Uttam Saha was convinced that Lionel Messi would score. It was the dying embers of the 2014 FIFA World Cup final in Rio de Janeiro and Messi’s Argentina were trailing Germany by a solitary Mario Gotze strike. Fouled about 30 yards from goal, Messi had a golden opportunity to restore parity, with just seconds of extra time to play.
“I was sure that Messi was going to convert the free-kick, and that Argentina, with goalkeeper Sergio Romero in top form, would win the World Cup on penalties,” says Saha, 59, who was in the Maracana on that historic night. Messi, as has been documented endless times since, skied his free-kick horribly, as if his laser focus had been hijacked by the footballing gods. “He sent the shot more than 10ft high. I couldn’t believe it. Even I wouldn’t have hit the ball that far off target!” reflects Saha, with a smile that is laced with regret.
A diehard Argentina supporter since 1978, Saha has been in the stands to see Argentina surrender their World Cup dreams to Germany thrice this century, and has also witnessed two Copa America heartbreaks for Messi and Co in person. This time around, he is going to Qatar for redemption.
“On December 18, 2022, Messi will lift the World Cup. It’s my firm belief that no other team can be world champions in Qatar. After all, this is Messi’s last shot at the biggest prize, and football history will be incomplete if Messi doesn’t win the World Cup,” says Saha, who runs an advertising business. He has booked tickets for Argentina’s second and third group stage games, as well as their potential dates in the knockout rounds.
Argentina’s World Cup ambitions, of course, seem steeper now that they have gone and lost their opening group game against Saudi Arabia. An early upset, though, is unlikely to faze superfans like Saha.
Meeting Maradona, his watchman and a 5.5ft cake for El Diego
Saha got not one but two autographs from Maradona when the Argentine icon visited Kolkata in 2008TT archives
The founder-secretary of Argentina Football Fan Club in Ganguly Bagan (established in 2002), next door to Rabindra Pally Prathamik Shiksha Sadan, Saha’s first football memory is of Diego Maradona and how the then flamboyant teenager was denied a spot in Argentina’s 1978 squad on account of being too young. “I had magazine cut-outs which said that, at 17, Maradona wasn’t ready to be a part of the World Cup in ’78 (which Argentina won on home soil). Four years later, Maradona was there at the World Cup, and his red card against Brazil was difficult to digest,” recollects Saha, who had puzzled his family in his formative years with his Maradona obsession. “My mother and grandmother, who hardly knew anything about football, would constantly ask: ‘Why do you go around crying the name of some Maradona all day?’”
By the time the 1986 World Cup was done, everyone had stopped asking. “That World Cup in Mexico was the greatest World Cup I’ve seen. The competition was intense and what Maradona achieved in dragging a sub-par team to the title was incredible,” says Saha, whose 800-member strong fan club erected a 30ft statue of Maradona when the Argentine maestro visited Kolkata in 2008. On Maradona’s 50th birthday in 2010, Saha and his fellow Argentina fans prepared a 5.5ft long cake (matching Maradona’s height) and distributed it among the locals. Saha himself was lucky to get not one but two autographs from Maradona, and even promised to visit his hero in Argentina. When he eventually made the trip halfway around the world, a high-security zone outside Maradona’s residence meant that Saha had to be content with a picture alongside Maradona’s watchman.
‘Messi, as a footballer, is far superior; but Maradona was a born winner’
Saha feels that Maradona, owing to his temperament, would never have lost as many international finals as MessiFIFA
“Maradona wasn’t just a footballer, he was a character. Everything he did had the potential to become a story,” says Saha, who believes that Maradona was deliberately sidelined from the 1994 World Cup (the official version was that he had failed a drug test), as Brazil had “the referees and FIFA in their pocket”. Brazil, of course, would go on to win in 1994 in the US, which Saha looks back on with disdain. “In 1986, the World Cup was in Mexico, in North America. Why give North America another chance to host the World Cup just eight years later?” asks Saha, who still feels it was all a conspiracy to deny Argentina. Exactly how is beyond anyone’s guess.
After decades of waiting for the next Maradona — “Brazil may have thrilled the world with more collective brilliance, but individual gems mostly come from Argentina” — Saha was delighted to lay eyes on “God’s own gift”, also known as Messi, in 2006. Soon enough, Saha fell in love with a diminutive left-footed Argentine all over again, even travelling to London to watch Messi outclass Manchester United in the 2011 UEFA Champions League final, before returning to do his duties at his father’s funeral just hours later.
Saha, however, is reluctant to compare the two number 10s, though he eventually makes his point: “For me, Messi, as a footballer, is far superior, but Maradona was a born winner. He was a streetfighter who didn't give an inch to the opposition. Psychologically, he was different from Messi.”
Saha turned his car into a symbol of his love for Messi and MaradonaSourav Nandy
Ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, with Messi as Argentina’s talisman and Maradona as his coach, Saha converted his 2006 version of Fiat Palio into a mobile expression of his love for La Albiceleste. The car remains stationed outside his fan club to this day, even though the stickers of Messi and Maradona adorning the bonnet have long since faded.
For 2022, Saha and his club have built an imposing replica of the World Cup out of clay. “It’s quite heavy, which is why we can’t afford to carry it around,” says Saha to one of his fellow fans, when the latter suggests that the trophy be paraded around for a few pictures. If the World Cup mock-up is hefty, then what lies to its right is heftier still — a fibre model of Messi (who has for whatever reason been rendered blonde) in his full Argentina gear. The World Cup and Messi are everywhere around Ganguly Bagan, from life-size posters to cardboard cutouts to flags that take up every sliver of space in and around the Argentina Football Fan Club.
Di Maria to score out of nowhere; watch out also for Martinez, Otamendi and De Paul
Argentina Football Fan Club believes it is Argentina’s destiny to be champions in QatarFIFA
“As always, we’ll be showing all of Argentina’s matches on a giant screen, praying that they go all the way,” says Saha, who also highlights the social work done by his fan club: “Every year, the young boys from our fan club raise awareness against drug abuse. We all know how drugs ruined Maradona. We don’t want it to happen to more people. Every Diwali, we also distribute crackers and gifts to hundreds of kids in the locality. As a fan club, we want to use football as a vehicle to contribute meaningfully to society whenever we can.”
Who are Saha’s players to watch out for in the Argentina squad apart from Messi? “I’d say Angel Di Maria. He is among the goals, and I won’t be surprised if he scores out of nowhere in the World Cup,” suggests Saha. His son, Prangan, currently in class XII, agrees: “Di Maria is exceptional. And we also have the likes of Emiliano Martinez, Nicolas Otamendi and Rodrigo De Paul. Overall, Argentina have a formidable squad. This is their moment, and I know they’ll seize it.”
Prangan, however, will not be accompanying his father to Qatar owing to his pre-board exams. But he is quick to remind us that “emotionally, all of us at the Argentina Football Fan Club will be with Messi in Qatar. This World Cup belongs to him and Argentina”.