Uttam Saha, in his blue and white Argentina team jersey, Argentina Copa America 2011 scarf and cap, looks like an ordinary Bengali Argentina football fan. But he isn’t. As the president-founder of the Argentina Football Fan Club, the 49-year-old businessman ("You can say advertising"), he can be seen as a kind of John the Baptist to the Lionel Messiah.
Kolkata pretty much shut down work for a day with all roads leading to the Salt Lake Stadium where the Argentina-Venezuela match was to kick off at 7 pm. (In true Kolkata style, it started 10 minutes late and ended one minute early). And nearly everybody was wearing a No. 10 blue and white striped jersey — even though I spotted a ‘traitor’ wearing a Portugal ‘Ronaldo’ t shirt.
At the Mocambo Restaurant on Park Street, there were three women at different tables wearing the Argentina blue-and-white who must have known that wearing stripes enhance one’s largeness. Earlier, at the Hyatt hotel next to the stadium where the Argentine team was staying, hordes of people leaned against the not-too-strong-looking iron gates as if readying to storm the Bastille. Argentina flags were selling briskly. I haggled one down to Rs 30 only to be told at the stadium gate that the mast — a stick, really — won’t be allowed in.
So why this madness for Argentina and Leo Messi in a country known for its (equally curious) love for Brazil and where the quality of football is slightly better than the quality of cricket in Argentina? “There’s something in the Bengali mentality that makes football special for us. And Messi is the world’s best footballer. So it’s obvious why we love him so much,” says Saha who adds that after 1986, when we got see Maradona in action in the Mexico World Cup, what people had read and heard about Brazil “became apparent”. No, he’s not too fond of Brazil, and tells a youngster passing by and not wearing the Argentina colours, “What? Brazil fan, eh?” with a sneer that borders on the vicious.
He had met Diego Maradona in a hotel when the Argentine legend visited Kolkata in 2008. He has also travelled to Argentina in July this year to follow the travails of his favourite team during the 2011 Copa America Cup; also having gone to the Beijing Olympics to watch the Argentina-Brazil semi-final that Argentina (with Messi in the squad) won 3-0. I see his lower lip quiver as he says very little about the 0-4 trashing of Argentina (with Messi in the squad) by Germany in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
He tells me how he managed to see Maradona’s house in Buenos Aires earlier this year even after guards had loosened the leash on guard dogs. “And I’m scared of dogs,” Saha adds, saying that one guard was puzzled what an Indian was doing hunting down Maradona’s house in Argentina considering “you play that game cricket”.
A series of mounted giant posters of Messi are lined up in front of an under-construction house in a narrow lane that forms the vague headquarters of the Argentina Football Fan Club at Rabindrapally in the southern edge of Kolkata. There’s also a few posters of Maradona — clearly the established deity in the Argentine firmament in Kolkata — that says “Happy Birth Day... To the Greatest Genius”. At the behest of a local television channel, a bunch of kids — ages from 6 to 30 — wave the Argentine flag furiously and chant into the camera, “Me-ssi! Me-ssi! Me-ssi!”. They could have been drugged by Saha were it not for the fact that two of the kids are his own children.
Salt Lake Stadium — or, as it’s officially known as, Yuba Bharati Krirangan (Young Indian Sportscentre) — was a carnival site an hour before the game started. And yet, once I was seated, the stands looked distressingly empty. Ticket sales hadn’t been as great as the general enthusiasm for Messi and Co. would have it. Three days before, one business paper had put ticket sales at 40% of the total. But as the match proceeded under the humming heat and humidity of the flood-lights, stands filled up to what I reckon to be 85,000-odd people, all with their eyes on one man wearing a pair of yellow boots — and roaring each time the ball touched him.
We see Messi’s brilliant flashes — a run down the centre, a 360 degree turn, an outstep-instep dribble that has the crowd feel light in their heads. But the fact is Argentina wins by a goal (set up by a corner kick by Messi, thankfully) in an unremarkable match in a remarkable venue.
Depsite Saha’s insistence of the Bengali’s special relationship with Messi and Argentina, in the stands in front of me were two chaps from Pune (shouting ‘Bharat Mata ki jai!’ each time play slowed down), a father-son on my right from Mumbai, a couple from Imphal behind me and a bearded Rahul Bose, an ever-smiling Vineet Jain with a baseball-wearing companion...
But the Messi madness had infected me. After the game, I trundled down to the Hyatt where the Argentina team bus had yet to reach. Before the match, Messi’s presence had been palpable when he walked to the team bus through the hotel lobby — looking up once (to see me?) with a semi-panic-stricken smile — primarily because of the Beatlemaniac screams that rent the air as well as the posse of policemen surrounding the No. 10 player.
After the match, I went up to a friend’s room on the 6th floor, armed myself with the information that the Argentine team was staying on the 4th, and that Messi was staying in Room No. 411. The lifts were not allowed to stop on the 4th floor and guards were posted at lift mouths on both sides. But for some reason no one had thought of the fire exit/service stairs that had been left unguarded.
I walked down the fire exit and opened the door into the ‘quarantined’ 4th floor. Only to find a stern-looking hotel lady ask me whether I was with the team. I mumbled something in an accent I hoped would be considered ‘international’. But the lady took a look at my bare feet and decided to call security who, politely, took me down to the lobby area and reality. In any case, Messi and his boys were at a banquet downstairs which was off-limits.
I called up Saha the next day to ask him what he made of the rather lacklustre match. “Make no mistake. This was Messi’s first match ever as captain of Argentina and this was in Kolkata. He played the full match. This is the first chapter to Messi lifting the World Cup in Sao Paulo in 2014. So it was our great fortune to see Messi in this historic match.” Kolkata needed someone to love. And for a short, furious while it chose no one else but Lionel Messi.