x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Playing on the left and right wing

Politics in Kolkata may differ from those that used to be in place in Argentina, but many football fans in India still love the Albiceleste.

Many Indian fans of all ages are devoted to the Argentina national side. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP
Many Indian fans of all ages are devoted to the Argentina national side. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP

How do you fall in love with a football team from half the world away?

To answer that, you can travel to Kolkata this September and observe the reaction that Argentina get when they take the field for a friendly international against Venezuela.

The Argentine squad will spend four days in the city that was the cradle of the game in India - Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are India's equivalent of Liverpool and Manchester United - and take part in football clinics for children and programmes for charity. They will be greeted with the fervour usually reserved for victorious Indian cricketers.

The younger generation of fans has never seen Argentina lift the World Cup, but the devotion to the Albiceleste is palpable every four years when it is played.

Kolkata becomes Glasgow, without the divide being on sectarian lines. Half the football-loving population will rally behind the green-and-gold of Brazil. The others will march behind the standard that a certain Diego Maradona made popular.

The obsession with Brazil is easy enough to fathom.

When Pele, Vava, Garrincha and Didi announced their genius at the World Cup in Sweden in 1958, India boasted of a national side that could match wits with the best in Asia. Among the ranks were wonderfully skilful players like Chuni Goswami, an elusive forward rumoured to have interested Tottenham Hotspur in his prime.

Brazil represented the pinnacle of skill, with Didi's free kicks, Garrincha's dribbles that gave defenders "twisted blood" - to borrow from Hugh McIlvanney's wonderful tribute to George Best - and Pele's irrepressible youth. It helped, too, that the love affair was consummated in 1958 and 1962.

As good as the 1970 side was, with Pele now the elder statesman surrounded by Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino and Jairzinho, it is debatable whether Kolkata could have fallen in love with them.

Right from the days of British rule, the city was a hotbed of revolutionary and leftist politics.

To support a team representing a country ruled by a right-wing military junta (from 1964 to 1985) would have stuck in the throats of many.

But beauty - and has anyone played more attractive football than that team? - triumphed over politics and the passion for Brazilian Joga Bonito (The Beautiful Game) continues to this day.

Argentina captured the imagination of the city's football lovers much later. Around the time that Pele's coconut-head look spawned thousands of imitations, the Argentines were at the lowest point in their football history, having been thrashed 6-1 by Czechoslovakia in Helsingborg in Sweden.

In the new Blizzard magazine, Jonathan Wilson writes about the profound effect it was to have on the way the nation viewed football.

Victorio Spinetto was the coach that introduced a new pragmatism, often unfairly called anti-futbol, and its roots can be traced to that Swedish debacle. First at Buenos Aires club Velez Sarsfield and then with the national team, he brought about a radical change in the approach.

"I demand teams with fibra [toughness]," Wilson quotes him as saying. "Do you know what is attacking for me? To get behind the defenders. A forward must look to get behind his marker and at the same time his teammate must try to give him the pass to hit the space behind the defender. And that must be done through the wings."

Spinetto's legacy lives on. In 1986, the first World Cup that many Indians outside of the big cities were able to watch, an Argentine side built on such pragmatic principles triumphed over West Germany in the final. They were not cavalier by Latin American standards, with the imposing figure of Sergio Batista, now the national coach, in a defensive midfield role.

The genius of Maradona and the sublime goals against Italy, England and Belgium captured millions of Indian hearts, and a country that revels in the dramatic lapped up the soap-opera career that followed - the tears of Italia '90, the drugs ban at USA '94 and the nervous antics on the touchline as coach in South Africa last year.

Until last month, the left had ruled the state of West Bengal for 34 years. Despite the well-documented excesses, Maradona's affinity for Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, not to mention Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, made him as much of a leftist icon.

It didn't hurt either that he espoused a brand of football that was vastly different to that envisaged by Carlos Bilardo, the '86 coach who learnt this methods from Osvaldo Zubeldia, the Estudiantes boss who was himself a disciple of Spinetto. (Estudiantes were World Club Champions three times but infamous for their cynical play.)

Maradona, and others like Fernando Redondo and Lionel Messi who came after him, relate more to Cesar Menotti, the coach of the 1978 World Cup winners.

The Menottistas stand for left-wing thought, poetry and art, and it is this contradiction at the heart of their game that still makes Argentina such a big draw wherever they play.