Sunday, September 4, 2011


(It is half time and SENIOR is getting really annoyed with the JUNIOR as no goals have been scored !! At the dug out at half time, the SENIOR gave his piece of mind, which finally resulted in a pass that lead to a goal !! )

BY : Shabbir Lokhandwala who flew in from Pune to watch the Messi Magic

Mesmerizing No. Madness Yes!

“You pay 5 pounds to stand on a lump of concrete
You can’t see anything and it isn’t even safe
And you can’t complain because that would mean you are letting the lads down,
That you didn’t care enough”

That’s what Ruth Gemmel’s character says to Colin Firth’s character in the movie ‘Fever Pitch’ after she watches a football game along with him. She is very upset by the experience and of images of the Hillsbrouh tragedy being played out on the TV, where 96 football fans were crushed to death. The movie scene represented 1989. That was 22 years ago.

22 years later I stood on a lump of concrete, paid around 26 pounds for match tickets and even more for travelling 2020 km from Pune to Kolkatta to witness the first Argentinean friendly match in this country and to watch arguably the best player of our times in flesh and blood. And the experience was physically and mentally tiring. All major sport events in India are.

We stood in line at 5 pm to enter gate 3 of the Yuva Bharati Krirangan or Salt lake stadium as is commonly known. The queue was approximately half a kilometer long and the reason was that all the stands situated along each side line had one entry gate. There are only 5 gates to enter the stadium premises.

A very big anomaly given it is the biggest stadium capacity wise in the country and the second biggest football stadium in the whole world. (Yeah, wiki it, if you don’t believe me)The darn queue didn’t move for nearly an hour. At 6 pm the queue started moving briskly and then the most bizarre thing happens. Everybody just starts running. No queue, it’s a mad rush to get close to the entry gate, with impromptu lines being made now and then to restore some sanity. It was like an intense warm up exercise. Sprint for 100 meters then stop. Form a line and sprint again. The cops were busier manning the stationary traffic bought to a halt by the collective running of football fans. For a moment I was worried of getting crushed if a stampede did occur.

For a moment I was worried of getting crushed if a stampede did occur. I was worrying more about Huzaifa, my 13 year old cousin brother, who was experiencing this madness for the first time.

We finally did make it inside the stadium at 7pm just before the kick off, drenched in sweat and standing on concrete steps. We saw the first half from the lower tier, the second from the upper tier, after illegally jumping through a gap in the fence.

My other grouse was with the spectators. Indian football fans, cricket fans and hockey fans come to watch a player and not the game. They don’t even bother about teams. In cricket Sachin gets the loudest cheers, followed by batsmen after they hit boundaries. Hardly anybody cheers the bowlers in the middle of a good spell. Out here, it was Messi all the way. True his playing in the match built up euphoria and excitement and got people in the stadium. True, I wouldn’t travel all the way to Kolkata, had Messi not being playing. But what happened to appreciating the game. About Mexican waves and a carnival like atmosphere in the stadium. About singing chants and football anthems. About cheering and feeling that we did make a difference to the team’s performance. About being the 12thman. The crowd only cheered when Messi touched the ball, made his weaving runs, won free kicks and took corners. The rest of times, they were silent. We thought about starting a Mexican wave, but the idea got lost somewhere between finding water and Pepsi in the stadium. The problem with Indian stadiums is that by the time you enter them, you are so tired, that there is hardly any cheer left in you. I was told that the Bengali fans are very knowledgeable about football. I don’t think so. The gentleman sitting next to me couldn’t tell the difference between Mascherano and Zabaleta.

But the football fan in me forgave these misgivings and loved the experience. If you can watch a football match of world class quality in this country from the stands, if you can watch Lionel Messi making his trademark weaving runs and strike a shot through the feet of defenders, if free kicks from 30 yards hit the side net and collectively and reflexively make you stand and sit down making a sigh, if you witness some good counter attacking moves and the Argentineans tracking back to defend, if you get marveled by the little deft touches that enable modern football teams to create space where there was none, if you experience butterflies in your stomach when an improbable pass leads to an even more improbable right footed volley towards the top left corner of the goal, only to hit the post and lament on what could have been. If you can watch two Latin American countries play with the world’s best player in one of the teams in a stadium bigger than Camp Nou, then I think it’s really worth it.

It might take another 22 years for us to have great world class stadiums, with enough gates, electronic turnstiles and parking spaces, with proper seats, proper cafeterias, squeaky clean toilets, good public announcement systems, clearer electronic screens, visible clocks and timer and most importantly a great football culture, where teams get cheered on for the entire 90 minutes. Till then I will be happy to stand in serpentine queues and talk with football fans that travelled from all parts of India, bearing testimony to the growing popularity of the sport.

The dialogue continues between Colin Firth and Ruth Gemmel in the movie when Firth says that he can’t visit her due to a football match:

Ruth: yeah, you are sure you will be seeing Arsenal the next season, you can’t be sure if you will be seeing me.
Firth: Look I know where this is going, commitment and the long haul and all that, but if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen because of you not me. 21 years I have been going to Arsenal. 21 years.
Ruth: I don’t know if you have noticed, but Arsenal are a football team.
Firth: So you think there is a difference?
Ruth: Yes, I do.
Firth: Then it shows what you know about it.

MY NOTE: As parents we at times fail to understand the passion of the youths, and many parents confided about the dismay at the madness to see a football match, and that to an Exhibition Match.

To them I have this to say :
Thank Allah your son is mad after Messi and not Madonna !!

Thank You Shabbir for writing a wonderful memorable piece. I am not sure, it was the result of Mishti Doi or Messi Magic !!

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