Argentina vs Venezuela Friendly: Through The Eyes of a Fan
To borrow and slightly revise the words of a famous statesman of yesteryears, “September 02, 2011 is a date that will live in Football of Kolkata forever in glory.” This was the day according to the official advertising slogans when the gods of football were to descend on the city of Kolkata, as FIFA had organised a friendly match between Argentina and Venezuela. Bengal being the cradle of Indian football has had a long cultural association with the game with its fanatical supporters of the local clubs.
Argentina always holds a special place in the hearts of Kolkatans as the 1986 Mexico World Cup was the first tournament to be shown live on television from the group stage onwards. Argentina had played just a year before the Kolkata crowds in the Nehru Gold Cup in 1985 with the coach Carlos Bilardo experimenting with nearly all the young players’ team who later went on to become the champions of the world. Those who watched the 1986 tournament have forever become enamoured with the Argentina team. Kolkata, which had traditionally been ardent supporters of Brazil till then became a city divided between the Samba kings and the Albiceleste.
To this city crazy about football and Argentina, arrived the current king of international club football, Lionel Messi. This was the first match with Alejandro Sabella as coach and his long term captain, Lionel Messi. Venezuela, their opponents always the whipping boys of South American football had belied their reputation by reaching the semi finals of the recent Copa America and were unbeaten till a penalty shootout loss to Paraguay. They eventually finished fourth, which was better than Argentina who did not manage to reach the semis. After the match was announced, the tickets went on sale over the internet and there were a lot of people even outside the city who bought those tickets. The people from the city relied more on the counters of the stadium where the tickets were available on cash payment. Then there were those who started contacting various influential people for guest passes.
Huge Crowds made their way to the stadium
There was media frenzy before the arrival of the teams and thousands of supporters had thronged the airport to get a glimpse of their heroes. All the newspapers and television channels were full covering Messi and the Argentina team. Although the match was held on a Friday, a working day for most, it did not deter the large number of people making it to the match. I had managed to get hold of a VIP pass after much persuasion of a friend who is in the higher echelons of the local government bureaucracy. I had to start from office early – my superior did not admonish me, as he was himself keen to watch the match in his large LED television at home. The roads were in chaotic condition with the traffic from the main road to the stadium at a standstill. It seemed that a sea of albicelestes had descended on the city. There were painted faces, headbands, jerseys, flags, posters and even a few of the dreaded vuvuzela wrapped in Argentine colours in attendance.
The car was crawling at snail’s pace. I could see people getting off their vehicles and walking down at least 3 km to the venue. It was like all roads led to the Yuva Bharati Krirangan, aka Salt Lake Stadium.
The Yuva Bharati Krirangan was filled to the brim
There were people who had come from far off places like Thailand to watch Messi. Large groups of people from Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Goa and Kerala were also there. With the regular skill of a Kolkata driver, the car was manoeuvred behind a big bus with dark windows. Watching us do this, the neighbouring policemen asked us to get away from the bus immediately. I was left to wonder who might possibly be occupying the vehicle. I soon noticed people waving at the bus, and the sudden realisation that it’s the Venezuela team, who too like us had not been spared the trials and tribulations of the massive traffic on the way. We eventually managed to arrive at the appointed entry gate 45 minutes before kick-off. Long queues of people everywhere in Argentina jerseys, Barcelona colours and even Manchester United jerseys of Carlos Tevez who was neither representing the Argentina team, nor present in the city of Kolkata or a part of the Manchester United club. We entered the premises and slowly walked towards the stadium with a myriad of ticket checkers of all kinds. I eventually made it to the allocated stand with 30 minutes to scheduled match start time. I found a seat with a good view from where I could be close to the action without being unsighted by the barriers. The stadium, with a capacity to hold 120,000 people was yet to be packed to the rafters, but there were enough people to create an amazing atmosphere.
Two giant screens were telecasting various sections of the crowd to their vociferous approval and cheers. From the tunnel, emerged players in white jerseys and black shorts. The roof nearly came off the stadium as the Argentina team came out to practice. The screens were showing pictures of Messi running, warming up and practicing. Every touch of his was cheered by the crowd. After a while, the Venezuelans sporting burgundy came out for their practice to a much muted reception. Another huge roar from the crowd followed when the Argentines made their way back into the dressing rooms. The atmosphere was electric and all set for this special date with destiny. The substitutes trooped to the benches with the respective managers and coaches. The screens beamed the pictures of the captains waiting in the tunnels. The cheering of the crowd reached a crescendo as the teams made it out to the middle. The announcer got his national anthem mixed up; at least the teams knew their own anthems to prevent a total faux pas. One major issue however, was too many policemen surrounding the players, blocking the view of many a spectator.
Messi’s Corner…. Otamandi’s Goal
An exciting moment from the match
This is not a match review; it is about the experience of the ambience, the surroundings and the people who came to see the match. Whenever Messi touched the ball, the volume of the entire crowd went up a few notches. Each time Messi went to take a corner, one could see the crowd rushing to the nearest vantage point to get the closest view of their football god. The spirits of the spectators was unflagging for the entire first half. The second half saw the Argentine substitutes begin their warm-up exercises behind their benches on a grass strip. It also saw a very eager fan on the edge of the middle tier start shouting, “Aguero! Aguero!!” This person continued trying to attract the attention of Sergio Agüero for the next 25 minutes until the player was introduced in the match. All this time his voice remained loud, a little tired but continuously trying to seek the attention of the player he adores. This is the kind of passion for the beautiful game which transcends borders, religion, language and culture. Towards the end, the crowd got what it was expectantly waiting for, an Argentine win. They did not get a goal from Messi but they still went back intoxicated by the magic and the thrill of watching their heroes in person. More than 8000 km from their home, 28 men played on a field watched by 80,000 foreigners, and with the support and enthusiasm of the crowd it was like playing at home.
Photo courtesy: Bappaditya Dasgupta, Anirban Jana and Tamal Kanti Santra