“I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal.”
This quote from Argentine literary icon Jorge Luis Borges’s magnum opus El Aleph (The Aleph) perfectly symbolises the platonic connection between his Latin American nation and Bengal, which got personified with the mass hysteria associated with Diego Armando Maradona’s death in the eastern Indian state.
Interestingly, if any region outside the Pampas has been deeply bereaved by the sudden demise of the Argentine soccer icon that’s, probably, the state of West Bengal. The FIFA World Cup-winning former Albiceleste captain’s death at the age of 60 instantly sent the entire state into mourning while there has been a relentless outpouring of emotions and boundless grief across the eastern Indian province. But what brings Maradona so close to Bengal’s heart? No, it’s not just because the Bengalis are crazy about the beautiful game as the state has been the epicentre of Indian football for more than a century since its pride Mohun Bagan (now ATK Mohun Bagan) triumphed over the English side of East Yorkshire Regiment in the 1911 IFA shield final to become the torch-bearer of the game in the then British-ruled country.
A slew of factors are directly or indirectly associated with Bengal’s romanticism with arguably the most famous Argentine.
Zeal for Pele and Brazil
Like a significant part of the world, the football-crazy Indian state first fell in love with the original superhero of world football, Pele, right in the 1950s and 1960s even though predominantly reading or hearing about the Black Pearl’s exploits on the field in newspapers or radio sets, the most powerful ICE (information, communication and education) tool of those pre-television decades in India.
The three-time World Cup-winner was synonymous with Bengal’s uncompromising love for Brazil, primarily pronounced, for some odd reason, as “Brejil”, in the land of bhadraloks. Even Satyajit Ray had used that typical Bengali way of describing the Latin American country’s name in one of his stories, Brajiler Kalo Bagh (Black Tiger of Brazil). Although Johan Cruyff’s artistry with his nearly invincible Oranje brigade and his legendary turn caught the attention of Bengal’s football pundits, ubiquitously present in almost every household across the state, his tantalising total-football playing side’s tragic failure to win the coveted World Cup in both 1974 and 1978 couldn’t catapult him to the demigod status of Pele in the harmonic heart and symphonic soul Bengal. In short, Bengal’s heart used to beat only for Pele and the joga bonito of Brazil in those All India Radio days before the advent of home television sets.
However, by the early 1980s, television sets started invading Indian households with its increasing affordability and Pele’s successor as well as Brazilian compatriot Zico occupied a special place in the eastern Indian state’s football-crazy mind and heart. However, the 1982 World Cup in Spain wasn’t shown live on Doordarshan, the one and only television network in operation in India at that time, and Zico’s Brazil disastrously bit the dust a bit early in the tournament finishing fifth for the second time in its history.
An insignificant entry
Thanks to Bengal’s significantly higher consumption of world and sports news and the high-literacy state’s quintessential newspapers/magazines-reading culture, the prodigious talent of El Pibe de Oro (The Golden Boy), who was rather unfairly dropped from the 1978-World Cup-winning squad just before the tournament on his home soil, wasn’t known to the Bhadraloks in Kolkata as they were eagerly waiting to see the birth of a new star in the Iberian peninsula in 1982.
However, the ill-tempered enfant terrible’s send off after kicking in the groin area of Brazilian midfielder Batista and his reigning champion side’s win-less first-round exit, Maradona actually went off the radar of Bengal’s football aficionados for almost the next four years. The relentless and ruthless fouls on him by Italian Claudio Gentile in the opening game of 1982 were still in their memory but Maradona’s career-threatening injury, caused by a reckless tackle by The Butcher of Bilbao”, Andoni Goikoetxea, and a frustrating spell at Barcelona, somewhat made the name Maradona an almost inconspicuous entity in Bengal until June 1986.
People decorate a statue of Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona before a prayer meeting, in Kolkata. (Photo: Reuters)
Moreover, the state found a new idol in Michel Platini, thanks to his stellar show in taking France to the 1982 World Cup semi-final but more importantly, after he guided Les Bleus to European Championship triumph, two years later, in 1984. Meanwhile, a Maradona-less Argentina did travel to Kolkata under Coach Carlos Bilardo to play at the 3rd Nehru Cup, an invitational international tournament hosted in the Bengal capital. The side, featuring some of its future heroes like Nery Pumpido and Jorge Burruchaga, huffed and puffed to beat the Indian national team with a 1-0 margin and lost to China before bowing out of the tournament empty-handed with a series of lacklustre performances at India’s cricketing Mecca, Eden Gardens. If Argentina’s Nehru Cup performance didn’t quite place Argentina and its absent star Maradona to Bengal’s heart, another Latin American footballer, Enzo Françescoli’s awe-inspiring appearance at the Nehru Cup actually bedazzled the Bengalis in the early 1980s. The skilful Uruguayan stole the show for his triumphant side at the 1982 Nehru Cup, etching a mark in Bengal’s heart.
Two lands of literary luminaries and revolutionaries
Notably, Latin America and its literary luminaries were an inseparable part of an avant-garde Bengali society. Its romanticism, involving Borges, Victoria Ocampo, Vicente Huidobro, Romulo Gallegos, Cecília Meireles, César Vallejo, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz to name a few and being under its Che Guevara-Fidel Castro-worshipping Communist regime, the state found an umbilical cord connected to the faraway continent of developing countries and many regime-changing revolutions. Incidentally, a certain MN Roy, who was born as Narendra Nath Dutta in Bengal’s Arbelia village near Kolkata, had founded the Mexican Communist Party, the first Communist Party outside the Soviet Union, in 1919 before he floated the Communist Party of India the very next year. Communism and its influence in Latin American art, culture as well as literature, and the trademark free-flowing and fearless football of the continent were the common threads that bound the two distant lands together.
The Mexican wave
But the 1986 FIFA World Cup ushered in a new era. Colour television had already come to India with the transmission getting underway during the 1982 Asian Games in Delhi. The numbers of home television sets increased manifold with several home-grown manufacturers like Salora, Dyanora, EC TV, Keltron, Uptron, Oscar, Beltek, Webel, Weston, and Crown joining the fray to make the TV sets affordable in those License Raj days. Besides, the popular weekly shows like Chitrahar, the live coverage of the 1983 Prudential World Cup and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s funeral started the trend of community television watching/viewing as the presence of one television set at one household could attract and accommodate the whole neighbourhood. But it was Doordarshan’s decision to show all the matches of the knock out stage live that created quite a revolution in Bengal’s fertile football-crazy mind as the state, along with the rest of the world, witnessed a diminutive footballer and his magnetic left-foot singlehandedly powering Argentina to an epic triumph at the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico.
The 1986 World Cup made Maradona a household hero in every nook and cranny of Bengal but his infamous “Hand of God” and the “Goal of the Century” propelled him to a demigod status all over the globe. He became a “Master Inspirer of Dreams” in many parts of the world while his cult mesmerised a generation of football fans in Bengal. Mexico 86 virtually bifurcated Bengal into two die-hard world football fan bases. The older generations stood loyal to the canary yellow jersey of Pele’s Brazil while most of the first-time World Cup-watching generation of the 1980s embraced the white and sky blue jersey of Diego’s Argentina. There, he was more than a demigod. He became a widely worshipped God of a religion called football. Even though the likes of Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo stepped into the gigantic shoes of Maradona to create their own legions among Bengal’s football-crazy mass but the Prince of Football from the current Pope’s country remained well enshrined at the highest heavenly pantheon. He was venerated as an ultimate devotion-evoking divinity in a state that houses more than double of the total population of a country of 4.5 crores.
Romance and romanticism
Interestingly, El Diego has been the strongest and the most profound link between Bengal and Argentina connection but not the first. It was Bengal’s pride and first non-European Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, whose brief stopover in Buenos Aires en route to Peru in 1924, led to his special friendship with Argentine literary prima donna Ocampo. The undefined and platonic relationship between the Bengali bard and Ocampo, who played host to Tagore at her Villa Miralrio in San Isidro, in the suburb of Argentine capital for two months and was christened “Bijoya” by her Indian guest, became a part of Bengal’s intellectual folklore for decades. It was Ocampo, who later organised an exhibition of Tagore´s paintings in Paris in 1930. The influential Argentine writer, the publisher of widely circulated literary magazine Sur (South) and the prime lynchpin of Latin American intellectual circles, had Borges as her co-editor, who too met Tagore for the first time in his life during the Indian stalwart’s stay in Buenos Aires.
Incidentally, many years before meeting Tagore in person, Borges had mentioned about the Asian poet in an article called La Metafora and at the time of Tagore's arrival in Buenos Aires, Borges wrote, “Rabindranath in Buenos Aires. I was searching for such testimonies which will be a visible sign of the miracle, one clearer graceful trend in the vocation of the world, the mild colour of the breeze, the ever unseen rainbow over the rooftop. My merciful restlessness could not find them. But while rereading the Davidic and passionate verses of Gitanjali and Gardener, I witnessed the awe that poetry from such a faraway land is involved so deeply with my hours and that their call was easy like the guitars in the backyard. Images of the Ganges and Aurora encrafted in those verses fulfil our passionate lives and the settings in Buenos Aires confirm what Bengal is observing those landscapes being recreated here.” He further added, “It seems my town and Rabindranath - these two huge realities are very much alive in time and space; they have mingled like the sweet melodies of two rivers - knowing this is sufficient to me, at the same time it is both pleasant and enthralling.”
The God and the followers
The mutual, as well as intellectual respect between Argentina and Tagore’s home state, continued to thrive for many decades before Maradona took it to a new level with his wondrous wizardry. Another pride of Pampas and the soccer icon’s contemporary tennis star Gabriela Sabatini too occupied the mind space of the Maradona-mad state during her solitary Grand Slam-winning career. His most capable successor Messi too mesmerised multitude of football fans in Bengal. But the divine No. 10 was simply unparalleled and the most widely-worshipped God from his fraternity.
Even after the former Argentine captain with his famous tattoo of Che on his right bicep hung his boots after falling from grace due to doping controversies, a Communist Party-ruled Bengal welcomed the self-confessed comrade of Castro, Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales with a rousing reception in the City of Joy in 2008. In Maradona’s words that was “the second biggest reception after Napoli” before he wowed his fans from the Indian state once again with his sojourn of in 2017 creating yet another fever pitch across. He remained an immortal and the God among demigods. And in his death, Maradona underlined the fact he continued to remain an emotion in an Indian province, located 16,500 km away from his birthplace and the city where he was also laid to rest.