According to a lot of veteran Indian football players and experts Arun Ghosh was the most technically gifted Indian defender of all time, if not the greatest defender overall. Ghosh was an integral part of the Indian national team during its golden era in 1960s and played a pivotal role in the memorable Asian Games gold win in 1962 and runners-up in Asian Cup in 1964. He was recently awarded with a special award, given by East Bengal to their greatest players, thus becoming the first defender to receive it. An Arjuna awardee, Ghosh also had a successful career as coach after leaving the game. TheHardTackle caught up with the legend at his house in Howrah, West Bengal for an exclusive interview.
First of all, thanks a lot for giving us the opportunity to interview a legendary footballer like you.
Q) Growing up, did you have any specific reason to start playing football? How did you start your football career?
When I was young, I used to play both badminton and football well. At that time we didn’t have proper grounds to play badminton so we used to organize matches with friends during evenings and football, I used to play at a local club. This was in 1954 or 1955. One day one of my school friends named Tota had a trial in Howrah Union, then in the second division of Kolkata League. He didn’t have enough money to travel to Howrah maidan so he asked me to give him a lift on my cycle. After his trial was over and the players were taking rest coach of Union at that time, Dasu Mitra, asked my friend how he would travel back. He showed me. At that time I was very fit and strong and Mitra was impressed with my physique. He asked me if I played football. Hearing that I did, he asked me to come to practice the following day. Initially we were given the job of ball boys but Howrah Union eventually became my first club.
At that time I had a pair of boots but no anklets or bandages to wrap, so I used parts of a saree as replacements! Mitra was an excellent coach. Over 6 feet tall, he had wonderful health and played as right-half in Aryan when they upset Mohun Bagan in 1940 IFA Shield final. Mitra was solely responsible for my development as a player and I owe much of my success to him. Amiya Banerjee, another hugely talented player, was also my team-mate at that time. After spending a few seasons in Howrah Union I moved to Mohun Bagan before joining East Bengal in 1960 and the same year I made my debut for Indian team. I didn’t play in Santosh Trophy before but I was picked to represent the country in Olympics. It was a unique case in those days.
Q) Some of the best time in your career came in East Bengal. How difficult was it to adjust to the expectations that come with the fans of a big club?
Look, the pressure from supporters has changed with age. When we played there were cases when supporters abused us verbally but it was never so violent as it has become now. We used to enjoy playing football at that time and the crowd was also very sporting and used to applaud us when we played well. During my time in Howrah Union we often used to make life difficult for East Bengal or Mohun Bagan but our performance was often appreciated by their fans.
Q) You represented India between 1960 and 1971 and that period is often considered as the greatest era for Indian football. Gold medal in Asian Games in 1962, Runners-up in 1964 Asian Cup then another medal in 1970 Asian Games – all came in this era. Rahim saab was largely influential on this success despite his passing early in 1960s. Tell us a bit about Rahim saab.
He was a great coach. He was well versed in tactics and theories and emphasized that the team stuck to his plans. For example, for us in defence, his strict instruction was not to cross the half line. Those were the days of three-back system and Rahim saab knew that Indian defenders were not as fast as Europeans or Africans. If the defenders went on overlap then there would be a 30-40 meter gap between full-backs and the stopper and it would make us prone to counter-attacks. So he made sure that we didn’t move up the field too much.
He didn’t spend too much time drilling us physically but focused more on technique and tactics.
He was a brilliant man manager and a strict disciplinarian. He had enough authority to have the last say in matters related to the team and even AIFF officials accepted his authority since he was also a part of the Federation as the secretary of Hyderabad association. He had command over the players and we had a lot of respect for him. Sadly, coaches who came after him didn’t possess his personality.
Q) Do you think he has been properly honoured after his death? Few days back it was his 104th birthday and it was barely noticed.
It was very unfortunate. We didn’t know that he was suffering from cancer when he coached us to the triumph of 1962, we only came to know it later. And he has not been honored properly after his death. AIFF has not done enough in this regard. There should be at least a trophy named after him or an exhibition match held every year on his birth anniversary. He deserves more official recognition.
Q) You suffered from a lot of barracking from fans in 1962 Asian Games.
Oh yes! It resulted because of a diplomatic issue regarding participation of Israel in the Games. Comments from Indian Chef-de-Mission enraged local crowd who jeered us loudly in every game. In that final when thousands of people were barracking us, few men were supporting us. Incredibly, it was the Pakistan hockey team! They cheered us throughout the match and when we won they came running towards us and embraced us. When we used to travel to stadiums Jarnail Singh used to sit on the floor of the bus so that his turban was not visible to crowds outside and they couldn’t identify us.
Q) What do you think was the greatest strength of that team?
One was the all round ability of that team. Players could play in different positions with equal success. For example, I played in Jarnail Singh’s position when he was injured in the later half of the tournament. Another player who was very versatile was Yusuf Khan. We also had a very strong team spirit. I remember when we were on our way to the stadium to play the final, Chuni broke into “Bolo bolo sobe” and rest of the team sang with him, even the players who didn’t know bengali!
Healthy competition for places was another factor. We had a great generation of players at that time. It is almost too difficult to believe if you have not seen them play in person! Such was the level of competition that we had to make sure that we played to our full potential otherwise we could have lost our places in the team. Like Ram Bahadur. He was an excellent player but didn’t play in semi-final of 1962 because of an ankle injury. Prasanta Sinha replaced him at that time and eventually went on to permanently cement his place in the team.
Q) Along with Sayeed Nayeemuddin and Jarnail Singh, you are said to have formed the greatest defensive line ever for Indian team. What do you think helped you to combine so well with them in terms of playing style?
Jarnail was very, very powerful. He was also very brave and aggressive and had a strong tackle though he was too rough at times. He had huge strides and had good ground coverage. He was strongest when he got space around him. He was impeccable in a three-back system but he was not that effective in four back system as he had lesser space. The only way to get past him was to get close to him and catch him on his turn, which was one of his weaknesses. Balaram did this with great success and he was often Jarnail’s nemesis. Nayeemuddin was a different type of defender. He was elegant and calm and could distribute the ball very well.
Q) You had a highly productive career in East Bengal. As a defender you even scored a goal when East Bengal first faced Mohun Bagan in a Rovers Cup match (1960, semi-final). Which was your most memorable moment in a Red & Gold jersey?
Winning the Calcutta Football League in 1961. See, the league was very important in those days, unlike present times. Winning the league was a great honour and East Bengal had not won it since 1952, so it was a very memorable moment. Calcutta League was very competitive at that time and the talent pool of Bengali players was pretty large. Clubs like Aryan and Khidderpore were difficult to beat and office teams also had many talented players like PK Banerjee and Pardyut Burman. I still remember Burman’s performance against Japan in 1962 Asiad when he single-handedly saved almost 5-6 goal scoring chances in first half.
I have special memories of Rovers Cup as well. I remember how SD Burman used to come for East Bengal’s matches regularly and the likes of Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor also came to the ground. Even Pran was a big East Bengal fan and even visited our dressing room at times!
Q) You also had a long career with BNR (Bengal Nagpur Railways). BNR even reached the final of IFA Shield in 1966. How do you feel regarding the current condition of these office teams? Office teams are also being barred from participating in I-League.
Yes, I played for a number of years in BNR and played inter-railways tournament till 1974. Office teams used to be strong in those days. Other than myself, Balaram also played for BNR while Burman and PK played for Eastern Railways. At that time these teams used to offer good job prospect. I joined BNR as a senior inspector. But nowadays the posts they offer are not that good and the quality of football they play has also dropped likewise.
It makes me sad to see office teams not being allowed in I-League. I think they should be allowed. See, these teams can give you long term job security after you leave the game. A footballer can have his best years for a period of 10 years at best, after that these jobs become important.
Q) As a defender you were known for your technical perfection and anticipation. It is even said that you could dribble past opponent strikers in your own box. According to you which was your strongest point as a defender?
(after a pause) I had the ability to do double footed tackles and could use both my feet to snatch the ball. If a player was coming with the ball on his right feet I used to block him with my left foot before using my right foot to take the ball away. I was very quick in my tackles, so that was an added strength. My heading was also very good, as was my ability to take a volley. Plus, ball distribution was another strength of mine. Even Nayeem was very strong in ball distribution.
Q) You also had a long and successful career in coaching. What do you think is the biggest difference between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan from a coach’s point of view?
East Bengal officials are usually more patient, they will give a coach more time to settle. Mohun Bagan on the other hand, demands more success and if you lose a couple of matches there will be lot of pressure on the coach. Mr Dhiren Dey was an exception to this rule though. In terms of supporters East Bengal fans were more violent in the stadium but Mohun Bagan fans hold their grudge longer. Though I would say that the number of similarities between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans are much more than the number of differences.
Dhiren Dey and Jyotish Chandra Guha were both excellent club officials. Dey was a great gentleman while Guha’s understanding of the game was second to none.
Q) You were the Mohun Bagan coach when they infamously lose 5-0 in 1975 Shield Final. Some of the players had to spend night on a boat to escape fans’ wrath. Did you face any problems after that match?
No, I didn’t suffer from anything else than some verbal abuse from fans. It was a very unfortunate match. Here I have a confession to make. As a coach, call it my mistake or lack of foresightedness, it was wrong to start with Bhaskar Ganguly. He went on to become one of the greatest ‘keepers in Indian football but at that time he was too young for a match like this. I was impressed with his diving and the fact that he was a courageous boy, so I opted for him. And why Bhaskar only? The defence collapsed that day and he had very little to do in most of the goals scored that day.
Q) You were also on the bench during the tragic events of 16th August, 1980. How was the situation in dressing room that day?
Actually, we didn’t have knowledge of this after the match. I had a scooter at that time and went to Mohun Bagan club after the game before coming back to my house. At my house I saw a crowd of concerned relatives and neighbours and then came to know about what had happened in the stadium. It was a very tragic incident. Football is not bigger than life.
Q) As East Bengal coach you once famously outwitted PK Banerjee in 1978 Fed Cup final, using Mihir Bose in a deeper role to mark Bidesh Bose. For you, which was your greatest success as coach?
I would say my greatest success was being joint winners of 1974 Asian Youth Championship. I was the coach of that team and Sabbir Ali was captain. We almost defeated hosts Iran in the ultimate match but had to settle for a draw in the end to jointly win the trophy.
Q) You have also played an important role in youth development. From discovering Sudip Chatterjee in early 80s to being TFA director in 1990s. Do you think enough focus is given in youth development in our country?
Lack of focus on youth development is the biggest problem in Indian football. And this problem has existed for a while. After our triumph in 1962 no effort was ever made to have a long term planning for youth development. We didn’t know how to progress in future. When we lost to Iran in pre-Olympics soon after the 1964 Asian Cup it was becoming clear that other countries in Asia were progressing rapidly. What we needed was a structured approach to develop players but AIFF never gave it due importance. When I was the coach I used to submit reports but action was never taken by authorities based on those reports.
Pailan Arrows is a good initiative, as is the recent AIFF Academies. But, we need to pick up players who are still in their teens and train them together for at least 5 years to develop them properly as players. Hosting the U17 World Cup may help as well.
Q) Who was the best player you played with? And the most dangerous opponent? Who is your current favourite Indian footballer?
T Balaram, PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami and Mohammad Habib were the best players I played with. As my defensive partner, the best player was Jarnail Singh. Chandreswar Prasad and Nayeem were also wonderful players. Shyam Thapa was also a great favourite of mine. He was a clinical striker but was so dedicated to his team that he played in defence when needed. IM Vijayan was a superb talent too and would get into our team of 1962.
Tulsidas Balaram was the most dangerous player I faced during my playing days. I knew how to stop PK or Chuni but Balaram was very intelligent, tricky and completely unpredictable. It was very difficult to know what he would do when you came face to face with him. Even Jarnail struggled to cope with Balaram at times.
Among current players I like Subrata Pal, Rahim Nabi and Tulunga.
Q) As someone who has been involved with Indian football for over 50 years, what do you think has changed most? What is the biggest difference between players of your era and now?
The players these days get better facilities. I still remember how we went to a police barrack in Hyderabad to prepare for an international tournament. 25 players stayed in a single dormitory and there were just two toilets and a common kitchen. We used to travel by trains mostly and air travel for domestic games was unheard of. Players these days are better off financially as well.
In terms of playing style I would say players these days are faster and better organized. But in terms of individual talent the current teams are far behind and the likes of Chuni or Balaram who could decide a match on their own, are missing.
Q) What are your views regarding the IPL styled league?
I am not completely opposed to it. This tournament will be successful only if the foreign players who are coming in are good players. I was watching the Badminton IPL few days back and in that tournament the foreigners are top notch and our players will improve by playing against them. Football IPL has to be similar. However, if they are only bringing in aged players who have retired then our footballers won’t get much benefit from the tournament. The players should be such that the level of our boys improves by playing with them.
Same is the case with foreign players in I-League. We need to make sure that the number of average players is less in the league. Take Majid Baskar and Jose Ramirez Barreto for example. These two were fantastic players and there was a lot to learn from them. Standard players like them will only help to improve the league in general.
Q) Do you watch European football? Which club do you support?
Oh yes! I watch a lot of European football. I support Chelsea and I am a big fan of Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. And I admire Jose Mourinho. There are a lot of great players in La Liga too like Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Iniesta and Carles Puyol.
Thanks a lot for sparing some time with us for this interview!
(Special note of thanks to Aindrila Ghosh and Bhaktimoy Sengupta for making this interview happen)