Kolkata awaits spectacle as England, Brazil clash
Kolkata, this most emotionally-charged and riotously-celebratory of Indian cities, has just come through its annual Durga Puja last month with 10 days of feasting and festivities. Yet, a month later, a double dose of revelry has landed on its plate. The most appropriate venue for India's first football World Cup final - stadium size, crowd involvement, heritage status - has been given an unexpected extra - a mouth-watering semi-final no less.
It features the city's most beloved international team - Brazil - versus the team that is respected for its footballing history and its wildly popular league - England. In a contest of love versus appreciation, guess which of the two will have Kolkata's heart tied into its boot laces.
Kolkata's response to the last-minute announcement of their surprise semi-final was greeted with a thrilled, expansive embrace. Within 10 minutes of the tickets being put online for sale on the official website on Monday night, it was reported that people were getting messages that they were No.80,000-odd in the queue. If you were patient enough to wait till the early hours of Tuesday morning, you could actually get yourself a ticket. In the morning, the patient worshippers lined up outside the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan collecting their online tickets.
A rumour that offline tickets were available had fans turn up in hordes on Tuesday morning at Maidan tents near the old clubs. The quarter-final between Brazil and Germany was at 66,613, exactly 35 short of the absolute maximum FIFA-capacity of the Salt Lake Stadium. It is highly unlikely that those last 35 seats could once again go empty on Wednesday.
And this is merely the backdrop, the soundtrack - the footballing opera that awaits the thousands who turn up on Wednesday promises to be mesmeric.
England have never been to an Under-17 World Cup semi-final and their coach Steve Cooper said, "A World Cup semi-final against Brazil in a magnificent venue like this - without doubt this is the biggest game for all of us. There is everything to be excited about and nothing to fear."
Brazil, three-time Under-17 champions, have not been to a semi-final since 2011. Coach Carlos Amadeu talked about what days like Wednesday mean, merely for the fact of being a Brazilian football team.
"We are representing Brazil and every time to you represent Brazil, you have all this ambiance (expectation) in the air, all these discussions about us, whether it's a World Cup or a friendly. So, yes we are happy to be in this semi-final but we know we have more things to do in this competition."
In a much-thumbed playbook, Brazil and England represent two divergent approaches to a single game. England's architecture is multi-layered, carefully tooled and goes through a ruthless academy and development structure. Brazil's is more organic, standing on the shoulders of giants, driven by the power of randomness, a conveyor belt of talent off the street finding its way through professional football's survival of the fittest.
At this Under-17 World Cup though, these two teams have chosen to bust myths and put the evolution of their country's football on show. It is why England are tied with Mali for the maximum number of goals scored at this World Cup - 15. It is how Brazil have conceded the fewest - 2 (England are close behind with 3).
Brazil's two goals conceded have included one own goal versus Spain (inside five minutes of their first match of the tournament) and the penalty conceded against Germany on Sunday. In between, they went 375 minutes and four matches, without letting in a goal.
The two teams have played each other, Amadeu stated, several times in the last year. England were the team, "we faced the most" over the age-group levels and he said the results had been "balanced." Rather even. Fifty fifty. "Both results can happen," Amadeu said of the semi-final. "We or them."
It is a reflection of the strides made by England particularly at the junior level, with the opposition heaping praise on their youth systems.
"All the youth squads have had great results, they are developing great players, and serving their professional clubs and national squad. They do probably one of the best works in the youth squads around the world, and surely will collect results at world level in the future."
It is unusual for a Brazilian team to heap such praise on their opponents quite so much. Also, for England to be spoken of in descriptive terms as on par with the Brazilians. For this semi-final to be between "two strong teams with attractive, attacking style of play." What will be under test here is not merely skill but a team's tensile strength.
In India 2017, Brazil's teenagers have shown their teeth, not once but twice, coming from behind to win. The team which advertises their love for the 'jogo bonito' quite a lot, maybe feeding the stereotype machine thus sidestepping its real power, is the same team that is willing to play ugly. The Germans were furious about the general acceleration of Brazilian ferocity at their semi-final when supported by a baying crowd. The Brazilians somehow came out of the semi-final smelling fragrant.
The rumours that it was Brazil that had the semi-final moved were quashed by Amadeo, who said Brazil didn't have the power to influence where matches will be played. Having to move suddenly didn't make a difference either because "we are really happy to play in a World Cup. Nothing that happens, whatever comes our way will change our humour, take away from our smile. The worst will be if we were Brazil without playing in a World Cup." Look beyond the smile, that's how bad Brazil want this.
Cooper said he was looking forward to a match where his team could find themselves in a fight with the crowd against them. Maybe they could do what the Germans had done - dismantle the Brazilian midfield - and silence the crowd. Or play over the crowd and maybe win them over. Everything is possible because at the Under-17 World Cup, football has turned upside down. Nothing is what it seems.
What kind of a match will it be tomorrow? Attractive England pushing an Ugly Brazil? Or Methodical Brazil unravelling Maverick England? When the cheers die down on Wednesday night and the dust settles, other than a crackling football match, maybe we would witness instead the first beginnings of a new world order.