KOLKATA: With the World Cup just days away, football fever has gripped West Bengal. It may sound crazy, but from the hills to planes, people of the state tend to forget almost everything else for a month every four years.
While European leagues on TV whet their appetite for the rest of the time, fans in Kolkata get divided into Brazil and Argentina when it comes to the big one. Bristling with Brazil fans due chiefly to Pele and an exhibition match he played at Eden Gardens in 1977, the city found a new hero in 1986. Diego Maradona made sure the canary yellow had competition from sky blue and it's been between the two since. Not that Italy or Germany don't enjoy support, but these teams don't polarise the city. After Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, Kolkatans are mostly fans of either Brazil or Argentina.
This time also, parts of the city can already be seen draped in the colours of Brazil and Argentina. Miniatures to flowing giant ones, the flags follow no limit on size. One can also see the stars captured in action in murals and when their favourite teams play, community clubs make sure that matches are watched together.
“This city eats, sleeps and breathes football. These rivalries over Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and Argentina and Brazil might appear funny in other parts of our cricket-crazy nation, but for us it’s serious affair,” says 21-year-old Santanu Sen, a resident of south Kolkata, who has just joined his family business. “For a month, it’s like a carnival with people wearing jerseys, watching matches together and discussing it the next day. Verbal arguments are frequent, but there is no bitterness," adds Asit Ganguly, a college student.
Hills root for Europe
The love for football in the northern region of the state — which along with Sikkim has contributed some football stars to the nation — is no less than the state capital. Throughout the year, fans in Darjeeling and Kalimpong support clubs from the English, Spanish and German leagues. One can see rear windows of cars decorated with club stickers.
With the World Cup approaching, people in the hills are putting up flags of their favourites teams on town squares and buildings. Unlike Kolkata, the preference is more for European teams like Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. “We watch EPL, Bundesliga and La Liga regularly and are familiar with the players and their style of playing. That explains why we support these teams. But throughout the hills there are many Argentina and Brazil fans also. Whoever one supports, the World Cup grips everyone, be it young, old or women," says cab driver Mingma Tamang, who plays football at Kalimpong's Mela Ground every day before going to work.
Apart from these two regions characterised by their distinct geographical features, a third in the western part of the state is equally vibrant when it comes to football. Though impoverished and lacking in facilities and opportunities, the Jangalmahal area of western Bengal dominated by the Santal, Ho, Munda and Oraon tribes near the border of Jharkhand is not short on frenzy when the World Cup comes calling.
With TVs still scant, youngsters often visit relatives or friends to catch the action. “It’s hard to stay awake in school, especially when the subject is boring. But seniors are saying Moscow is only two-and-a-half hours behind us and I have seen the schedule. Many matches are in the evening this time. So I might not have to sleep over at my friend’s place,” says Ashok Tudu, a Class VII student in Jhargram district's Jamboni village.
Come June 14, political tension and other issues will take a back seat for a month in all corners of West Bengal.