It is September 2, 2011 and an early autumn evening has just descended upon Kolkata. Stuffy and sultry, yet special.
The deafening roar of more than 75,000 voices at Salt Lake’s Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan is directed at one man, a diminutive Argentine footballer wearing the number 10. Once the whistle blows, the noise is at fever pitch and reaches its crescendo as the ball finds its way towards a pair of fluorescent yellow Adidas boots. The ball sticks, the boots dance, the crowd gasps.
Lionel Messi has begun to mesmerise Kolkata, live and in the flesh.
“It had never happened before, the best player in the world playing in Kolkata in his prime. In 2008, we managed to bring Diego Maradona to the city and the reception was incredible. That made us wonder how football-crazy Kolkata would react to Messi,” says Bhaswar Goswami, founder and executive director of Celebrity Management, responsible for getting Messi’s Argentina to Kolkata to play a FIFA friendly against Venezuela.
Eight corporate boxes had been introduced at the stadium and the live broadcast went all around the globe, rare for a FIFA friendly at the time.
A nice, humble guy with left hand on his heart
Goswami recalls seeing Messi for the first time as he was coming down an escalator at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport, along with then Barcelona teammate Javier Mascherano. “He looked like a nice, humble guy. There were no airs about him…. He was sitting in the VIP lounge with Mascherano while we were trying to clear his passport at the immigration counter. The officials said that Messi had to come and stand himself, which did not make the Argentine manager particularly happy. But Messi never complained, he came over in an instant.”
Marc Lorenz, then general manager of Hyatt Regency, the hotel bordering the Salt Lake stadium where the Argentine team were housed, had a similar first impression of Messi. “He arrived at around four in the morning and I was there to welcome him. His gesture of placing the left hand on his heart when greeting me was quite touching. Throughout his stay, he took time out to talk to people, unlike some of his teammates, who appeared much more arrogant… Messi was habitually there for his fans,” Lorenz tells My Kolkata from Germany.
On the field, however, Messi was hardly there for the opposition defenders. Something Venezuela's Gabriel Cichero can relate to, after Messi turned him inside out with a trademark drop of the shoulder in the opening exchanges of the game.
As the minutes ticked on and the match assumed a pattern — Argentina attacking, Venezuela defending — the expected fouls shot up, with Messi being the main target. But none of that fazed Rowan A, the match referee officiating the biggest fixture of his life.
“I was told about 10 days in advance that I would be refereeing the Argentina-Venezuela clash. I knew I had to be at my best, for millions would be watching. My team and I prepared extensively by watching video footage of the players, which was harder to obtain for the Venezuelans since most of them did not play in the popular European leagues,” explains Rowan.
Not swayed by Messi’s genius on the night, Rowan called the action straight down the middle. “I didn’t think of Messi any differently to the other 21 players on the pitch. I wasn’t refereeing as a Messi fan. It was only while watching the highlights that I could properly appreciate his skills.”
Within the first quarter, Messi’s mazy dribbling had twice set up Ángel Di Maria on the left flank, only for the fleet-footed winger to be denied the first goal. Then, on the half-hour mark, Messi robbed Fernando Amorebieta of possession and darted across the Venezuelan penalty box before firing a tame shot straight at the goalkeeper Rafael Romo.
The first half had produced no goals, but a fair few Messi moments for the awestruck onlookers, which included Bhaichung Bhutia and Ranbir Kapoor, Usha Uthup and Shaan. Missing, though, were two Messi admirers who had received their match tickets from none other than the man himself.
Messi’s solitary indulgence? One serving of garlic mashed potato
Pratap Sarkar, Messi’s personal butler at Hyatt, and Arabinda Seth, the banquet chef assigned to the Argentine squad, were both requested by Messi to come for the game, but they had to politely decline due to their rigorous work schedule.
While at Hyatt, Messi’s meals followed a set-piece routine — fruits, juice and muesli for breakfast; grilled chicken, vegetables and Caesar salad minus the dressing for lunch and dinner. Messi’s solitary indulgence had been one serving of garlic mashed potato.
Back to the football and there was plenty for the audience to feast on in the second half as Messi came close to breaking the deadlock. A sumptuous free-kick grazed the side-netting whereas a sharp low drive was parried away by Romo.
Highlights of the 2011 game
Every time Messi headed off to take a corner, it gave thousands of viewers close to the touchline a photo op of their dreams.
From one such corner kick, the ball finally went in. Messi with the inevitable assist as centre-half Nicolás Otamendi produced a neatly glanced header at the near post for what proved to be the only goal of the game.
Argentina had narrowly triumphed, but the result was a mere afterthought. The headlines were all about Messi, who had played the full 90 minutes in the sweltering heat. Kolkata was content.
Messi and his teammates were so comfortable in Kolkata that they relaxed for a couple of extra days, before jetting off to Dhaka for a friendly against Nigeria.
Reflecting in 2014 on his days in Kolkata, Messi had observed how he was “overwhelmed with the warmth and the passion...My experience over there has left a lasting impression on me.”
That sultry September day, 10 years ago, Messi of course left a lasting impression on this city.