Football Politics

It was 1980 and a sultry Calcutta, August 16, afternoon. Tensions were running high in the city: the cops had marshalled their forces and the lumpen armies had sharpened their arsenals. Two bitter rivals were facing off  — East Bengal versus Mohun Bagan, bringing the summer of the Calcutta football season to a crescendo. Like thousands of fans, I too trudged a dusty path to the verdant Eden Gardens, hoping to catch a classic derby from the concrete bleachers.

Hope brings prayers to the lips; but loyalty, a sense of belonging to a cause or a club can dredge up the ancient tribal instincts. And violence is what emerges from the churn. At the end of the game, 16 dead bodies were laid down next to each other, club affiliations be damned. Hundred others were bludgeoned and bloodied, but fortunate to have escaped the mindless soccer savagery.

But, what really topped the absurdity scales that day was the match result: Mohun Bagan-0 — East Bengal-0. It was one of the worst displays of football I’ve ever seen. Poor skills, pathetic gamesmanship, appalling strategy. And, yet it provided so much conviction to fans that they ended up killing 16 and injuring hundreds of others.

That day was eventful for other reasons. I, for one, stopped watching Indian football from that day. I have never ever watched a Mohun Bagan-East Bengal match after that dreadful day; not on telly, leave alone the thought of going to the stadium. Skipped the parts about them in the local newspapers too. Sometimes, and these are rare occasions, I feel I have been a bit too harsh on my adolescent and youthful pre-occupations. Not worth it, my left side would shout out any such rising doubts.

But, as with family traits, the lessons of 1980 seem to have got scattered and weakened with the passage of time. A fresh resurgence of violence broke out again during a Mohun Bagan vs East Bengal game yesterday (read here and here). It’s the same story. Reprise 1980 with one thankful omission: nobody died.

I have often wondered what could fan such passions? How can people still brave the elements and watch such dreary stuff? Improving satellite connections have weaned me off. Whenever I’ve tried to watch a similar derby on the box, I’ve immediately switched channels. The local stuff seems to be playing out in excruciating slow-mo, compared with the outstanding quality of European and Latin American soccer now available at the press of a button!

Which brings the mind back to mindless violence. I have often thought about that fateful August day of 1980 and inevitably concluded that the violence was the outcome of a new voice, a new sense of  empowerment sanctioned to a new section of lumpens co-opted by the then new ruling party. Cut to 2012 and the violence seems to be the handiwork of a new set of lumpens, patronised by a new political party. According to unconfirmed reports, the police have recovered a large and shocking cache of arms from fans (read here).

Who says it’s just a game!

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