“Goal de, goal de, ban***d! (Shoot a goal, sister*****r)
Matha ta kharap hoe gechhe naki? Opponent er player ke pass dicche. Gadha! (Have you lost your mind? Why are you passing the ball to them? Ass!)”
BAPI Majhi cannot recall the exact year. “It was around my 10th birthday, so it should be 1980,” he says. He was in bed with viral fever. Yet, his father decided to take him for his first Mohun Bagan match. It was a local league game but the bleachers were full.
Majhi, now 45, can’t recall the match from that afternoon. All he can recall is everyone in the stands bellowing expletives as they puffed on their bidis. And the ear-numbing roar when Bagan scored a goal. By the time he was home, Majhi was gripped with Bagan fever.
Clad in green-and-maroon, the famous Bagan colours, Majhi is a common sight at stadiums during Bagan matches. Whether it is Mumbai or Goa, Bangalore, Delhi or Kerala, Majhi, now a tea-stall owner in Paikpara in north Kolkata, goes everywhere Bagan play. He has been doing so for the last 30 years. A B.Com graduate, he didn’t take up a 9-to-5 job because that would have made it difficult to be present at matches and cheer Bagan on.
Instead, he chose to do what his father did — run a tea stall the family owned. “It gave me the freedom to work in the day, watch the team practise and play matches in the evening. Whatever little I earned from it, I used to travel,” he says. “In Kolkata, even before you are born it is decided whether you will support East Bengal or Mohun Bagan. My father, mother, grandfather, everyone was a Bagan fan. I am carrying the legacy forward.”
It’s not uncommon to be a football fan in India. But it’s rare to be a fan of Indian football. Rarer even to be a travelling fan. At a 2007 Super Cup match in Haryana between Bagan and Dempo, he was the only spectator in the stadium watching his side win 4-0. “I have to be there. The club needs fans to survive. It’s my duty to be there,” he says.
Over the years, his constant presence at the matches has led to a special bond between him and the players. Bagan’s Brazilian striker Jose Ramirez Barreto often offered him financial help, which he sometimes accepted. A few club officials gifted him season tickets.
Of course, there have been occasions when he has hated being there. Before they ended their 13-year-old drought last Sunday by winning the I-League, Bagan had won precious little. Travelling miles to watch the team lose did not seem worth it. “At movies, you pay to get entertained. I paid to get depressed and frustrated,” he says.
Once, before the start of the Federation Cup in Kochi, Bagan’s Moroccan coach Karim Bencherifa invited Majhi and his family to a team dinner. “But I refused. I hadn’t travelled to have fun. I told the coach I would accept his invitation only if the team won,” Majhi says.
Four years ago, he sold a couple of rooms that belonged to the family to continue his travels. When he ran out of that money as well in 2013, he and his wife Sipra mortgaged a few gold ornaments they had. The money was used to make the 2000-plus km journey from Kolkata to Kochi.
Currently, he has enrolled for Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s 100-day job scheme, where he cleans a nearby pond and gets paid Rs 100 a day. “By the end of the 100th day, I will have Rs 10,000 which will be useful to plan my next season,” he says.
In 2011, as former champions Churchill Brothers lost their prolific Nigerian striker Okolie Odafa to Kolkata giants, the Goan side tried to poach Bagan’s 12th man. But money could not buy loyalty. “I was in Goa when the club’s owners told me to be a cheerleader for their club. They offered to pay for all my expenses as well,” Majhi says. “I thought they were joking. How could I betray Bagan?”
Majhi believes he has had a role to play in Bagan’s first-ever I-League title this season. Needing at least a draw against Bengaluru FC, Bagan were trailing 1-0 at half time. At the end of first half, Bagan’s Japanese midfielder Katsumi Yusa marched towards the end of the stadium, where Majhi was seated. “He urged me to cheer loudly,” Majhi says.
Just three minutes before full-time, the Nigerian defender Bello Rasaq scored the elusive goal that helped them win the trophy. “This is our biggest win. Everybody was saying football is dying in Kolkata. But look, we are still very much alive and kicking,” he says.