Uttam Saha is the founder and secretary of the Argentina Football Fan Club in Kolkata.
But that is a dry title, one that does not do justice to his fandom.
He tells me about the time he bought a ticket to watch the 2011-12 UEFA Champions League in the UK. He paid €1,800 (around ₹1.51 lakh now), much to his family’s consternation. Then his father suddenly died. Saha was in a fix. Everything was booked and mostly non-refundable. “Finally, I asked my mother if I could just go and watch the final and come back,” he says. He remembers landing at Heathrow airport in London, dressed in mourning attire, unshaven and in a kurta-pajama. “The immigration officials just could not match me to my passport photo. Finally, we found an Indian who could explain it to them,” he says.
That final was between FC Barcelona and Manchester United. Saha had been a ManU supporter but a Lionel Messi fan. So he sat among Barcelona fans in his United jersey. “Everyone started taking pictures of me because India does not even play in the Champions League but I had come all the way from India just because of my love for Messi.”
He then boarded a plane, landed in Kolkata, went directly to Babughat on the river, where he bathed, shaved his head, performed the required rituals and then came home. “The relatives all said he is mad, he should go live in Argentina,” he says with a smile and a shrug.
Had I been related to Saha, I might well have been one of those relatives. As a boy, I was hopeless at sports. When the boys played cricket during recess at school, I would field on the fringes, hoping no ball would come my way. My parents enrolled me for tennis lessons and I spent my afternoons concocting excuses to get out of them, an early foray in creative fiction.
What was worse was the fact that I was not even a fan. My lack of talent was excusable but my lack of interest was incomprehensible. When friends discussed some game they had watched live on television late at night, I had nothing to contribute. In Nation At Play, A History Of Sport In India, Ronojoy Sen writes, “Despite being a keen follower of many sports: I never graduated beyond games in the neighbourhood park or inter-house matches at school. But that is not something I’m particularly ashamed of. If it weren’t for people like me, where would sports and the sports industry be?” Or the world of books, as his almost 400-page fascinating book proves.
Even now my school WhatsApp group will suddenly come alive with a blow-by-blow, pass-by-pass account of some legendary school match from decades ago. The players might have knee problems now but the memories still crackle. There is a brotherhood of bruised knees, full-throated cheers and muddy uniforms I could never belong to, though I tried to fake it for a while.
According to Merriam-Webster, the word “fan” is a shortened version of “fanatic” from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “divinely inspired”. Others think “fan” actually derives from “fancy”, an Americanism for sports enthusiasts, especially lovers of boxing. The BBC cites the example of essayist William Hazlitt, who wrote in 1822 of a man “whose costume bespoke him one of the FANCY, and who had risen from a three months’ sick bed” to go watch a prize fight.
Whatever the case, I was not a fan. It is hard for me to understand the love a man like Saha sitting in Gangulybagan in Kolkata can have for a team in faraway South America.
For Saha, it all began with Diego Maradona. He remembers reading about this young Argentine player in magazines like Sportstar and Khela Asor. It enthralled him, this boy from the slums, one of many siblings, struggling to make his place in the world through sheer chutzpah and raw talent. He chafed when the coaches deemed him too young to play. He rejoiced when he became a junior world champion.
The Argentina Football Fan Club was a way for Saha to marry his desire to do social work with his passion for football. They do over 40 events a year, donating schoolbags and fireworks to children and holding a cycle rally from police station to police station for drug awareness, but it all began with Maradona.
When Maradona turned 50, Saha had a cake made that was as tall as the football superstar. “We were lucky he was not very tall,” he chuckles. “But we still needed four-five people to distribute it all night long.” When Maradona visited Kolkata in 2008, Saha erected a 30ft statue to him. Maradona wanted to come see the statue but it didn’t work out. “But he was so excited he autographed my scrapbook twice,” says Saha.” I told him I wanted to go see him in Argentina. And he said ‘welcome’.”
Maradona didn’t realise that Saha was not joking. A few years later, he did go to Argentina to watch football. No one at the hotel wanted to take him to Maradona’s home in a high-security VIP neighbourhood. Finally, a taxi dropped him nearby and he walked up to the mansion and rang the doorbell. “Maradona was not there. His security guard came out. He didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Spanish. He had two big dogs and I am scared of dogs. I told him I wanted to take pictures of the house but he said it was not allowed. Finally, I asked if I could take a picture with him and he said ok. While doing that I quickly took a few pictures of the house as well. I have sat in front of Maradona. I have watched Messi play. But standing in front of Maradona’s home—that is one memory I will never forget, not a single detail.”
Much as I am amused by the story, it must be hard to live with a true fan. Saha admits his home is becoming a godown for football paraphernalia. A giant cutout of Messi is stored on the landing. The fibreglass Messi idol is tucked away in his apartment, being readied for its World Cup outing. As the 2022 World Cup approaches, he is planning to decorate his street with the flags of all 32 participating nations.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the funding for Argentina Football Fan club comes from me,” he says. The other day his wife asked him for some money and he baulked, saying, “Didn’t I just give you some yesterday?” She retorted, “Do you ever not do any of your fan club activities just because you already did it before?”
It’s easy to think of this as the story of an eccentric man, the kind who adds colour to a World Cup story and gives it an Indian touch. The legendary rivalry between Kolkata’s East Bengal and Mohun Bagan football clubs has spawned literature, affected fish prices, even inspired a goddess Kali done up in Mohun Bagan club colours, but brought us little international renown. Saha is that quirky World Cup story on a local television crew’s speed dial.
But just as the fans need their Messis and Neymars and Ronaldos, the great players also need their Uttam Sahas to inspire them. And sometimes, on a World Cup night in Kolkata, as that sound “G-O-O-O—A-A-L” erupts from the little television set amidst piles of glistening silvery fish at my local market and ricochets from the living rooms of the apartment buildings down the street to the cluster of men watching the game on their mobile phones in front of the tea shop, even I feel a thrill, swept up not by the power of football but its fans.
And for a moment I can almost belong.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.