To celebrate my last forty-eight hours in Calcutta I feel I can do no better than to set down here the story of a football game, as told to us tonight by Abhijit, to whom all credit must be given for the following narrative.
In 1977, former gateway of the British Empire and present cauldron of intellectual ferment and revolution, the great city of Calcutta, played host to an extraordinary game: the last-but-one ever played by the legend, O Rey himself, Pele. Yes, the New York Cosmos flew down to play a match against Mohun Bagan FC, one half of Asia's oldest derby and the pride of [several] Indian football fans everywhere. The city was in an uproar. Everywhere little booklet biographies of Pele were published, sold and bought in droves. [Abhijit still has one of them], Calcutta having always been a literary city, and the merchandising juggernaut as yet a glint in the eye of international football [one assumes]. The game was to be played at Eden Gardens at the end of September. Pele arrived, but with him came a torrential monsoon shower, leaving the pitch clogged with water. The great man was seen looking upon the sight of the slush with sombre countenance, and the city worried: would they see him play at all?
They did, the day after. Abhijit went to watch the game at a neighbour's, where the crowd around the television was about forty- or fifty-strong. Everyone had gathered to take in the sight of Pele. As these things often go, though, he was largely anonymous. Perhaps it was the slush that put him off his game. At any rate, Mohun Bagan scored two brilliant goals, and the Cosmos were one behind. Pele's genius asserted itself in one single moment, a long, curling free-kick that was saved by Shivaji Bandhopadhyay, the MBFC goalkeeper, in what was undoubtedly the moment of the match. The match, the only chance an Indian team ever had to play against Pele, chugged closer and closer to being the only chance an Indian team ever had to play and win against Pele, when, in the seventieth minute, the all-too-thinkable occurred - the referee awarded the Cosmos a dodgy penalty. It was taken and buried by Giorgio Chinaglia, and Pele had himself an undeserved, but by no means begrudged, draw.
Over thirty years later Calcutta has a football stadium in Salt Lake that can hold as many spectators as the Maracana itself. The weather is still unpredictable, as far as I can tell from my limited first-hand experience. It may rain before May 27th, but hopefully it will be a better pitch that greets Oliver Kahn, who will play his last game for Bayern Munich and professional football on that day in this city, against Mohun Bagan. Will the little biography booklets [printed off Wikipedia?] sell alongside the fake jerseys now? Will the crowd chant his name as they did Pele's on that day? Yes, I think, and yes, I'm sure. I am told that Baichung Bhutia, India's captain and Mohun Bagan's foremost talent, has expressed a profound fear of what it might mean to Indian football if this game, played on both sides to the full extent of their capabilities, is taken to its logical ends, which would surely result in the sort of scoreline for which San Marino's national team makes 'Oddly Enough' football headlines now and again. Could he take heart from the thought that Toni and Ribery, to name just two, will almost certainly not be there to terrorise his fragile back line? Could he forget, for a moment, that India believes that it has more to lose from a sporting defeat now than it did in 1977, and remember instead that he belongs to a team that almost put one over Pele himself?
I rooted about and found this colourful account of the Cosmos-MB game, which tells the story without the singular verve of Abhijit's account, to which I have done little justice, but with le belle emozioni, as Giorgio Chinaglia himself might say.
Speaking of [in] Italian, here is a fact: very little on my Reader affords me a pleasure as unalloyed as today's Gazzetta headline: Mutu come Batistuta Viola senza limiti. Rangers next. Who knows what dreams may come?
[And speaking of Bhutia, a reminder of what he has been in the headlines for, other than being nervous about facing a goal with Oliver Kahn in it in the near future: he is one of the world's first athletes to have refused to carry the Olympic torch this year. The quiet dignity of his expression of solidarity with the Tibetan freedom movement has not prevented him from becoming a hero in this country. I am very glad of his existence.]