That glare was probably at its most blinding two years ago, when India hosted its first official FIFA-recognised international friendly. Argentina played Venezuela in Kolkata’s Salt Lake Stadium, with Lionel Messi leading the line.
I was among the crowd when the “God of Football” (as most Indian papers piously anointed Messi) came to earth in Kolkata. His side cobbled together a 1-0 win, but the result was incidental to the event and its star. In the build-up to the match, national media tracked Messi’s footsteps, naps and sandwiches as if we needed proof he was real. A city pinched itself. With kick-off fast approaching and the anarchic line outside Salt Lake Stadium looping on itself, men pushed ahead. “Hurry, hurry,” they laughed in Bengali, “Messi will hit the floor once and decide to go home.” (Much to everyone’s surprise, he played the full ninety minutes). Hawkers harried those of us who shuffled along with our dumb faith in the utility of queues. A man in a floral shirt with henna-dyed hair tried to sell Argentina “hats”—paper cones painted with stripes of blue. “Maradona wore this hat,” he joked, “Batistuta wore this hat, Burruchaga wore this hat.” And Messi? He was startled. “Messi? Why would Messi wear a hat?”
In Kolkata, in an unfamiliar climate and unfamiliar city, Messi simply played.
The little Argentinian forward tends to respond to spectacle and hype with rather predictable professionalism. On Salt Lake Stadium’s quick artificial surface, in an unfamiliar climate and unfamiliar city, he simply played. That in itself was its own joy for the 75,000 or so who came to see him.
Kolkata is no stranger to football’s showmen. In his dotage, Pelé (along with Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto et al) landed in the city with the New York Cosmos in 1977, plodding through a friendly against local club Mohun Bagan. Not to be outdone, Diego Maradona visited a few years ago. A tour that included a meeting with an iconic Communist politician eventually brought him to Salt Lake Stadium, where he did kick-ups for the masses, blew kisses, pumped his fists in the air. He was in his element, every bit the happy demagogue. Uruguayan forward Diego Forlan cut quite a different figure in 2010. Fresh from his World Cup successes, he appeared on a reality TV show before presiding over a friendly at Salt Lake Stadium, sitting glumly on the sidelines in a polo shirt and trousers. Other big names have visited and played in Kolkata, from the “Black Spider” Lev Yashin to Oliver Kahn, whose last appearance for Bayern Munich was in a friendly in Salt Lake Stadium against Mohun Bagan.
Messi arrived in Kolkata not as a bystander, a tin-pot celebrity, or a veteran rubbing his knees and pinching his pennies. Still in the long summer of his prime, he came in earnest. He was watched in earnest, too. The crowd thrilled every time Messi received the ball, chipped and flicked to his colleagues or floated through Venezuela’s midfield. He has this marvelous way of carrying the ball that’s all the more evident when seeing him in person, at once energetic and graceful, bustling and gliding. But as Argentina struggled to break through, fans threw up their hands at missed connections or teammates’ turnovers. Venezuela launched counter-attacks down the right, disheveling Argentina’s left-back. The crowd sportingly applauded such forays, but yearned for an Argentina goal.
Messi, for Barcelona. Photo by Christopher Johnson
Salt Lake Stadium was smothered in white and blue, colors adopted not out of fickle interest in the occasion but rather from old allegiance. Unlike many other parts of the country, Kolkata has long been home to passionate football supporters from all class backgrounds, plugged into the global game. The city is fairly evenly divided between those who support Argentina and those who support Brazil. During major international tournaments, the flags of both countries can be seen flying across the city. Fireworks and street celebrations greet their victories, lamentation and public gloom their defeats.
Messi, of course, made the game’s only goal, finding the head of defender Nicolas Otamendi from a corner. It was enough. The crowd chanted his name and the papers the next day crooned that the world’s best footballer had shown his greatness in India. One report suggested he may have found his grandest stage. “Camp Nou, La Bombonera, or Salt Lake Stadium? It’s for Messi to decide.” “Messi Magic Mesmerises” honked the Times of India. In truth, there were only glimpses of the sublime in his performance. There was application, and that was sufficient to flatter an audience that was won over from the start.
If FIFA and the match’s organizers have their way, such “magic” and visits “gods of football” will become increasingly mundane in India. Glittering international and club sides will visit more frequently, just as they now grace the United Arab Emirates’ castles in the sand and the chrome and steel stadiums of east Asia. As one FIFA official huffed recently, “India’s full potential in football is, given the size of the country, enormous.” The intention here is less to breed a new generation of Indian footballers, and more to produce consumers of football, to build the popularity and appeal of the international game amongst the country’s growing middle class. Kolkata may be a traditionally football-loving city, but the middle class across cricket-crazy India is warming to the charms of the top European leagues. In this sense, Messi came to India as the leanest, fittest, ambassador of the sport ever seen in the country. Many Indians from all over the country watched as he trudged off the Salt Lake Stadium turf. Glued to their satellite TVs at all sorts of odd hours, even more will continue to follow him and his peers at the highest, most gleaming levels of the game.