Behind the garishly made-over Maharaja’s College Stadium Ground — among the several embellishments is a giant snake-boat painting splattered across the two galleried stands — is a bushy space with overgrown trees, where the college volleyball team is engrossed in a practice match. Their shrieks and thuds invite inquisitive glares from the odd passers-by, who momentarily pause to see a few thunderous smashes, and sometimes even join them for a set or so. Only that, this time it weren’t for them that they stopped.
Suddenly, as the ground in front of them began to populate with silhouettes in blue-and-white jerseys, sprinting around, and a few gnarled men rattling out instructions in an unfamiliar language, the boys stopped the game and turned around. Only to notice a couple of fairly trim, non-local policemen rushing towards them, screaming at them to disperse. But much to the boys’ surprise, the spectators continued to wander around the fence.
Puzzled, one of the boys asked them why they are still standing there, staring at them. “Njangal ninteyonum kopile kali kanan vanatala. Njagalde muthine kanan vannatha (We’re here not to see your stupid game, but that of our little pearls),” the retort came faster than the question. Pearl — or in transliterated but informal Malayalam ‘muth’ — denotes an object of utmost affection. Pele, here, is called, Karutha Muth (Black Pearl). It sounds racist, but it’s anything but. Unfettered affection rather. Another such frequently used word is karal (liver literally, but heart figuratively).
There is no Pele here, or anyone even faintly familiar. A couple of informed onlookers enquire about “that boy”. That boy is Vinicius Junior, the much-hyped stripling. The 17-year-old future Galactico’s name doesn’t roll out with as much ease as Zico or Pele. So the “that boy” enquiry. They are disappointed that he hasn’t travelled with the team for the U-17 World Cup. They arrive at their own conclusions and conjectures. “He doesn’t need to play in these small tournaments. He will play the next World Cup,” shouts one of them. The average Malayalee football watcher may not be the most informed or discernible of followers, but certainly is opinionated.
To them, it doesn’t matter who’s playing or who’s not. Or whether they know their names or not. After all, a Brazilian footballer is a Brazilian footballer. As the word goes around that Brazil are practising — it was an impromptu session, as they had originally planned to take a break on the travel day —more onlookers swell around the fence. A few bikes brake to a halt. The entire auto-stand near the ground has gathered around the fence, forsaking the brisk evening fetch. An hour into the session, there are a couple of hundreds scattered around the stadium, though from most vantage points of the ground they could just spot their head and upper body, and not the feet.
For, one side of the ground is entirely obscured by the chain of Nepali garment stores. Another is blocked by the sight screen used for cricket matches — the stadium caretaker Varghese Chandy promptly informs that Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman have played Ranji matches on this ground in the 90s. One is veiled by the newly constructed stadium gate and a gaudy building. Another hugs the pavement on the MG Road, from where most of them are impartially watching the match. Clambering up the metro tower, which was inaugurated in the morning, would perhaps offer a better view. But the idea didn’t strike.
Instead, they tried to cajole, beg and even intimidate the policemen, to let them somewhere in the vicinity of the players. But they were responded with only gruff visages and gruffer rebukes.
All their impressions, hence, were more aural than visual. Whenever the coach or player yelled out somebody’s name, it was chorused by the spectators. Vinicius’ fellow-forward Paulinho’s was the most resonated name. If only they were close enough to watch his nimble, fancy footwork, he could have impressed them even more. In one of the match simulation sequences, a group of four defenders converged on him, but he nut-mugged his nearest defender, and ran around him to collect the ball. Here, they were completing the picture with their own imagination.
The showy spectator dusted up his memory bank, “Just like Jairzinho’s goal against Italy in the 1970 World Cup,” he belted out, only to be put in his place by another spectator, “I doubt you were even born then?” He gave his own verdict: “I think he’s more like Ronaldinho. Look at his control.” All these assumptions/hypotheses, though, were of course rattled out from 100-odd yards. But nothing deters debates and discussions here, be it politics or football.
Another name that caught their fancy was Lincoln, a deft dribbler who can winkle past a maze of defenders. By the time the session ended, they were more than acquainted with most of the names.
As the players began to warm down and pack up, the gathering thinned. But some of them rushed to the stadium entrance, where the team bus was parked. As the players popped out, they began to shout names, randomly. Some of them reciprocated with warm smiles or a reluctant “hi”. Somebody then dropped in the coach’s name. Carlos. “Roberto Carlos,” a spectator yelled. The Brazilian coach, turned back, and pointing out to his thighs said, “Look at these. Do you think I’m Roberto Carlos?” The crowd erupts into laughter and promises to return on Thursday. With flags, jerseys and whistles in tow. If anything, Brazil might have already felt totally at home.