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Cup of life: Meet the Chatterjees, football's favourite couple

A couple from India have visited every World Cup since their first in 1982.

The World Cup is a lightning rod for fans from everywhere, of all shapes, sizes and affiliations. They've come from as far afield as Peru, Uruguay, Nigeria and Australia. Yet, few can match the journey of Kolkata's Pannalal and Chaitali Chatterjee -- he's 85, she's 79 and this is their tenth World Cup.

Incredible as that stat is, it's an even more remarkable statement of passion for the game given that India figure nowhere in the World Cup story -- all that drives them is the love of football.

I meet the Chatterjees in their Moscow hotel the morning of the Portugal v Morocco match. They are bustling about, getting ready to leave -- "Remember to take your jacket, it will get cold," Chaitali tells her husband. In the 45 minutes spent with them, what comes across is their intense and sustained enthusiasm for football, for the World Cup, for life -- the sort of enthusiasm people half their age would find hard to muster.

Like seasoned travellers, the Chatterjees are quick to dismiss the notion of having had difficulties while travelling
Like seasoned travellers, the Chatterjees are quick to dismiss the notion of having had difficulties while travelling

They tolerate my intrusion with good humour, but their focus is clearly on the afternoon's entertainment. They've already watched one match and have another lined up in St Petersburg before heading back to Kolkata.


Also see: World Cup stories: Jayaditya Gupta in Russia


How have they enjoyed Moscow? "Whatever perceptions we had about Moscow have proved to be wrong," says Pannalal. "We thought there'd be crazy rains, the weather would be dangerously cold and we'd be in for a lot of hardship. But we were wrong; the sun is up in the sky till nine at night."

Most football fans consider themselves lucky to see one World Cup game; the Chatterjees have been to 10 tournaments. How did it start?

It began in 1982 when Pannalal's childhood friend Muzaffar Ali, who lived in Sussex, became mayor of his town. He invited his friends, including the Chatterjees, for the ceremony and sent them the tickets. "So we travelled there, attended his oath ceremony and he took us sightseeing," Chaitali says. "Then suddenly he said, 'You love football so much, come let's go watch a match.'

"He drove us to Spain where the World Cup was taking place then, got visas for us and took us to watch a match. It filled our heart and soul like nothing else did. We thought to ourselves 'What a treat this is to watch and wondered what we have we been watching on TV all this while."

What was so different about it? Chaitali is very clear: "When you watch football on TV, the camera only follows the trajectory of the ball. For those who understand the sport, it's important to see the entire field. For example, when a defender finds space and runs into it with the ball and his spot in the field is then taken up by a forward or a half, you can't tell this unless you're watching the match on the field. Also, seeing how beautifully everything is organised; there were 80,000 people at the match yet within 10 minutes of the final whistle the stadium emptied out."

'No one can claim to have lent me even a single rupee till date. We have traveled entirely on our own money'
'No one can claim to have lent me even a single rupee till date. We have traveled entirely on our own money'

Pannalal had been associated with football and his "guru", as he calls him, was Biswanath Dutta, one of the city's most powerful sports administrators and one-time president of the Indian cricket board. "He said I should watch the (1986) World Cup and promised to help -- not by raising money but by organising concessions. So with his encouragement and god's blessings 1986 onwards we have managed to travel to all the subsequent World Cups and here we are today. No one can claim to have lent me even a single rupee till date. We have travelled entirely on own money so far."

Their favourite World Cup? They answer in unison, and emphatically: "Mexico. Mexico. Without doubt."

Why so?

"Maradona's mastery on the field," says Pannalal. "Even the handball, he was unbelievable and it's an experience we can never forget. We are Brazil fans. But the way Maradona weaved past five defenders is hard to forget and unless you were there it's a moment that can't be put to words."

"It happened close to where we were seated," Chaitali recalls. "He bamboozled five defenders with a pirouette, passed the ball to a teammate, then took his position and scored once the ball was passed back to him. Not only that, it came against one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Peter Shilton. The ball hadn't even crossed the goal-line but the kind of confidence he had, he began celebrating. He knelt and raised both his arms certain that it was a goal."

Diego Maradona is, not surprisingly, their favourite player of all time (Messi and Neymar among the current crop). "He is beyond compare," says Chaitali. "He's No. 1 in all aspects."

It helped that in Mexico they were with relatively seasoned travellers. "We were a 40-member group and everyone was busy exchanging currency," Chaitali recalls. "So Sailen Manna (the former India captain and Mohun Bagan legend of the 1950s), who was leading the group, asked my husband to not get too anxious but instead wait for a while. The currency value kept changing by the hour so I remember everyone else got 6000 peso for 100 dollars but we were lucky to get 7800 peso".

Now, she says, there are other aspects that make travelling to World Cups special. "For elderly spectators like us there's a wheelchair facility at the gate itself so you're helped to your seat before the match and assisted back after it."

Mexico 1986 remains the Chatterjees' favourite tournament: 'Maradona is beyond compare'
Mexico 1986 remains the Chatterjees' favourite tournament: 'Maradona is beyond compare'

The Chatterjees' story is famous in India, with many wondering how they managed to attend one World Cup after another, given that it's probably the most expensive sporting event for a fan.

Chaitali answers: "That's something I've had to take care of. My husband has been immersed entirely in football and has never been involved in any of the household aspects. He doesn't even know where his clothes are kept. We've let out one floor of our house, which helps us meet our routine expenses. We have this fund into which all our savings go every month and we try not to touch it no matter what. Sometimes, we may be forced to dip into the fund to meet some medical expenses or maybe for a gift to a close relative on a special occasion. To make up for that we go without fish for a month [fish is the Bengali's daily staple] and have just puffed rice and peanuts for dinner till we make up the deficit."

They explore every possible avenue. "I'm closely associated with Sikkim football," Pannalal says. "And they give me air tickets to travel there. What I do is save that money and travel by train instead. So I manage to save some money in this way every year."

He adds, with a lot of feeling: "I have not taken a single paisa from anyone to attend these World Cups. It is our effort and by the grace of god."

Pannalal and Chaitali Chatterjee have been to every World Cup since the 1982 edition in Spain
Pannalal and Chaitali Chatterjee have been to every World Cup since the 1982 edition in Spain

Bengalis are famously obsessed with both football and travel. How much of their World Cup travel is about exploring a new country - Brazil, South Africa, Japan or Germany - and how much about football or is about everything put together?

"It's primarily about football," Chaitali says. "There's a Bengali proverb 'Rath dekha kala becha' (killing two birds with one stone). It's true in our case. We manage to tour a new country and then visit relatives who live nearby, spend 15-20 days exploring the place before we return."

Ask them about difficulties and, like truly seasoned travelers, they dismiss the notion. "We've not faced any difficulties as such," says Pannalal. "Wherever we go, we always find assistance and co-operation."

"Food is one issue," Chaitali concedes. "But we already know we won't get the dal, roti, rice or curry that we are used to eating back home. We went to the older part of Moscow yesterday, they had rolls there made from flatbread with meat filling. So we ate that."

Memories of a lifetime: The Chatterjees have not made plans for 2022 just yet, but with their spirit and determination, you wouldn't bet against it
Memories of a lifetime: The Chatterjees have not made plans for 2022 just yet, but with their spirit and determination, you wouldn't bet against it

With ten World Cups under their belt, they have some amazing stories to tell. Like the time Pele recognised them.

"When we were in Mexico, Pele was staying in the hotel next door," says Chaitali. "Since we were with Manna da and Chuni (Goswami, a former India captain), we managed to have bits of conversation with Pele too. So perhaps our faces became a little familiar to him. When we were in the USA for the 1994 World Cup, Pele recognised me at the gate, probably because of my saree, and asked, "Madam, you have come again?" So I said yes and asked if we could have a photograph with him. He obliged and we have that picture back at home."

Or the time in Rio, when they ended up staying in a red light area. "The hotel had been booked by a friend," says Chaitali. "We reached at around 11 pm on a Sunday and could sense the taxi driver was in a hurry to drop us off and leave. My husband and three others traveling with us got off the cab to locate our hotel and I was there standing alone beside the cab. The driver took out all our luggage from the car and pleaded with me for the fare. I was baffled, but then saw a lot of skimpily-clad girls - we were in a red light area. I paid him his fare and he drove off. We slept somehow that night and next morning we went hunting for an affordable place.

"Luckily we had a Punjabi driver who promised to find a place for us. He took us to an ISKCON temple, on a deserted patch of land overlooking a golf course. We reached late that evening and the president maharaj, the priest in charge, said that though women aren't allowed in, he'd take us in because it was late. He asked us to leave early the next morning.

"At around 2 am we heard a knock on the door of the room - it was the maharaj, who fell at my feet with folded hands seeking forgiveness. He said he had a vision of Lord Jagannath admonishing him for wanting to turn us away and telling him to take care of us for as long as we wished to stay. I must tell you we were taken care of so well during our entire duration of stay and he even helped us with getting our luggage into the cab when we were leaving."

By now it's noon, kick-off is at 3 and they have clearly had enough of talking football and want to get to the real thing. Pannalal and Chaitali Chatterjee - 85 and 79, it's worth repeating - are as excited as World Cup first-timers. That's the spirit that has kept them going through the past nine tournaments, 36 years. Four years may seem too far away but with this couple you can never bet against it.

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