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It happens only in Kolkata

Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium will host the Germany vs Brazil quarterfinal, as well as the third place play-off and final of the U-17 World Cup.
Kolkata's Salt Lake Stadium will host the Germany vs Brazil quarterfinal, as well as the third place play-off and final of the U-17 World Cup.

Kolkata is India's undisputed football capital, where the sport is woven into the city's history. It's a relationship going back more than a 100 years, to the time when Kolkata was the second city of the British Empire. A century has passed, the empire has gone and the city itself has slipped down the pecking order. What remains is its love for football - not always apparent in expensive replica team jerseys and smart online fan forums but bubbling just below its grainy surface.

On Wednesday, this reporter saw that passion for football through various prisms. Here's what happened.

**

4PM, Mohun Bagan ground

Former Colombian footballer Carlos Valderrama (R), sporting a Mohun Bagan jersey, with former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly at an event in Kolkata in September ahead of the World Cup.
Former Colombian footballer Carlos Valderrama (R), sporting a Mohun Bagan jersey, with former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly at an event in Kolkata in September ahead of the World Cup.

There's an invitation for journalists to the club ground on the Maidan, the vast park in the heart of the city, for a press conference in the wake of the club winning the Sikkim Governor's Gold Cup. It's one of several invitational tournaments that used to once form the crux of domestic football but have been devalued considerably in recent years due to the increasing volume of the game being played.

There's a festive atmosphere there, fans draped in the maroon and green jerseys and flags and posing next to the trophy kept on display. One of them is Ajoy Paswan, whose day job is driving a hand-pulled rickshaw in Uttarpara, a town across the Hooghly river and an hour's bus ride away.

Paswan, 40, wears impossible headgear - an upturned metal bowl topped with a boat - the club symbol - along with an India flag and a toy figurine of a baby painted partially in club colours tucked in at the side. His T-shirt is a picture of him, in full gear, posing alongside Bagan's Haitian superstar Sony Norde.

Paswan, a Bagan fan since his youth, has attended as many games as possible in Kolkata. He has saved up and traveled to Siliguri for a couple of derbies against East Bengal too. He says big matchdays can be the most taxing, as he loses so much sweat that he begins to hallucinate while sitting in the stands.

Bagan's officials and players emerge and hoist the national flag. Three of Bagan's foreign players take their place on the podium -- among them Dipanda Dicka, the Cameroonian striker recently signed from Shillong Lajong -- while the others retreat to the back of the ground.

Among them is Soram Poirei, an I-League player for several clubs who also kept goal for Delhi Dynamos under Gianluca Zambrotta in the last season of the Indian Super League (ISL). "Oh he (Zambrotta) was fantastic as coach. When he walked into a room, you knew who was in control. It was not like he was some monster, but he had this aura about him," Poirei says about his experience with Delhi.

5PM, East Bengal ground

Charles de Souza, left, and Katsumi Yusa at their East Bengal unveiling.
Charles de Souza, left, and Katsumi Yusa at their East Bengal unveiling.

A short walk across the Maidan, slushy and heavy after a morning downpour. East Bengal are going to unveil their two new foreign recruits - Brazilian Charles de Souza from Chennai City and Katsumi Yusa, former captain of Mohun Bagan. Not much of an atmosphere yet but the club café has a TV showing the Ghana-Niger round-of-16 match being played in Navi Mumbai.

Charles and Yusa speak of the importance of winning the I-League, a title East Bengal have never won since the old National Football League (NFL) was re-launched and renamed in 2007.

Not surprisingly, Yusa is asked about the derby against Mohun Bagan, and even less surprisingly, all he wants to do is to win it.

6PM, en route to Ganguly Bagan

A map of Kolkata showing the various locations this reporter visited.
A map of Kolkata showing the various locations this reporter visited.

Looking to track down some local Brazil fans ahead of their round-of-16 game against Honduras, I'm directed to a youth club in the south Kolkata neighbourhood of Ganguly Bagan. My driver on this journey is Rama, who comes from a village called Tulapur in eastern Uttar Pradesh but has been living in Kolkata for 25 years. Rama says he feels proud every time he drives past the refurbished Salt Lake Stadium, and then gets into complex calculations of how the revenue from gate collections at the matches in Kolkata might help offset the cost of having redone the stadium completely.

The stadium itself is an incredible sight - especially for its regular visitors. The makeover for this World Cup has given it beautified roads, lights and walkways that make the outer periphery of the stadium more welcoming than before. The ground itself has also been revamped, and now has style and sheen to match its size. The only compromise has been a massive reduction in capacity -- old-timers talk of when 130,000 people crammed in to watch a Federation Cup derby in 1997 -- but on the other hand, it is probably a safer venue, easier to manage as well.

Rama himself plays volleyball, in spite of his age (over 50); he likes football, but doesn't play it as much because it is a considerably more physical sport. He likes that the World Cup has come to town, and is looking forward to both Brazil-Germany and the final. He will probably not be there at the ground himself, but vows to make multiple trips for the fans, having already calculated that there will be a shortage of public transport past 10 in the night.

7:30PM, Rabindrapally

The final stop is Rabindrapally in Ganguly Bagan, which is easy to locate due to a two-storey-high, papier-mache statue of Diego Maradona circa 1986, surrounded by posters and pictures of the U-17 World Cup teams. Maradona is captured in the middle of one of his trademark dribbles through a rival defence, and there's great attention to detail, including the jersey manufacturers's logo.

The eyes are a bit un-Maradonaesque, though. As my colleague Karthik Krishnaswamy says in reply to a tweet, he looks more like Ariel Ortega -- the man who took over the No. 10 jersey from Maradona -- and it is a comparison that makes the creator of the statue laugh when I tell him about it.

Such is the passion for football in Kolkata that the U-17 World Cup featured in Kolkata's Durga Puja festival celebrations earlier in October.
Such is the passion for football in Kolkata that the U-17 World Cup featured in Kolkata's Durga Puja festival celebrations earlier in October.

There's a large number of children queuing up to catch the World Cup action inside the club, but it is apparent what they are there for in a bit. It's the Kali Puja festival, celebrating the goddess the city is named after, and the children are here for the firecrackers used in the celebrations. They disperse just before kick-off, but only after each has been given a token for free firecrackers.

The fans congregate as the match begins, some of them boys and girls who appear thrilled to watch a game of football. A few speak about this World Cup and the game at large. One of them, who traveled to New Delhi to see India play Colombia and Ghana, is sceptical of the Indian team's performance.

He says the big difference between the developed nations and those that aren't is that the former are just using this tournament to see how far their players can develop and react to different situations in a game. He is critical of how long the Indian players held the ball and allowed the opposition to steal possession by simply outnumbering any of the Indian ball-carriers. He points to the Japan team from the round-of-16 defeat to England, and how disciplined their defenders were in dealing with the English strikers. By showing that they were willing to wait till the last moment to throw in challenges and not take the easier option of getting physical, he thinks they are prepared to take the next step towards becoming professional footballers.

8:45PM, Rabindrapally

The discussion soon veers into a debate on Brazil and Argentina. No other nations engender as much sporting discussion in Kolkata as the South American giants. At first, the discussion seems harmless banter -- five World Cups against two, or a final nearly won by Argentina against the team that beat Brazil 7-1 - but, before long, voices are raised and veins are on the verge of popping. The 'Hand of God' is brought up, and then Maradona's second goal.

Who is the highest-paid footballer in the world at present? Whose transfer fees were the most in recent football history? Who is the best player to have never won the World Cup yet? Why have Brazil's most recent World Cup wins come in relatively third-world football nations?

Facts, figures, insinuations, football terminology and theories on tactical nous are thrown about liberally. As the argument moves from inside the club building to the road outside, a shopkeeper chips in with his two cents, which arguably damage the self-esteem of both sets of fans.

"If we are talking about the U-17 World Cup, how is Argentina even relevant to the discussion?" he says, talking about the absence of the five-time semi-finalists from the 24 teams in the fray this time.

The Brazil fans have a hearty laugh, but not for long.

"I would love to speak in favour of Brazil, but what's the point when they are going to concede seven again this Sunday!"

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