Argentina and Lionel Messi fans watch on a screen the FIFA 2018 World Cup last 16 football match between Argentina and France, in Kolkata on June 30, 2018. France won Argentina 4-3.
Kolkata: It was supposed to be yet another mundane wait at the airport lounge for me followed by an uneventful flight from the eastern Indian city of Kolkata back to Dubai last night.
Instead, with Argentina taking on France in the first of the knockout clashes in the Russia World Cup, even the airport in Kolkata was brimming with the electric energy and the insane football frenzy the city is famed for.
For football-mad Kolkata has waged the battle of loyalty between Argentina and Brazil for eons.
Along with Chingri na Ilish mach (Prawns or Hilsa fish), Bangal na Ghoti (whether from eastern or western part of undivided Bengal) and Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal football clubs, any self-respecting Bengali will not hesitate to inform you that the Brazil na Argentina debate is as old and fundamental to the city as its founder Job Charnock himself!
Perhaps a more logical explanation for the city’s obsession with football and the two titans of South America can be found in much later history – it is rooted in the victory of Mohun Bagan, based in Kolkata and one of Asia’s oldest football clubs, over the British Army’s East Yorkshire Regiment in the 1911 Indian Football Association Shield final.
And then, decades later, came Pele and charmed football fans from all over the city. Brazil became the darling of football in Kolkata.
Cut to 1986, and the city got a new poster boy to look up to, when one Diego Maradona dribbled past a pack of England players before shooting the ball past Peter Shilton to create history.
But then who cares much about rationale when emotions are in abundant supply?
And so to this day, the most ardent and hard core supporters of the two teams battle it out in Bengal. The fissures can run deep - households are split into rival camps, father and sons fight over it and even the traditional three-wheeler auto rickshaw drivers break into vicious brawls over Messi and Neymar.
And so it was, in the small but packed lounge of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport in Kolkata last night, that one half of the city’s favourite chheles (boys) began their fight for survival against France. From the business executive to the family flier to the bar tender to the janitor, almost the entire airport and the gathered passengers were glued to the TV, following every minute of the action possibly more intently than the referees in Russia’s Kazan.
When Antoine Griezmann successfully converted a penalty in the 13th minute for the French, there were some celebrations and claps – but muted.
Followed by hushed silence as Argentine fans absorbed the impact of what had just happened.
Some drowned their sorrows in the bar. Others reflected on the age imbalance of the teams – with the French boasting a more youthful line-up.
As time flew and the hour for boarding approached, the analysis got more complicated and ambitious.
“Boyosher kono dam nei naki (Does experience have no value?),” lamented a grey-haired gentleman.
“Are dhur, shobai ki aar Maradona? (Can every footballer be a Maradona)?” said a father dismissively to his teenage son.
“Jeetuk ki haruk, akash to neel-shada (Whether Argentina wins or loses, the sky is anyway blue and white),” gloated a youthful fan, in a pun comparing the Argentine team jersey with the sky.
Some were reluctant to get up with the game caught in the crosshairs.
“Na, na, arektu dekhun – ekhono boardig shuru hoye ni, (It’s OK, you can watch for some more time – we haven’t started boarding yet),” reassured a helpful staff from Emirates, possibly deployed specifically at the lounge to ensure that no football-mad passengers missed their flight to Dubai.
That was delightful news for many, but despite another 15 minutes of devoted support, the score line still read 1-0 in favour of the French.
Finally it could wait no more and everyone had to gather downstairs at the boarding gate, where the queues were long and the mood somber.
Until a deafening roar rang throughout the massive departure halls: GOOOAAALLLLLL!!
Angel Di Maria had scored a sublime equalizer – but there was nothing sublime in the celebrations. Screaming, shouting and jumping with joy, fathers hugged their children, couples embraced and complete strangers exchanged beaming smiles. Some passengers who had been patiently waiting at the queue broke loose and ran up close to the nearest TV to get a better glimpse of the replay. A turbaned Sikh officer diligently checking the passport of embarking passengers briefly paused and smiled.
“Diyeche, diyeche (they have finally scored!),” screamed a team of youth.
Even the meshomoshai and mashima (elderly woman and husband) who were till the other moment hollering at their wheelchair staff, paused to celebrate: “Ami to jantam, goal hobey (I always knew, they were going to score),” said the gentleman.
But order was swiftly restored after the celebrations, and the flight boarding completed in due time.
The action continued on board the Boeing 777, with the match being streamed live on every seat by Emirates. It was some time later that Gabriel Mercado raised more hopes with a 2-1 lead for Argentina, before Benjamin Pavard equalized and then magic boy Kylian Mbappé scored a brace to put the French in a commanding 4-2 lead.
That sort of sapped the enthu (Bengali short form for enthusiasm) of the Argentine brigade on board – so much so that when Agüero found the back of the net in stoppage time, there was a faint last hurrah tempered by the sense of fatal doom for Messi and his team.
But then, who needs to mourn the ouster of Kolkata’s heartthrobs when the sky is blue and white?