Joga Bonito: The beautiful game through the eyes of a humble fan

If you enter Suri Lane, from the Lower Circular Road end, the second building to your right belongs to the tea merchants – the Tosh family. One of their daughters were married to Shibaji Banerjee, the legendary Mohun Bagan goalkeeper. Banerjee was a celebrity.

His expertise assumed Himalayan proportions when it came to stopping penalty kicks. Radio commentators waxed eloquent how he would deliberately stand closer to one end and force the shooter’s kick towards the side HE had chosen. What thinking!

How could one even dare such tricks! So imagine my delight when I see this man – fair, athletic, tall right in front of my eyes speaking one day with my maternal uncle. For me he walked straight out of Pushpen Sarkar’s commentary to 14/1A Suri Lane, which was my uncle’s home. That was the first time I saw in flesh and blood a first division football player. I think he tousled my hair as well.

Shibaji Bannerjee

The earliest soccer match I recollect was a India versus Argentina encounter in the Nehru Cup. It was 1984 and television had just made its entry in the small town of Burnpur. We did not have a TV set but my friend Pradip’s uncle, who ran a shoe shop on Station Road, had one. We trooped to his home.

The picture was grainy to the point where someone was designated to hold the antenna pointing generally in the direction of Chitra cinema hall, opposite to which the TV transmitter had been erected. But what a match it was! Carlos Bilardo was the Argentine coach and Ciric Milovan India’s; you could never imagine a study of contrasts between the mercurial Bilardo and the stoic Milovan, who the team affectionately called Dadu. An almost international level Argentine team was thwarted by the Indians for 80 minutes before Gareca (now coach of the Peru national team) rose high, chested a cross down, swung away from Monoranjan Bhattacharya and unleashed a vicious right footer just past the outstretched hands of Atanu Bhattacharya and into the back of the net. The fellow holding the antenna in place came down immediately.

India vs Argentina, Nehru Cup 1984.

The first time I witnessed international soccer in all its glory was 1986 – the World Cup in Mexico. I learned about spectators standing and sitting in sinusoidal patterns and later someone at Dalhousie Institute told me it was called a Mexican Wave. I also learned of a man called Diego Maradona. I was witness to his magic against England as he took control of the ball in his own half and set out for the now famous seventy yard run.

That year in school I did horribly bad in Math (they wrote a letter to my father – that bad). The 1986 Maradona experience would have been infinitely sweeter if I could take away the numerous times my mother reminded me “Haan, dekho dekho – tomake oi Maradona-i udhdhaar korbe” (hopeless translation: Watch as much as you like. Maradona will be around to save you).

He wasn’t – but I somehow scraped through like how he took his team to the finals in the 1990 version of the World Cup.

Football ran in my family – so I grew up listening. My father played for the IISCO team I have heard – I have never seen him play. My father’s first cousin had apparently represented the country in international tournaments (which one, I have no idea). S. Roy – I don’t even remember Poltu-kaku’s full name, played for East Bengal Club. My father showed me his picture in a slim volume called “Club’er naam East Bengal” written by Shantipriyo Banerjee. He worked for Bengal Chemical and died a quiet surreptitious death at his home on Panditiya Road – even the know-all Google does not seem to have any fragment of memory of this left winger (Addition: The very kind @jaydeepbasu on Twitter threw light on S. Roy, Poltu-kaku. He played the 1952 Olympics and had none other than the great Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, Chief Minister of Bengal, clear him for health. This merits a separate post altogether!)

Just opposite to the Burnpur Stadium was its car park. A rather large open space where I have never seen a single car parked (Burnpur probably had about ten cars then). That tract of land was our playground.

My football season would begin with the lethargy overhang of the cricket season. I invariably would never get picked when teams were getting formed. Then I realized the more I ran up and down the pitch – even without the ball – the better I got at the game. Had Gladwell been around he might have found I did 10,000 runs before they started picking me in their teams.

It was in this Burnpur Stadium I first saw magic. Port Trust was playing some team in a competitive match. Port Trust had this young player, almost frail with a shock of curly hair and a dangly moustache. It was clear this was the last season for him at Port Trust before one of the big two of Calcutta Maidan picked him up. I have never seen, in person, Messi weave his magic.

But that rain soaked humid afternoon in Burnpur, on a pitch muddied and bereft of grass in patches I saw the genius of Krishanu Dey. The soccer ball at his beck and call and he splitting defences open with his left foot. The invisible glue that the rain wasn’t able to wash away holding the ball to his instep and like he had inserted a GPS enabled chip in the ball, it would find with mind numbing accuracy the other end of his assists. I saw him play just that once. I was sure he will make it big – real big possibly even on international circuits. Krishanu Dey passed away at the age of 41.

Krishanu Dey passed away at the age of 41.

Trust me, there is nothing more entertaining than watching soccer – a World Cup match too at that – in New York City. A cauldron, a melting pot of cultures that congregate to the pubs in Lower Manhattan to raucously support their own teams. It is quite an experience. I was to be at NYC the entire duration of the World Cup – I was excited like a teenager. But there was a larger problem to solve first.

This was 2006 and match timings from Germany were bang in the middle of the workday (Rich Seltzer, my colleague at Thomson Financial, said he’d tivo the matches, immediately adding a new word to my vocabulary). But help was closer at hand. The President of our Group and later CEO of the Daily Mail Group, Suresh Kavan, like manna from heaven, sent an all-staff email that every LCD screens in our office at 195 Broadway will screen the matches live.

That is, all these omnipresent screens across ten floors showing tick data from global markets would respectfully give way as Zinedine Zidane would toil the midfield! As we picked our jaws off the floor my boss Rajesh Naik shot a mail to Suresh – “thanks Suresh, this is a really wonderful gesture – thank you”. Barely had the mail landed in Suresh’s mailbox that Rajesh got the reply – “no worries Rajesh. I realized this is much easier than me being in the Irish pub across the street every day the next two months”

Football brings people together. I watched the 2002 world cup in Zimbabwe. My friend Jerry Gezana took me to the home of a complete stranger – a clerk at his bank who stayed nearby office – to watch the Brazil v England quarter finals (Owen had slipped one in to put England in the lead, sending widespread panic attacks in both Jerry and I).

Our host’s wife served us delicious beef pies that tasted even better as we watched Ronaldinho put through the winner and Roberto Carlos held off the likes of Beckham, Scholes and Michael Owen. Paul Spinelli, a brilliant software engineer and our colleague, was Italian and his girlfriend Argentine.

Trust me, there is nothing more entertaining than watching soccer – a World Cup match too at that – in New York City.

My boss Rajesh had invited them and us to Rajesh’s sister’s apartment on 1st Avenue to watch the Argentina v Mexico encounter. Italian, Argentine, Indian – all holed up in Namrata’s apartment overlooking the UN Building watching a soccer match played in Germany. That is sport. That is soccer – the beautiful game that brings people together. Makes friends out of complete strangers. In a world brimming of hate and constricting humanitarian boundaries I wish they played World Cup soccer every year.