A fortnight back, while Diwali shopping at a busy Kolhapur market, the Suryavanshis got into a tiff. Madhavi and Satish had a disagreement over the colour of the ‘akashkandil’ – celebratory lantern – they were buying to light up their home.
The husband liked the one that was ‘blue & white’ but the wife was adamant that it needed to be blue-yellow. It has been this football crazy city’s oldest fight. Kolhapur has its own Brazil vs Argentina – two rival local football clubs that share the colours with world football’s superpowers. Patakadil Talim Mandal (PTM) turns up in ‘blue-yellow’, Khandoba Talim in ‘blue and white’. Madhavi is a “PTM mulgi”, Satish a one-time passionate Khandoba midfielder. The wife says the “football rivalry almost stopped our wedding”.
A week from now, this rivalry between Kolhapur football’s most enthusiastic tournament organiser and his CBSE principal wife, will spill over into what is the crux of their domestic disagreements – with didactic defences of who’s better, Argentina or Brazil.
Last June, Khandoba Talim brought out their blue-white flags soon after Argentina defeated Brazil in the Copa America final, and went circling PTM on their bikes, honking incessantly to announce their team’s triumph, from the other side of the globe.
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Everybody loves football from World Cup to World Cup. Kolhapur, though, lives it, not only through the month and half of the quadrennial tournament, but unabashedly believing in the affinity with their colour-sake South American teams, in the interim.
The obligatory 30 ft Lionel Messi cut-out went up only recently at Kolhapur’s Azad Chowk in anticipation of the FIFA showpiece in Qatar. The city centred Balgopal Talim club, factored in the costs of the giant 2D Messi into their Ganeshotsav budget. Not one donor raised a brow about contributing to prop up this other deity well past Ganpati’s post-season. Kolhapur knows – some gods you pray to, some gods of football, you watch them play.
So if you thought, only Goa, Bengal, Kerala and sports-bars in big cities with their beer guzzling and branded jerseys vibed with the football world cup, you would be thoroughly surprised how the most-traditional heart of Kolhapur has authentic football coursing through their veins.
Depending on from where the aromas of the lamb cuts stewing in cashew or chilli-onion-garlic wafts up, you could tell which of Argentina or Brazil are winning on the day. For in Kolhapur, every club championship, means succulent mutton swimming in the spicy paandhra rassa, or the spicier still red taambda gravy.
They say Kolhapur’s festive season begins at Ganeshotsav (where player registrations start), moves on to Diwali (when taalim teams get firmed up) and then proceeds to the six months of intense taalim rivalries in football at Shahu stadium, where you could get crowds upto 30,000.
Vijay Hazare once played a Ranji match at cricket’s nearby Shivaji stadium with not more than 100 watching, while a football game between Practice Club and Shivaji Mandal filled up the bleachers of many thousands, with hundreds teeming up the aisles.
In the 90s, the same teams decided they wouldn’t stop playing till a deadlock was broken, and a face-off went onto a third crazy day. Matters were decided when a local legend Chanchal Deshpandey jumped high to score a controversial goal. “He later admitted it was a hand-ball like Maradona’s on a public platform, and discussions about that goal, its ethics and physics and dialectics, went on for another few years,” Suryavanshi recalls.
Then there was a defender Shivaji Patil, who after his peth taalim lost a final, took a vow to not enter his own home from the front door, out of the guilt and shame he felt, until he had defeated the same team next season.
And there was this toddler, born to yet another inter-taalim marriage. “The grandparents on either side would dress him up in their taalim football colours while he was sent to and fro, to prove where his loyalty lay,” he laughs.
This went on until he chose the team he would play for, after some tense wooing, and ending in mutton on only one set of plates for months. “But loyalties are kattar (hardcore) here – oldies and young children included. And it’s all in a diameter of 5 kms at the heart of Kolhapur,” Suryavanshi – Pintu da – who runs the annually popular Mahasangram tournament, adds.
‘Facta non verba’ reads the Kolhapur Soccer Association’s motto – actions speak louder than words. It’s either the inter-peth taalim matches they play in, or follow the World Cup; Kolhapur will only bow down to those. The last Indian Super League (ISL) game received a cold response. But when it was time for the Mahasangram, a 40 feet long arch formed by diving cutouts of local taalim goalkeepers welcomed fans into the city centre.
Now as Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi and Neymar are hauled erect – not unlike in other football hubs of India – it is the little touches that scream authentic love for the sport.
Well before Mbappe and Benzema came along, Yuvraj Patil of Phulewadi club, decided his suburban football side would take inspiration from France of 1998 WC and 2000 Euro. It was when Zidane’s Les Bleus punctured Brazil.
“When France beat Brazil, I realised the dominant teams could also be brought down. For us, it was beating the inner city traditional peth teams. We began to professionalise, made a grass ground for practice, invited foreigners to play, and now spend almost Rs 15 lakh on a team, and pay our players well,” Patil says.
The housing societies of Phulewadi fund this club, one of the rare ones that insist on having a physio. The colours were changed to red and white from the earlier Argentine hues, and it’s not uncommon for locals to shop for buckets or car seats in those colours. “Now of course France won last time. But our club is inspired by Zidane’s underdogs and their originality to upset the favourites,” Patil says.
Back at the heart of PTM’s art deco building, Brazil retains its blue-canary yellow themed artsy main door, and loyalists of all ages. Stickers on bikes, water storage drums, ceiling lighting, fake jerseys, rangoli patterns, sari fall-Pico stitch patterns will seamlessly transfer love to Brazil, picked always in yellow and blue. Smarting from the Copa loss, PTM is hoping revenge is served up at the World Cup, so bikes can be revved up and vroomed across to Khandoba’s football gully.
“Pele came from a humble background. Love for Brazil stems from how players from not great backgrounds like our’s play beautiful football in Brazil,” says Sambhaji Mangure Patil in his 60s and enroute completing registering duties of PTM players.
“We might or might not win many trophies every season. But we want to ensure that at least one boy finds employment through football,” he says.
Since the pathways to professionalising are non-existent, the PTM neighbourhood stays content in thinking of Brazil as their starry international extension.
“It’s all good to talk of aspiring to be Neymar, but that’s for one individual. Football has served higher goals here – when riots broke out, the peth taalims stood like Shivaji’s shields comprising players from all communities against mobs who came armed looking to harm one of ours. We look after our players and their families,” another elder says. In return they expect players to stay loyal to the taalim. Back when PTM dominated, a winning team wouldn’t need to cook for weeks, with lunch invites pouring in for days.
At Khandoba’s ‘football gully’, murals by talented artists from Satara and Sangli, have Pele, Maradona, Messi, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Zidane and even Sunil Chhetri fronting entire outer walls of homes. Tree trunks are painted a light blue and white, plants spring up in blue&white pots lining balconies, and house brooms have white and blue handles to go with the team’s playing colours.
Diwali lanterns in the double hue light up the otherwise drab greys of house walls, and a flash of blue indoor walls with white stars as fairy lights pop up out of nowhere, inside a glass cake shop front. Oh, there’s blue and white cake frosting always at hand, if it’s a Khandoba supporter growing a year older.
Because Argentina is the prevailing mood here, even Brazilians Neymar and Ronaldinho and Sunil Chhetri are decked out in their blue & white vertical stripes in the wall sketches. Mahasangram has a World Cup special calendar fronting all the big names whether present or not – Lewandowski, Mane, Mo Salah, Benzema, MBappe, Modric and Kane besides the eternal faves plus Chhetri.
Shivaji Peth, the only entity in India perhaps registered to play in the Indian tricolor, awaits the World Cup when India might qualify and be seen on TV. “But we will still not part with our right over the tiranga kit even if the Indian team requests it. It’s our Shivaji Peth identity,” says Sujay Chavan, the fierce taalim chieftain, who believes his biggest service in football is taking care of his players.
Abhijit Raut of BMG club who play in the all-orange, taught himself to like Holland, years after he donned the kit as an under 10. “They are good to watch at the World Cup. But as a small club in Kolhapur, our commitment to bhagvaa is simple – fund 2-3 of our young players to give MPSC exams and from that opportunity, maybe in another 20 years, we can dream big of actually producing great football players,” Raut says.
Kolhapur, steeped in grim realities of life, doesn’t dream extravagant dreams, or stake claim to being as crazy as Bengal or Kerala are. “But never doubt our commitment to our taalim teams. We get down on the field year after year to play for our taalim, take pride in our boys and we go watch our football,” Suryavanshi says.
And they swear by their pivla-neela (yellow blue) and paandhra neela (white blue) in football just as the world swears by Kolhapur’s red or white mutton rassa. It’s authentic love – feet hitting the ground kicking the ragged ball to pulp, and then gravy licked off fingers.