By Anamika Chatterjee
When I was young — more specifically, the age when you dream big dreams and hope for them to come true — my father led me to believe he might just be the Alex Ferguson of West Bengal football.
His Manchester United was the East Bengal club, a professional football team based in West Bengal, India. My father would handle the logistics of the team whenever it played in Delhi and, sometimes, other states. He also had strong opinions on the players’ fitness, even though he himself was on the heavier side.
His emotional investment in the team must yield more tangible results, or so I thought until I was told he was doing this at the behest of his best friend. We lovingly called him Football Uncle. He happened to be the secretary of the team and had assigned a few tasks to my father owing to his obsession with the game.
On the days East Bengal won, dad would bring home pizzas from the nearest Nirula’s (a local fast food chain in New Delhi).
On the days it lost, he would nurse his broken heart over a glass of grape and Doordarshan. On the days the team did absolutely nothing, Manchester United — and the English Premiership, at large — consumed him. As the roars of ‘GOALLLLL’ emerged from our living room, my mother would take me and my brother out for a walk to the nearest ice cream vendor. “Football is important to him,” she would tell us, clearly betraying the frown on her face.
What might have begun as love for football took a serious turn when I was about nine years old. Having won the IFA Shield in Kolkata, Durand Cup in Delhi, East Bengal was now eyeing the coveted Rovers Cup in Mumbai to bag the ‘triple crown’. The historic moment had to be witnessed by my father — no ifs or buts.
Unfortunately, his employer didn’t share his views. So, when he applied for a two-day leave, it wasn’t granted until an hour before his scheduled Mumbai Rajdhani was to leave the New Delhi Railway Station. My father, however, had kept his bags ready, along with a resignation letter, in case the employer did not relent. As we saw him off to the nearest autorickshaw, my father patted my head and said, “Pray for East Bengal!”
Passion is not an idea that serves a nine-year-old mind. Perhaps that is why I never really understood, or empathised with, my father’s obsession for football. His willingness to give up on the security of a job was certainly not part of the middle-class template of life that we’d been used to. Football seemed disruptive. For those 90 minutes when my father watched a match, he was a fan first and everything else later. Much like millions around the world.
I grew up wanting to love football — not just because my father was possessed by it, but also to understand why a certain Gurinder Chadha had made a film worshipping David Beckham and his free kicks. I had just entered college in 2002 when I began to watch matches with my then best friend — to get a new perspective on the sport.
The ‘perspective’ came at a price. I learnt new words, saw new faces and came close to appreciating how a ball is manoeuvred on the ground when thousands of fans are screaming their lungs out. However, one thing that my mind never quite absorbed was offside. These offsides were staples in every match. Why would a perfectly well-struck goal be disqualified under ‘offside’? The friend tried to illustrate the concept on paper and even dragged me to the nearest playground to explain what offside was. After half an hour of huffing and puffing and lots of talking, he concluded I had soccer dyslexia. “Please stick to Snakes and Ladders instead!” he advised, without a hint of humour on his face. Suddenly, from a best friend, he was relegated to a friend. Football turned disruptive again.
Once a football orphan, today, twenty four years later, I am a football widow. I continue to belong to that micro minority of people who are yet to find any love for football. I find football and the World Cup to be a disruption to my social life. This is not to say that I do not understand its mass appeal.
But ever thought about how we feel when the FIFA World Cup begins to dominate our living room, meeting room and water cooler conversations? A tad marginalised!
In my world, for instance, it is the only time when my father cuts short important calls on the pretext of poor connection, my spouse turns the living room into a battleground and friends politely decline invitations for outings. In other words, it’s the beginning of a month-long social abandonment.
Anamika is keenly interested in observing and recording thought and action