Kolkata, Football and Moti Nandy

I am in an odd predicament. In the city of joy, in a city that is supposed to live and breathe football, I am unable to find a group to play with!

In the past week, I have walked around more than 10 kilometres. Gone on to talk with multiple clubs, but no one, absolutely no one is playing in this city anymore. What has happened to this city? Some of it is definitely attributable to covid, but that is not stopping people from going to the malls. Maybe the focus of the youth has changed. Students have become more serious about career. And smartphones. Maybe majorly smartphones.

From the city that used to boast of one of the largest rivalries of world football. The city that used to host the oldest football tournament in Asia, currently boasts of deserted playgrounds with grasses growing till knee length. No one to play and no one to maintain.

Having nothing else to do, I decided to go back to some of my old favorites and re-read them. Striker and Stopper.

Moti Nandy was a sports journalist all his life. So, his writing is filled with the insight that comes as a result of being a part of the local sports culture for decades. These books are written in the backdrop of Kolkata in the 1970s and 1980s.

The first book is about a young guy who aspires to be a Striker. It has the backdrop of the economic condition of the common man during that time and how much you had to sacrifice to even try and become a professional footballer.

The kind of politics that was involved in the clubs, how money used to change hands just to keep a club afloat and how so many players had to give up on their dreams of remaining a professional player not because of any fault of their own, rather, they simply did not fit into the plans of the people with power.

Striker, is a raw story about passion for the game and a singular focus on the dream. To remain focused notwithstanding the circumstances.

Fortunately, the protagonist finds what he is looking for at the end of the story, but most don’t. People who I have grown up playing with, who taught me how to play the game, have been from the poorest strata of the society. They had only one solace away from all the troubles at home, at school and everywhere else. That is, when they had the ball at their feet.

Honestly, these kids were good at the game. Genuinely good. From my experience, I am just talking about kids from one small locality, but you go to any locality in Kolkata, you would have seen the same.

But now,10 years later. I see them either working at a carpentry shop, or delivering pizzas or doing some odd jobs around the locality.

Someone had to start earning for the family.

Dreams are great and all, but they don’t put food on the table.

The second story has the same socio-economic backdrop. The same clubs. The same tournaments. Talks about the same rivalries, but it is different from Striker in a stark way.

Unlike Striker, the protagonist here is someone who has been a star on the field before, but have to cope with the fact that he is no longer in the limelight.

The two books tackle the two most difficult aspects of being a footballer. The part about getting a foot through the door. Getting recognition for your talents, and the second part about letting go once you have been at the top.

Neither is easier than the other.

The difference between a player who is playing the top division in England and a player who is playing the top division in Kolkata is starkly different. Even if they have put in the same amount of effort.

Here, once you are no longer a star on the field, you have to beg and pine to get a job somewhere so that you can feed yourself and your family. Because, Kolkata football did not have any money.

Moti Nandi picturesquely portrays how football goes hand in hand with poverty. Even if you have represented India at the highest level, at your waning years, you are looking at the breakfast of bananas and boiled egg and you are worrying about where the roti for dinner would come from.

However, football is a game for the dreamers. A footballer’s only worry is the next practice session, the next touch of the football… the next match where he might score a goal or do a clean tackle and win the applause of the lauding audience

The books teach you something. Something not only about football, but about life. Balance. How so? You need to read the books to find out for yourself.

I was talking with my grandfather, who used to frequent these matches as a spectator in the 1980s-1990s. It was a complete world of it’s own. The derbies used to hold a crowd of over 100000. Even for the smaller matches there would be constant demand. There would be lurking agents who would try to sell you match ticket at twice the price just outside the stadium called ‘black tickets’. The gossip around the salons and during office breaks would often have these matches as the mainstay topic. Youngstars would try to emulate the skills they had seen in the match before, keeping hairstyle like Chuni Goswami or Sisir Ghosh.

I could see myself shouting at the top of my lungs seated in a crowd of thousands, wearing a old fashioned sweater and a muffler. Screaming at the players to give their best. I can’t promise that I am completely soft spoken in those reveries.

That was the Kolkata then, and then I see the Kolkata now. Where I am walking around for the last 7 days, searching for a place to play. All I see are the football fields converted to picnic spots with lovers playing badminton casually with plastic racquets.

I wonder what Moti Nandi would have to say.