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Messi and Kolkata, a love affair that goes back over a decade

19 December, 2022 16:53:33
Messi and Kolkata, a love affair that goes back over a decade

Image Courtesy : Reuters

He stands 1.69 m tall. That’s just a little over 5 ft 5 inches. That’s how tall Lionel Messi actually is. But ask any of the people who were present at Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan on a magical evening in 2011, and they will tell you the man is taller even than the stadium roof.

People like Ambika Addya, who remembers how those fluorescent yellow boots danced across the field with an ease that is so intrinsic to the Messi magic. “He is the best player. I never saw (Diego) Maradona play up close, but he (Messi) just moved so easily on the field,” Addya remembers. 

Image Courtesy : Sportskeeda

Like Addya, 75,000 people filled Yuba Bharati on the evening of September 2, 2011. The occasion was a friendly FIFA encounter between Argentina and Venezuela. But of course, no match with Messi in it could be a simple friendly. Eight corporate boxes had been introduced into the stadium and the live broadcast went all around the globe, rare for a FIFA friendly at the time. Among those watching the match were such celebs as Bhaichung Bhutia, Ranbir Kapoor, Usha Uthup, and Shaan. 

Outside of Argentina, there cannot be too many cities with the kind of support for the team in blue and white that Kolkata drums up. And in recent years, that support has centred on one man and one man only – the diminutive Leo. 

Of course, this support has a context. While the current generation of Bengalis go wild about Messi, their parents went similarly wild about Diego. Which has driven the fierce support for Argentina that caused the streets of Kolkata to go all quiet and deserted as France and Argentina faced off in the World Cup final yesterday. And the explosion of joy, quite literally, at the end of a nail biting couple of hours which brought an early Diwali to the city.

Image Courtesy : Reuters

Incidentally, the similarly diminutive Diego visited Kolkata twice, in 2008 and 2017, and was evidently quite at home here. In 2008, talking about the grand reception the city gave him, he famously termed it “the second biggest reception after Napoli”. With reason, as nearly 50,000 people waited outside Netaji Airport for just one glimpse of the man they would probably cheerfully die for.

When Messi touched down at the same airport, Jennifer Carmichael was among the staff who handled the Argentine team’s paperwork. “He had no airs, he spoke to everyone around, and stood in the queue,” she recalls. But when he hit the field in flesh and blood, the transformation was as amazing as it was exhilarating. 

Off the pitch, news headlines were as much about the actual match as about how Messi loved the garlic mashed potato he was served, a rare indulgence beyond his staple diet of grilled chicken, vegetables and Caesar salad without mayonnaise. 

Image Courtesy : Reuters

The match proved as delectable as Messi’s favourite food. In the second half, Messi came close to breaking the deadlock with a free-kick that went past the side-netting, and several corners. One such corner kick, always one of Messi’s favourite set pieces, turned into the only goal of the match as Messi with help from centre-half Nicolás Otamendi pushed a header into the near post.

In a foreshadowing of this morning, the headlines on that September morning were not about Argentina, but all about Messi, who had played the full 90 minutes in the city’s sweltering heat. And what did he say about his experience? “I am overwhelmed by the warmth and the passion… My experience over here  has left a lasting impression on me.” 

High praise for the ‘Mecca of Indian football’, but no surprise for the city of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. And the city of Diego and Leo. 

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