It can be said without an iota of doubt that cricket is perhaps the unofficial national sport of India. The popularity quotient has been rising since 1983 and the recent World Championships wins in South Africa, in 2007, and in India, in 2011, have added to the sheen. However, this is not exactly the article you’d want to read if Cricket and Football in India are to be juxtaposed. TheHardTackle has already published an elaborate two-part article to elucidate on this sensitive issue. Click here for part one and part two of the series.
When it comes to football in India, Kolkata is undoubtedly the Mecca. Starting from the time when the Immortal XI of Mohun Bagan, led by Shibdas Bhaduri, defeated the East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911 to recent times, Bengal has had a colossal impact on Football in India. Of late, purists may claim that Bengal, the prime purveyors of the beautiful game, has surrendered the mantle to Goa, but the charm and the aristocracy is still omnipresent in the Mecca of Indian football.
Footballing greats from Pele to Maradona to Lionel Messi have all graced the Eastern Indian city with their august presence. TheHardTackle takes a look at top five icons to have embellished Bengal’s football history.
5. Pele – 22nd September, 1977
Football in Kolkata is incomplete without the mention of the Brazil National Team. The history of Brazil, although replete with talented individuals over the generation, is deficient without Edson Arantes do Nascimento – fondly known as Pele. More than three decades back, at the twilight of his career, Pele graced Kolkata (erstwhile Calcutta) with his presence. New York Cosmos – a club from North America, came down to Calcutta to play an exhibition match with Mohun Bagan. Thanks to the indomitable spirit of the Late Mr. Dhiren Dey, a legendary administrator of Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, who did not get intimidated by Cosmos’ demand of a whopping Rs. 4 Crore in 1977, and contacted the Black Pearl himself to arrange for a friendly match. The rest as they say is history.
Pele was welcomed at the Dum Dum International Airport amidst the reverberation of conch shells and trumpets, signifying the traditional Indian style. “What an amazing crowd,” remarked an overwhelmed World Cup winner! 80000 football fanatics were present at the Eden Gardens to witness something which India never saw before or later. The visitors drew first blood and Allberto latched on to a fabulous through ball from the genius himself and slotted past Sivaji Banerjee. However, Habib, Akbar and Shyam Thapa combined brilliantly to bring back the Mariners on level terms. Goutam Sarkar, the man who was given the uphill task to mark the legend from Brazil, was upto the challenge and thereby corroborated P.K. Banerjee’s faith in him. Habib then put the Mariners ahead after a slip-up from Yasin Özdenak, the Cosmos custodian. Sivaji Banerjee, perhaps had one of the best matches of his career and easily saved the Mariners the ignominy of a thumping defeat. Unfortunately for Bagan, a hasty tackle from Sudhir Karmakar gifted the visitors a penalty. Cannilia brought parity and eventually the match ended in a deadlock.
During the 1990 World Cup, when journalist Shyam Sunder Ghosh interviewed Pele, the legendary Brazilian said, “I still remember Calcutta and also some memorable occasions, particularly goalkeeper Shivaji Banerjee who dived to save a goal on my feet which I could have scored. This incident was the best in Eden Gardens.”
It all started in 1977 and in years to come, legends have made it to Kolkata to add to the city’s ever evolving football culture.
4. Lothar Matthaus – 15th January, 2009 & Diego Forlan – 30th July, 2010
In Matthaus, Kolkata hailed yet another World Cup winner and a swashbuckling German in 2009. The unveiling of the FIFA World Cup 2010 trophy brought the former German footballer to India. It was the first and the only time that the authentic FIFA World Cup Trophy was brought to India and Kolkata had the luck to be the only Indian city till date to host the 18-carat gold trophy. A number of eminent personalities in former Olympians Sailen Manna, P.K. Banerjee, Samar Banerjee, Nikhil Nandy, and former internationals Prasun Banerjee and Subrata Bhattacharya graced the occasion. Matthaus lifted the coveted trophy once again after 1990 in order to signify West Germany’s triumph.
After the 2010 World Cup, Diego Forlan’s fans proliferated. Uruguay’s tremendous show in South Africa and the former Atletico Madrid man’s grit won hearts worldwide and India wasn’t an exception. The 2010 FIFA World Cup Golden Ball winner came down to Kolkata as a part of a football talent hunt show. The craze might not have reached the dizzy heights of Kahn or Maradona, nonetheless, Forlan was received with a lot of warmth by football lovers. A simple advice – “If you lack in technical skills, concentrate on dead-ball situations” has great repercussions and when it’s from someone who domesticated the reckless Jabulani in South Africa, it’s bound to have implications on Indian Football.
3. Oliver Kahn – 27th May, 2008
A legend in German and world football, Oliver Kahn graced the city of Kolkata in 2008, to play the last match of his illustrious career. Yet again the opposition was Mohun Bagan, and a crowd of 133000 did not disappoint the legendary German. Starting from his arrival to his stay and eventually to his departure, Kahn was mesmerized by the love showered on him by football lovers in India. “Thank you to everyone, thank you India, and thanks on behalf of Bayern Munich,” was his message as a packed Yuva Bharati Krirangan rose to applaud with banners such as – “Kaiser Kahn” and “Kahn’t be any better” amongst others.
Bagan had a few key personnel missing and yet they stood up to the challenge of Bayern Munich, who were being led by Kahn, one last time. Bayern weren’t used to the heat but their superior squad, in terms of fitness, adapted to the condition as the game progressed. The visitors scored their first goal in the 18th minute. Although Jan Schlaudraff has the goal to his credit, but equal credit must be given to Jose Sosa for a sublime cross and the Bagan defence for a defensive gaffe. Sangram Mukherjee, the Bagan custodian, made a few mistakes, before eventually handling the ball just outside the area and awarding Bayern a freekick. Ze Roberto converted it into yet another goal.
Meanwhile, James Singh and Habibur missed a few easy chances and Ishfaq and Lalawmpuia had a brilliant outing, so much so that Ottmar Hitzfeld, the Bayern manager, was impressed with their game. Lal Kamal Bhowmick too had a wonderful outing and also hit the post once. The former Mohun Bagan midfielder was so impressive that the legendary Gerd Muller invited him to practice with the Bayern Munich reserve team in 2006.
Oliver Kahn went off in the 55th minute of the match, thereby bidding goodbye to football forever. It was an extremely emotional moment in the presence of over a lakh football lover. After that nothing else mattered. A little bit of bad blood in the end resulted in a send off for Cardozo and Breno, but in the wake of the paramount situation, it was inconsequential. Kolkata witnessed the yet another legend. Co-incidentally, the match was also the last for Hitzfield as Bayern manager, but the overwhelming love for an icon of Kahn’s stature, seemed to have put it in the background.
2. Diego Maradona – 7th December, 2008
In 1986, Diego Armando Maradona, not only won the World Cup, but also won the hearts of football lovers of India, especially Kolkata. 22 years later, the city got its first opportunity to host the Argentine legend. “Calcuttans are mad about football and they went into a frenzy over Maradona. This was no less than handling a terror strike,” said Kolkata’s then police chief, Gautam Mohan Chakrabarty. The country was reeling under the 26th November Mumbai attacks and Maradona’s arrival managed to bring back the smiles to the City of Joy, albeit to a small extent.
The World Cup winner arrived with his girlfriend Veronica Estefani and inaugurated the Indian Football School in Maheshtala, 13 km south of the city. In his first visit to Asia, Maradona visited the Missionaries of Charity and also met the legendary Left leader and ex-Chief Minister of West Bengal – the Late Mr. Jyoti Basu. On his visit to the col