An Away Day at the Salt Lake Stadium

by Mohul Bhowmick

“No, you can’t dangle your flag there.”

“Who even let you in here?”

“Go back home, preferably with your tail tucked between your legs.”

“Move your stuff from the ramparts- you don’t belong here!”

You would think that a major crime, and something more heinous or serious than wearing yellow and black in a sea of maroon and green had been committed to evince such a response. Alas, all I had done was express a wish to display my club’s banner along the ramparts of a football ground.

I had come a few hours ago to the city of joy as a travelling fan for Hyderabad FC’s clash against Mohun Bagan in the semifinal of the Indian Super League at the Salt Lake Stadium, known officially as the Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Kridangan, and had hardly expected a reception as such. My friend K, who moved to Calcutta a few years ago to study sports psychology was accompanying me but had wisely refused to wear the club’s colours.

He wasn’t hounded by the ultras of Mohun Bagan, disguised often by the hoodlums who blockade the streets of Calcutta at night, and whom we had been only too fortunate to witness manning a motorbike rally mere hours before the game. Thoughtlessly, we were given seats in the heart of the Block C-2 stand where the home supporters congregate, and where we could barely escape with our bodily functions unharmed had a couple of policemen- both Calcuttan and Mariners- not provided us with their saintly protection and asked us to sit with them.

Fireworks going off across the xanthous sky from behind the Hyatt Regency are enough to tell us that the Mohun Bagan team bus has entered the premises of the stadium. Hyderabad’s had entered five minutes ago to pin-drop silence and some boos from the younger of the Mariners’ supporters.

I remember the reverse fixture we had played in Gachibowli earlier this season, when we had welcomed the travelling Mariners with banners reading ‘We’re the best in the country, and you’re not even the best in your city’ to go with ‘Make paranthas with Aloo, not Biryani.’ Impish repartee and banter, but no contemptible vitriol of any sort. We are built differently in Hyderabad.

A couple of teenagers, discreet in their black t-shirts eye me uncomfortably as I am about to make my way into the stadium and ask to have a chat.

“Do you have spare tickets by any chance?”

I nod, clutching to the leaf of 25 passes that the club has given me for the occasion. Nonetheless, I ask him why he has chosen me to ask that particular question.

“You don’t understand. We won’t be allowed to purchase them from the vendors here. Nor can we ask anyone else around.”

I am puzzled. Who is this we that you mention, I ask. They talk to each other in Bengali, so I assume that they are Calcuttans and supporters of Mohun Bagan.

“Offo! You truly don’t understand. We are not supporters of Mohun Bagan.”

Ah! Now, it strikes me. An enemy of an enemy is a friend, and I dole out about ten passes to my newfound friends from East Bengal, the sworn rivals of Mohun Bagan and who perhaps want to see the latter lose much more than we do tonight.

In the event, Hyderabad play out a goalless draw over 120 minutes with Mohun Bagan, and courtesy of a similar result in the first leg played in Gachibowli a week ago, are taken to penalties. Centre-forwards Javier Siverio and Bart Ogbeche fluff their chances, and Mohun Bagan coast to a fortunate win by not missing theirs.

A penalty shootout is never the appropriate course of action to determine victors at the end of a hard-fought season, but my club won the league title last season using similar means against Kerala Blasters in the final. I am no one to complain.

Salt Lake erupts as if an earthquake has struck the city of joy when club captain Pritam Kotal tucks his penalty far from the reach of Hyderabad goalkeeper Gurmeet Singh, and K and I start looking for a place to hide. The policemen around us are applauding unabashedly; we are too stunned by the result to register any sense of surprise. It gets hard to tear ourselves away from our seats, but the victory chants by the home supporters leave us with no chance.

Eventually, the same men who had mauled us with vile abuse, offensive taunts and sordid jeers at the beginning of the game, come up and offer their commiserations. I realise that with the game now done and dusted, we offer no threat to them or their masculinity. Some of them, who have never heard of Hyderabad or know where to locate it on the map, ask for selfies and look at me as they would at an exotic animal left all by itself in a cage at the zoo not a ways off in Alipore. It doesn’t help that Hyderabad’s colours look indistinguishable from that of the most caricatured of all animals, and that which signifies Calcuttan pride more than perhaps the Victoria Memorial- the royal Bengal tiger.

Their immediate focus has now shifted from beating us to facing Bengaluru FC in the final at Fatorda in Goa (which they would eventually go on to win). In victory, their warmth is as palpable as is our dismay in defeat. In turn, they become the warm hosts that Calcuttan football fanatics have long been renowned to be, of which I have often read and heard of, but never experienced first-hand. They don’t worship football and footballers in other parts of the country as much as they do in Calcutta, and it feels rousing to be on both flanks of their demeanour in the minuscule span of two hours.

I shudder to think what would have happened to us had Hyderabad managed to win that day. Two Hyderabadis against 60,000 Mariners- I don’t think I would have been writing this essay.

It would have been such a travesty to depart from the land that turned icons such as the late Tulsidas Balaram, Shabbir Ahmed, Victor Amalraj, Peter Thangaraj, Mohammed Habib, Mohammed Akbar and Hussain Ahmed into heroes with a bitter taste of their hospitality in my mouth.

About the Author:

Mohul Bhowmick is a national-level cricketer, sports journalist, poet, essayist and travel writer from Hyderabad, India. 

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