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Mesmeric Messi has Kolkata in raptures with display of genius in its prime
Dileep Premachandran  4th Sep 2011

Argentina’s Lionel Messi (C) dribbles past Venezuelan players during a friendly match in Kolkata. AFP

wo things happened in 1958 that were to impact on football for several generations. In February, an aircraft carrying the Manchester United team crashed in the snow at Munich Airport. Seven of the Busby Babes died that night. An eighth, Duncan Edwards, perhaps the greatest of them all, survived two weeks before his formidable physique gave in. For a sport that had lost the legendary Torino side in the Superga disaster less than a decade earlier, it was a sickening blow, a magical team cut down in its prime. Fans all over the world, even in relatively isolated Nehruvian India, mourned.

Some of the gloom was alleviated later that summer by the performance of the Brazilians at the World Cup in Sweden. With Vava ruthless in front of goal, Garrincha dazzling on the wing and Didi mesmerising with his falling-leaf free kicks, Brazil took the tournament by storm. But most of all, there was Pele, the 17-year-old who could wallop the ball powerfully with either foot and also leap as if on a trampoline to find the target with his coconut head. For many neutrals, the Samba-style ecstasy that followed the agony of Munich dictated their choice of team. Go around the world, to places as far adrift as Sydney, Cape Town and Kolkata and you'll find a generation of men (and women) in their 60s and 70s who support both United and Brazil because of what happened the year.

Children wearing Argentina team jerseys play soccer in front of posters featuring Lionel Messi, on a street in Kolkata. REUTERS

The passion for United was intensified by what happened in the decade that followed, with Busby moulding a second great side that paid homage to its predecessor by winning the European Cup on the most emotional of nights at Wembley. Brazil too consolidated their following, retaining the trophy in 1962 and then taking the international game to its pinnacle over the course of an unforgettable month in Mexico in 1970. For nearly three decades, the support for Brazil and Samba football was undiluted. Then, Diego Maradona came along, urchin and genius in the one stocky body. Years from now, we will look back with even more astonishment at the 1986 World Cup. Perhaps never again will one man bend and shape a major sporting event to his will and talent as Maradona did that month in Mexico. The support cast wasn't shabby, but it was nothing to compare with the ensemble that surrounded Pele.

But for the vast majority, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the greatest footballer on the planet in their backyard. Pele, Maradona and Zico have all come to India. Two of them did so after they retired. Pele did long after his best years were behind him. Messi didn’t just turn up as the game’s leading light. He performed as though aware of that responsibility.

Indian fans wearing hats reading “Messi” cheer for Argentina during the friendly between Argentina and Venezuela in Kolkata. REUTERS

By the new millennium, support within India for Argentina was nearly comparable to that for the Brazil. Maradona had been succeeded by the likes of Gabriel Batistuta, Ariel Ortega and Juan Sebastian Veron and though they fell short at the major tournaments, there was something in the beauty-and-the-beast nature of the Albiceleste that appealed to those with a penchant for the dramatic. Any Argentine team that visited India in the last two decades would have been guaranteed a rapturous reception. But what we saw at the Yuba Bharati Krirangan on Friday night was adulation taken to another level. It was partly loyalty to a team that can be both entertaining and infuriating. But mostly, it was the acclaim for a genius who had turned up in India while at the peak of his game.

Of course, there's an element of bandwagon-jumping to the Messi mania. There were people there just to be seen watching him, to add to some supposed coolness quotient. But for the vast majority, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the greatest footballer on the planet in their backyard. Pele, Maradona and Zico have all come to India. Two of them did so after they retired. Pele did long after his best years were behind him. It was a bit like the retirement-benefit concerts that aging rock stars come here for. Messi didn't just turn up as the game's leading light. He performed as though aware of that responsibility. With Alejandro Sabella still getting used to the players, Messi was everywhere, a one-man source of inspiration seeking to break down a resolute defence. Whether he scored or not was irrelevant. For the thousands of kids watching, it was the message that mattered. You give it everything, even if it's just a friendly.

 
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