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Since 1st March, 1999
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Ballygunge to Berlin

The Telegraph Merchant's Cup is extra special when it coincides with the Cup

In Switzerland this week, the Brazilian team was taking it easy with a walk-in-the-park game against Lucerne. When not thrashing such weak opposition 8-0, the samba squad has been conducting five-a-side sessions, that archetypal pre-tournament activity, focussed yet nothing too stressful or tiring, in its World Cup warm-up.

Five-a-side is also the flavour of the football field a few thousand miles away as The Telegraph Merchant's Cup gears up for the knockout week at CC&FC.

Given the way the CC&FC games are being fought, one could be forgiven for mixing up the World Cup pros and the Merchant's Cup amateurs.

While India may still be as far from qualifying for the soccer World Cup as America is from lifting the cricket World Cup, this hasn't stopped Calcutta from catching quite a bit of the Berlin frenzy.

And you just need to drop into CC&FC one of these evenings, till June 10, to watch the World Cup mood being mirrored in the on-field competition and the off-field camaraderie.

What began back in 1975 as a contest engaging 20 teams, has grown to be the largest corporate sporting event in Calcutta, with 71 teams slugging it out for this year's trophy.

Just as the World Cup started on a relatively small scale, with only 13 teams (nine from South America) venturing to Uruguay for the first World Cup, so has Merchant's Cup grown, albeit on totally different scales.

But the stories of the two tourneys are illustrative of how football has grown from a leisurely kick in the grass to a global obsession at every conceivable level.

And this year is special at CC&FC because the three-week tournament coincides with the build-up to the World Cup and culminates on an evening when the likes of England and Argentina take the field for group matches in Germany.

'In a World Cup year, there's a special buzz among players and spectators,' admits former India hockey goalkeeper Anand Mandapaka, a Merchant's Cup regular since 1982 ' the year Italian goalkeeper Dino Zoff lifted the World Cup thanks largely to penalty-box poacher Paolo Rossi.

Growing up

The roots of the five-a-side Merchant's Cup lie in many of the participating companies in the first year of the tournament not being able to produce a playing 11.

Rai Copland of Ludlow Jute was the man who brought the rules of five-a-side football to Calcutta after a trip to England, and the rules were subsequently adapted to suit the needs of the Cup at CC&FC.

'The nature of Merchant's Cup has changed enormously over the years. In the early years there was as much emphasis on the social aspect as there was on the game itself,' recounts Mandapaka. 'When there were far fewer teams, everybody knew everybody, and although the matches were keenly contested, everybody had a drink at the end of the game. Nowadays the tournament is so enormous that it is impossible for that kind of interaction. But the event is great for boosting company morale.'

Utpal Ganguli, president of CC&FC, dwells on another aspect of the evolution: 'Initially many of the games were played in the daytime, which of course proved exhausting in the heat. With the introduction of the floodlights, we have also been able to attract more families as the games are at a more convenient time. This has made a big difference to the competition.'

Cup veterans also remark on how the quality of football has changed over the decades. The consensus seems to be that in the early years the individual quality of a small group of players was much higher, but nowadays the overall quality of the teams is better.

The one thing that has changed quite dramatically is the age profile, with very few players over the age of 50 making it to the pitch. 'That's not to say that there aren't some pretty decent and more experienced older players around!' laughs Mandapaka.

Earlier, teams were almost exclusively pooled from tea companies, but nowadays there is a much more diverse collection, with the advertising, media and IT sectors stumping up quality teams.

Hailing from Manchester, England, Matt Turega an HSBC employee and CC&FC rookie, is spending some of his last days in Calcutta vying for the Cup.

'The event has been such a revelation. I had no idea that there would be this whole social aspect to the event,' he says, gesturing to families and friends sitting around watching the games between a sip and a bite.

Going beyond

Let not the leisurely mood on the club lawns lull you into believing that the matches are not do-or-die battles. For the football is as tough as it gets, braving the heat and the humidity, the showers and the slush, the power cuts and the work pressure.

So which team is the Brazil of Ballygunge' The hot tip ' at least from the sidelines ' is Transworld, with a threat from Selvel, SAIL and Magma looming large.

As corporate Calcutta ditches the pinstripes and dons the shin pads, there are some who do not just drown in the magic of the moment but also dream of their favourite tournament ' and we aren't talking about the World Cup here ' growing bigger, better, and beyond.

'I think the competition should now be taken further than Calcutta; it has the potential to become a national event, beginning regionally and boiling down to the best. There is also no reason why such an event might not eventually go international,' says Noomi Mehta, vice-president of CC&FC and a Merchant's Cup veteran.

And what would it be called' The World (Merchant's) Cup'

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