ghosh, will be travelling to South Africa as a volunteer at the World Cup, after clearing gruelling rounds of Fifa interviews. Yet another football dream realized in Kolkata.
Similarly, inside the Mohun Bagan club, are photographs from the club’s illustrious past, including one of the barefoot team which defeated a British outfit in 1911 to win the IFA Shield—a first for a “native" team. Then there are moments, captured and framed, of visits to Kolkata by World Cup icons such as the legendary Argentinian, Diego Maradona, and the German, Oliver Kahn.
But for Ganesh Upadhyay, 86, who has spent 70 of those years as a club member, only a single sporting occasion compares with the climactic moments of watching Mohun Bagan drub East Bengal. That was when Pelé strode in with his club team Cosmos to play against Mohun Bagan in Kolkata in 1977. “He didn’t play for too long, but showed some of his magic. My memory fails me, but didn’t Mrityunjoy tackle him?" asks Upadhyay.
Every four years, around the World Cup, Pelé revisits a 60x20ft wall at Harish Mukherjee Road. As do Maradona, Ronaldo, Klinsmann, Baggio, Valderrama, Zidane and other luminaries from the football field. They are all there courtesy self-taught artist and football devotee Ajoy Kar. Since 1986, when the 45-year-old artist first started work on the idea, the gigantic wall paintings have been funded by donations made by the local club Bhowanipur Shilpi Sangha and patronized by thousands of football fans who pass by the wall.
His dedication, says Kar, got him a railway job from the Trinamool Congress leader, Mamata Banerjee, during her first stint as Union railway minister. And his wall was spared during a city clean-up operation after CPM leader Anil Mukherjee intervened. When it comes to football, there are no political divisions, says Kar, a member of Bhowanipur Shilpi Sangha.
This year, he plans to paint on a large canvas placed in front of the wall of a private residence as the tournament progresses.
A neighbouring club in Kalighat has started similar initiatives, but Kar’s friend Pappu Das, also a member of Bhowanipur Shilpi Sangha, is unperturbed. “We have history behind us," he contends. “We organize feasts and cultural functions in front of the paintings. And there are body paintings done in (the) colours of Brazil and Argentina. Besides, we get a barber to shave (the) heads of volunteers and create World Cup motifs with their hair."
As Kar starts speaking again, Das contorts his face and launches into a chant: “ula lala, ula, lo, ula, lala, ula ula". The club’s members also organize impromptu singing competitions in keeping with Brazilian samba, I’m told, as Das ends his version with a “lu la lu la" flourish. Kolkata, clearly, is in step with the World Cup rhythm.