When the soccer crazy Kolkatans got first taste of live television coverage during the Spain World Cup in 1982, Kolkata-based couple Pannalal and Chaitali Chatterjee decided to take a step further.

The middle-class couple decided to watch ‘Greatest Show on the Earth’ from the stands enjoying Paolo Rossi’s predatory skills. It started the couple’s memorable journey watching the beautiful game.

Now at 85 with his 76 year old wife, Pannalal is gearing up to watch his 10th World Cup in Russia, which he possibly feels will be last from the stands.

“I will be nearing 90 in 2022 and there’s little hope that we would make it to Qatar for the next edition,” an emotional Pannalal told PTI from their small flat in a narrow bylane at Kidderpore.

The decision to visit every World Cup came with hundreds of sacrifices, from curtailing on food they liked, to always living on a shoe-string budget, and making sure that their ‘World Cup Fund’ was never compromised with.

Travelling in a group of seven former Custom Club footballers, the couple are slated to leave on June 14 and return on June 28, if they are unable to manage tickets for knock-out rounds.

They have also written to the Russian Consulate and the Fifa Organising Committee requesting more tickets on passionate grounds.

The Fifa local organising committee during the Under-17 World Cup here last year had made them special guests in each of its matches including the final in Kolkata.

"I will be nearing 90 in 2022 and there’s little hope that we would make it to Qatar for the next edition,” an emotional Pannalal said. Photo: AFP
"I will be nearing 90 in 2022 and there’s little hope that we would make it to Qatar for the next edition,” an emotional Pannalal said. Photo: AFP

“We have managed to buy only three tickets this time. We have requested Fifa for more tickets. But they have not yet responded. We are still hoping to get a few more.”

“Fifa had given us a grand hospitality during the U-17 World Cup matches here... There was vehicle at our doorstep, premium seats, dinner for us at the venue and also arranged media coverage,” the Chatterjees, who are travelling with a budget of Rs 5 lakh, said.

The couple’s story was featured on the FIFA.com website during the U17 World Cup, which spoke about the sacrifices they had to make:

The decision to visit every World Cup came with a hundred sacrifices, from curtailing on food they liked, to always living on a budget, and making sure that their World Cup fund was not compromised with. It was not such a bad decision, one could tell, from the way her face lit up when she was asked what her most memorable World Cup moment was over the past 35 years.  

“Of course, it was watching [Diego] Maradona’s brilliance at the 1986 World Cup,” Chaitali said. “I saw him leave defenders helplessly looking at each other, as there was little they could do when the tiny fellow had the ball at his feet. Watching the Hand of God occurring right before my eyes, well, how can you expect anything else to top that memory,” Chaitali said as her face lit up when she was asked about her most memorable World Cup moment over the past 36 years.

The duo savour each of their World Cup journey including witnessing the famous ‘Hand of God’ from Diego Maradona from the stands or posing for a photograph with Pele long before selfies become vogue.

The quintessential Brazil-supporting Bengali couple also witnessed the 1-7 drubbing of their favourite team by eventual champions Germany in the 2014 semifinals at Belo Horizonte.

“You have no idea what it is like to watch something that heartbreaking happen before your eyes. If you support someone, you just do,” she said.

But as the day nears, there’s a sense of grief for the old couple realising that they might not be able to make it to Qatar 2022.

“What we have managed so far is only by the grace of God. Had we not gone to England, Spain would never have happened and our lives would never have changed,” the duo recollected how their trip to Spain 1982 was purely by the blessings of God.

“But now we are old enough, we are lucky that we will make our 10th this time. It’s been like a religious trip every time,” they said.

Incidentally, Pannalal thought the last world cup in Brazil would be their last too, when he spoke about the sacrifices they had to make to save for that long trip.

“It’s always been my dream to watch the World Cup in Brazil. It’s the Mecca of football,” he had told AFP in 2014.

“For the last four years, I have been holding back from eating my favourite fish and many days my stomach has been half-empty to make sure that we have enough money for this tournament in Brazil,” he had added.

Impressed by their dedication, Fifa had provided them free accommodation in Brazil last time around while a local television company helped them with the tickets.

The beautiful game, indeed!

(With PTI and AFP inputs)