Walking into the multiplex for a special screening of France vs Croatia final, one may be forgiven for thinking that Kolkata is actually wildly enthusiastic about the situation. The décor is all red and blue and white, there are flags on sale, plenty of people are actually buying those flags, and red and blue and white clad multiplex staff are wanting to know if you’d perhaps like to get your cheek adorned with a flag.
As I wait to enter the theatre, I make small talk with a grave young man standing next to me, his cheeks clearly flag-free. “So who are you supporting?” He looks at me in stern surprise. “No one. There’s no Brazil, there’s no one to support.”
Sheepishly, I wonder if I should wipe off the treacherous Croatian flag on my left cheek. I really ought to have shown less enthusiasm for a World Cup bereft of Brazil. After all, the wound is still raw.
Then reason reasserts itself. The combination of colours on my person could just as well represent France, it’s simply a matter of orientation. What I’m actually here for is the big screen football World Cup final watching experience. The winner is secondary. Either team works just fine. Such is the liberation of watching a football match not featuring Brazil. The proverbial silver lining.
Watching the 300-odd people around me, the flashback is inevitable. The year is 1985. It’s the Benson and Hedge’s World Championship Cricket final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, featuring none of the favourites of the time – Australia, England, West Indies. The finalists are India and Pakistan, actually, and a large banner in the stands tells the world what the Australian spectators think of the situation: ‘A final between bus drivers and tram conductors.’
Kolkata doesn’t display such ugliness, but on the evening of the World Cup final, there’s certainly a lot of lamentation, a very strong sense of what might have been. For the fanatically football-crazy city, a World Cup final is impossible to ignore, and so Kolkata has prepared for it, but the sense of duty is hard to miss. The contrast between the lifelessness of blue and white and red and the pulsating energy of yellow and green is stark. It’s like Durga Puja has ended on Saptami. The three remaining days are redundant, joyless.
As the match begins, and the goals start coming, the neutrality is even more obvious, the cheers for France as well mannered as those for Croatia. After a while, the youngsters in the row behind me have had enough. Suddenly, in the midst of Mbappe and Modric, they throw up a chant of “Brazil! Brazil!” Those around them display amused solidarity, no surprise. After all, they’re simply trying to generate the proper atmosphere.
Until World Cup 1986, Brazil was unquestionably the Bengali’s second country. That year, the monopoly was dented somewhat by a magician in a blue and white jersey called Diego Armando Maradona. Overnight, a large chunk of Bengal had migrated to this new land called Argentina.
Nevertheless, the Brazilian stronghold didn’t really suffer. It merely took on certain modified demographics. At the start of the World Cup this year, for instance, you could easily have walked into some North Kolkata neighbourhoods and mistaken them for mini Rio de Janeiros, swamped by green and yellow flags and giant Neymar cutouts. South Kolkata, by contrast, veered more toward the emotional pull of blue and white and Leo Messi.
Driving through those neighbourhoods as the final began, even the hardest heart would be touched by the sense of resigned flatness. Yes, the TV sets were running in the community clubs, and people were watching too, but there were no raucous celebrations for a goal, no crackers, no explosions of team colours. This was a final only in body, not in spirit.