When the football took over
Kolkata has always loved football. Today, football loved it back, giving the 66,000 fans at the Salt Lake Stadium a World Cup final that had everything: skills, spills, thrills and above all a stirring and improbable fightback. England were staring at the abyss after half an hour; by the time another half hour had lapsed they had equalised. In the final third of the match, they were scoring for fun.
It was the perfect antidote to the first game of the double-header, where Brazil and Mali didn't even pretend to give the third-place decider a second thought.
The final began with a whirlwind. Within the first eight minutes there'd been misses at either end and a mix of feints, step-overs, exquisite turns and 40-yard passes that had the crowd literally holding its breath. If the England defence suffered several heart-stopping moments, there was plenty of twisted blood among Spain's back line.
At the first lengthy break in play, after eight minutes, there was spontaneous applause for the quality of the football. It was the first such reaction but definitely not the last. Kolkata is the football capital of the country but the crowd has never seen such skills - not even when the ISL's pensioners are in town.
Three hours after the final whistle, it is still a bit surreal to think of what just happened. But there were memories from Saturday night that would last any football fan through a lifetime of following the sport.
The sight of Steve Cooper, the laconic, almost perennially gloomy England coach, celebrating the fifth goal. Through England's fightback he had remained his usual self. But when Phil Foden scored, the team and the bench rushed towards the corner flag; Cooper sprinted in that direction as well, till one of his players jumped on him and they exchanged bear hugs.
The sight of England playing a level of football that was almost freakish in its ambition and execution. England were limited only by their physicality, not by their intent or imagination - an inversion of the stereotype England footballer. Their second goal, Foden's through ball to Sessegnon and crossed in for Gibbs-White to knock in, evoked the speed and directness of Manchester City's goals this season.
Cooper was asked, post-match whether England had beaten Spain at their own game. His reply was swift and unambiguous: "We beat Spain playing our game." He was visibly proud of not merely the margin of victory but how it had been achieved: "Not one long ball - pass pass pass, get into good areas."
The sound of the crowd chanting Foden's name after his second, and England's fifth, goal. Foden had received a standing ovation when subbed during the semi-final against Brazil; today, the crowd went one better. It's rare for a Kolkata crowd to take English players to heart; they are more naturally inclined to support Latinos. But they know good football when they see it, and aren't afraid to show their appreciation.
The irony of the England players singing "Campeones, Campeones", the now-obligatory winning team chant, while the Spanish team stood nearby and looked on. Minutes later, when the Spanish players went up to collect their medals, their opponents stood in two lines and gave them a guard of honour. There was some physical stuff in the dying minutes of the match as emotions, of different kinds, ran high for both sides, but there was genuine goodwill once the match ended.
After covering four World Cup final matches (though at the senior level), each more dire than the previous one, there was some apprehension for this writer about whether the football would be watchable. The worry was needless. To paraphrase the tournament's tagline, the football took over.