There was a burst of IPL frenzy thanks to Shah Rukh Khan and his Kolkata Knight Riders, but it was simply too slight to really change the field. Then came the rudest jolt for Kolkata, the sport-crazy city. It boasts what has been widely acknowledged as one of the worlds cricketing meccas, the Eden Gardens. It was, however, , denied a cricket World Cup tie this year, because the local sports authorities failed to spruce up the stadium on time. So, the very fact that it hosted Lionel Andrs Leo Messiarguably the worlds best footballer at presentlast week is no small feat.
This was the first-ever Fifa friendly Kolkata was hosting and that by default put the city on the international soccer map. Plus, there was the fact that the match took place at the start of all the major European league seasonssomething that we Kolkatites will insist has a very special significance. This was also the first time that Argentina played under its new coach Alejandro Sabella. Messi was captain of the Argentina team which played against Venezuela. While admitting that there is a whole lot of difference between when Messi represents Argentinahe failed to enthuse the team during a lacklustre World Cup and the recently-concluded Copa Americaand when he turns out for Barcelona where he single-handedly wins matches, Kolkata was ecstatic.
The weather played true too, with the rain beating down, prompting a pleasurable flashback for those lucky enough to have watched the slushy Eden Gardens clash of September 1977. Then, it was none other than Pel who turned up to mesmerise us, as our own Mohun Bagan Club played against the New York Cosmos.
This time around though, Messi and company got to play on artificial turf at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan or the Salt Lake Stadium, and there hangs a tale.
The stadium has been in a state of disrepair for years, and it is to the Mamata governments credit that it managed to deliver a respectable semblance of renovation in time for the match. The cash-starved government spent R2 crore to spruce up a stadium that holds 1.2 lakh people. Yet, barring the locker rooms, two giant display boards and a fresh coat of paint, there is still a lot that needs to be done to bring this stadium on par with international standards.
Infrastructure apart, ticket prices also became a sore point. Kolkatas football fans, unlike the IPL fan fraternity, are used to spending R40-50 for a match, not R1,000-5000. So, the Messi mania passed by a whole lot of fans who were fanatically following Argentina or Brazil during the football World Cup , donning team T-shirts et al. Sure, these fans spent long hours outside the airport, hotel, stadium just to catch a glimpse of the Barca star. But ticket sales were sluggish in the beginning; only the sport-fanatic Northeast and fans from across the worldincluding Argentinaensured a sellout crowd.
Then again, there is a whole new population in India to woo, a generation that is following football assiduously, especially the Club circuit, the English Premier League or the Spanish La Liga and the German Bundesliga. Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney, Iniesta are household names. The potential market is phenomenal.
Of course, the Pel moment was not the only when where Kolkata played host to footballing greats in the past. In 2008, star German goalkeeper Oliver Rolf Kahn (FC Bayern) played his farewell tie in this very city, at the very same Salt Lake Stadiumto record crowds, naturally. In 2008 again, Maradona, way past his prime, arrived in Kolkata to a rousing welcome, prompting the soccer great to admit at a press conference that he was overwhelmed and taken by surprise at this outpouring. Little did he know that Kolkata stayed up all night to watch his World Cup winning feat in 1986. Uruguay striker Diego Forln paid a visit to the city in 2010, after the World Cup where he won the Golden Ball.
Not all our memories are pretty. One of Kolkatas darkest football moments was surely the blackout of 2004. India was playing a World Cup qualifier against Japan when the Salt Lake Stadium saw 30 minutes of load-shedding! The Brazilian great Zico was the Japan coach at that time, and he was stunned at such a lack of preparedness for an international match. India lost that match 4-0. Seven years on, Kolkata has managed to salvage some pride by hosting Messi and company without incident. Will Messi be able to stir Indian football out of its stupor That would be difficult to do, to say the least, with India now ranked 158 in the world and truly at the bottom of Fifa rankings. Kolkatas famous football clubsMohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sportinghave seen support ebbing away, with crowds opting for other forms of entertainment. Knowing all this but wishing otherwise, on Friday one prayed that Messi would work his magic on a city whose passionate fans deserve a better sporting infrastructure and more.