You are most likely to find an assortment of parked cars, rickshaws and sleeping dogs on the roads of Salt Lake IB Block on a weekday afternoon, which is why a queue of boys in sweat-drenched football jerseys attract attention. The young boys are a part of the summer camp being conducted by celebrated footballer Jose Ramriz Barreto, and are waiting for their post-match chat and photo-op with the local hero.
“I have grown up watching him play for Mohun Bagan. My father, who is a big Mohun Bagan fanatic, used to say ‘sheet, grishmo, barsha, Barretoi bharsha’ (Winter, summer or rain, Barreto is our only hope),” says 15-year-old Soumyabrata Bhattacharya, a student of Hariyana Vidya Mandir, Salt Lake. Barreto has played 397 matches for the green-and-maroon brigade, scoring a total of 227 goals.
Just a stone’s throw from where Barreto is running his summer camp is the gargantuan Salt Lake Stadium, which has played host to football stalwarts like Maradona, Bebeto, Oliver Kahn and Lionel Messi. For Baretto, it’s his second home.
“I have played countless second division football matches here. This has to be the Mecca of football in the subcontinent,” says the 37-year-old Brazilian, who settled in the city almost a decade ago. When he first landed in Kolkata in 1999, Barreto didn’t have the comfort of familiarity. He didn’t know that it would be as easy to stir up Caruru — a popular Brazilian dish made of okra, onions, shrimps, palm oil and toasted nuts (peanuts and cashews) — in Kolkata as it is in his hometown Porto Alegre. He didn’t speak the smattering of Benglish that he manages now.
Barely out of his teens then, Barreto was ready to face any challenge that life threw across his way. “That’s why I decided to come to India and eventually to Kolkata. I had no idea what kind of football was being played here,” he says.
Barreto was 15 when he left his home for the famous academy at Gremio. Here, he was mentored by Brazil’s World-Cup winning football manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, who was the coach of the academy’s senior team. At Germio, he played with one of Brazil’s most enduring football legends, Ronaldinho. “He was younger to me. We knew he was meant for big things even then. His technique was absolutely brilliant,” says Barreto.
While Ronaldinho paved his way to international glory, Barreto scripted a different story. He established himself as a successful mid-fielder with Kolkata’s historic Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, one of the oldest football clubs in Asia. Little did he know then that he had landed in the football capital of India.
“I was told that Kolkata was passionate about football, but I didn’t think it would also involve madness. When there is an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan final in Salt Lake Stadium, the atmosphere is no different from what it is in a Brazil-Argentina match,” says Barreto, with a laugh. His five-year stint (1999-2004) with the club was successful yet troublesome. He allegedly felt that there was a lot of corruption in the club. He left the club for Penang Football Association in Malaysia for two years only to return in 2006. “I don’t even remember those times. I remember only the good times. Though playing for Penang FA was a learning experience,” says Barreto.
Since he returned from Penang, Kolkata has been home. He was with Mohun Bagan again from 2006 to 2012, after which he captained the Bhawanipore FC side for about two years and then retired this season. Now he owns a flat in a posh south Kolkata gated community where he resides with his wife Veronica, daughters Isabella, Natalia and five-year-old son Joan.
“They call Kolkata their home now. Though, initially, Veronica had trouble adjusting to the conservative way of life here, she made friends soon and has a healthy social life now. It’s the madness that this city is capable of that fascinates me,” says Barreto.
In a week’s time, when the opening ceremony will begin at Sao Paulo in Brazil, Kolkata too will be dressed to celebrate — flags hanging from electric wires, portraits of football icons on walls and, of course, the cutouts of the trophy at all critical junctures of the city. “You know, it’s one thing to celebrate the football World Cup through food festivals and live screenings in five-star hotels. I have nothing against that. But it is a totally different thing when the whole city is swept away by football frenzy. No kid in Kolkata needs to be told what Brazil or Argentina is,” says Barreto. Indeed, the names Pele, Maradona and Ronaldo roll off the Bengali tongue as smoothly as ilish and chingri. Kolkatans, in fact, seem to share some karmic connection with the South American countries of Brazil and Argentina. “It’s true. You are either a Brazil fan here or an Argentina fan. I guess Argentina is popular only because of Maradona,” says Barreto.
And what does he feel about the World Cup being hosted in Brazil for the first time? “It’s a great honour. When I heard it for the first time, I felt happy and vindicated. We deserved it,” says Baretto. The crackdown on Rio slums was essential, feels Barreto. “The slums are hotbeds of drug gangs that indulge in various criminal activities. We needed to clear them before hosting such a prestigious event that will get the world’s eyes on us. As a Third-World country, we have some limitations. We have to work around them.” Though he won’t be going home for the World Cup, he feels he will be doing the next best thing. “I will be associated with television studios of the city and will cover the World Cup for them, which means I will be watching the World Cup with the real Kolkata,” says Barreto, with a smile.