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In George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (now made into an universally acclaimed TV Series named Game of Thrones) one of the major noble houses, House Martell, has the motto “unbowed, unbent, unbroken”. In Indian football these words can be applied to a man who has the unique distinction of winning both the Arjuna and the Dronacharya awards. Throughout his illustrious career two things have characterized Sayeed Nayeemuddin – success and an almost obstinate adherence to his principles and philosophy. “Nayeem” as he is popularly known among Indian football fraternity, has never been subdued in front of anyone.

Andhra Police And Captaining India Youth Team

Nayeem was born into a football loving family in 1944 in Hyderabad. His father was a center forward himself and played alongside Baba Khan, father to the legendary Ahmed Khan. The rise of Hyderabad is often rightly attributed to the great SA Rahim and Nayeem’s first encounter with him came when he was still in his school in class VI. While playing football in his school ground a kick from Nayeem attracted the attention of Rahim, who was the head-master of the same school. Rahim would teach the young Nayeem proper technique of kicking a ball that day. Nayeemuddin’s precocious talent soon attracted the attention of his state’s best club side – Hyderabad City Police (which was later renamed to Andhra Police). Under Rahim the institutional side had blossomed into one of the greatest club teams in India in 1950s and Nayeem joined them in 1962. Even at a young age Nayeem was an elegant defender whose ball skills could easily match that of any attacking player. He had wonderful levels of fitness and had the ability to constantly aid strikers by moving into offensive positions. He was also a natural leader and his leadership abilities were soon put to the test when he led the junior national team at the Asian Youth Championships in 1963.

India had never participated in any of the Asian Youth Championships since its inception in 1959. Under Nayeem’s captaincy India traveled to Malaysia to participate in the group stages along with five other South-East Asian teams. India began their campaign on 19th April, 1963 with a 1-1 draw against Myanmar but lost next two matches to the hosts and Thailand. Back to back 2-0 wins over Cambodia and Philippines in final two matches were not enough for qualification and the team came back home empty handed.

In his first season with Andhra Police Nayeem reached the Durand Cup final but had to lose to a star studded Mohun Bagan team. Success would arrive in India’s other Blue Ribbon tournament – Rovers Cup. Rovers was a favorite Cup of the Police team who had won it an impressive eight times between 1950 and 1962. The ninth title came after Nayeem joined them with a 1-0 win over East Bengal in Mumbai. Jyotish Chandra Guha, an East Bengal official who had a knack of unearthing talents liked Nayeem’s style and was even more impressed with him when he dished out a spirited performance to keep out an extremely strong Bengal forward-line in 1965/66 Santosh trophy final, helping his state to win 1-0. By 1966 both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were pursuing Nayeemuddin but Guha’s ploy of convincing the West Bengal Chief Minister to grant Nayeem a release from his job in Andhra police tilted the balance in Red & Golds’ favour. Thus began his long and still unbroken love affair with the City of Joy.

Success With The Big Three of Kolkata

Nayeem would make an immediate impact on Kolkata maidan. The local crowd had seen defensive stalwarts like Sailen Manna and Jarnail Singh but they had never come across a player who was so elegant and intelligent in defending. His style of play, along with his handsome features and immaculate appearance made him an overnight crowd favourite. East Bengal fans even compared him to matinee idol Dev Anand due to his looks! Teaming up with established players like Sukumar Samajpati and Peter Thangaraj and future stars Mohammad Habib and Shyam Thapa, Nayeemuddin soon began to deliver trophies. He won the Calcutta League title in 1966, following it up with IFA Shield, his club’s first “double” in half a decade. 1967 would bring even more fortune as East Bengal sealed their first ever Durand-Rovers double. In two years Nayeemuddin had won every major trophy in Indian football with the Red & Golds. He had also suffered through jaundice and would remain grateful to Guha for his support during the illness.

In 1968 he switched allegiance to bitter rivals Mohun Bagan, Sailen Manna himself visited him to seal the deal and like midas, he delivered a Rovers Cup in his first season. In 1969 Nayeem was part of a tactical revolution as a young and eccentric coach named Amal Dutta used the concept of overlapping full-backs for the very first time in Indian football. Using the 4-2-4 system Mohun Bagan sealed a league-Shield double that year. Nayeem’s deadly overlapping runs along with Bhabani Ray in opposite flank during a 3-1 demolition of East Bengal in the IFA Shield final has since become a stuff of Kolkata football folklore.

In 1970 Nayeem rejoined East Bengal and continued winning silverware as his club did the league-Shield-Durand Cup treble. In IFA Shield final of 1970 Nayeemuddin delivered one of his most legendary performances as he teamed up with Sudhir Karmakar to keep out accomplished strikers of PAS Club from Iran as East Bengal carved out a last gasp 1-0 win.

The following season he moved to the third biggest team in Kolkata – Mohammedan SC and was handed the captain’s arm-band. He promptly led Mohammedan to their first IFA Shield title in 14 years defeating Tollygunge Agragami in final, without conceding a single goal in entire tournament.

By 1973 when he was back in Mohun Bagan and by then the balance of power had shifted towards East Bengal and Nayeem underwent a rare season without winning a single piece of silverware. He missed the unique feat of doing a hat=trick of Shield titles in 1972 as Mohun Bagan refused to play replay of the final amidst controversial circumstances. In a rain marred encounter then Mohun Bagan captain Sukalyan Ghosh Dastidar assaulted the referee and even Nayeem was involved in the scuffle and ironically, Jyotish Chandra Guha saved him from going into police custody. In 1974 he was honoured with the distinction of becoming the club captain for Mohun Bagan and under his captaincy Mohun Bagan went on the win their first Durand Cup title in nine years by defeating JCT Mills.

By mid-70s injuries had taken a toll on Nayeem’s career and he had to go into retirement after spending his final two seasons in Mohammedan SC.

Medal In 1970 Asian Games

Syed Nayeemuddin had a glittering career in club football and he won titles in every club he played. He had a highly successful career with the national team as well but the pinnacle of it came in the 1970 Asian Games when India showed its last glimpse of competing with the best in Asia. Held in December, 1970 in Bangkok, the Games saw India open their account with Subhash Bhowmik at his brutal best as the team clawed back against the hosts from 2-0 down to draw 2-2. In second match India won 2-0 against South Vietnam.

Under the captaincy of Syed Nayeemuddin and coaching team of PK Banerjee-HM Basha, India played the best football seen from the team since mid-1960s. In the quarter-final group India thrashed Indonesia 3-0 and looked all set to top their group but a late goal from Japan meant they finished second, though still qualifying for the semi-final.

The semi-final against Myanmar proved slightly anticlimactic as a tired India, playing its second match in two days, slumped to a 2-0 loss. Next up was Japan for the bronze medal. Japan had Kunishige Kamamoto – a man who would finish as the top scorer in Japanese League seven times. Kamamoto scored 55 goals in 61 matches for his country and is often considered as the greatest Japanese player of all time. He was also the top scorer in Olympic Football just two years ago. Facing one of the best strikers in Asia, Nayeemuddin and Sudhir Karmakar displayed some of the greatest defending ever seen from the Indian football team. Karmakar was labeled as the “best defender in Asia” by FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous after that performance. Kamamoto was kept completely under the wraps as India won the bronze medal with a 1-0 win.

Interestingly, the final that year ended in a tie so both South Korea and Myanmar were given the gold medal. This meant India were technically eligible for silver and Japan for bronze. However, Indian officials were in a hurry to return and so they didn’t claim the silver medal (which remains unclaimed till date). Japan on the other hand duly claimed bronze and are officially bronze winners despite losing the 3rd place match. Nonetheless, Nayeemuddin’s performance and leadership in that tournament remains a golden chapter in Indian football. Nayeem represented India for seven years between 1964 and 1971. In 1970 he was awarded the Arjuna for his contributions to football.

A Coach With Unparalleled Success

After retiring Nayeemuddin took up coaching and had a rare trait in Indian football – he actually wanted to learn the modern methods. Extremely industrious about his work, he completed coaching courses in India as well as a number of foreign countries like Germany and Brazil. Syed Nayeemuddin remains one of the most educated coaches in Indian football till date.

His first big break came with Mohammedan SC in the early 1980s. Like Don Revie, he was meticulous in his approach and his scientific process of maintaining his players’ fitness had a huge impact. He ensured that his team got the best facilities and followed a fitness regime as Mohammedan SC entered their most successful period since 1930s. The apex of that era came in 1983 when Mohammedan defeated Mohun Bagan, winners in each of the past three editions, in the final of Federation Cup to become the champions of India.

After leaving Mohammedan SC, Nayeem coached different levels of the national team before becoming the coach of senior team, with Amal Dutta as the technical director, in the late 1980s. India’s performance in Nehru Cup during that era wasn’t wholly convincing with draws against China B team and an assorted Danish side in 1987 and a similar outcome against Poland in 1988 being the best results.

Nayeem’s coaching career reached eclectic levels when he took over the reigns of East Bengal in August, 1990. Veteran Indian football expert Novy Kapadia attributes Nayeem’s tactical acumen and his emphasis on fitness as the main factor behind East Bengal ‘ s success. East Bengal went unbeaten entire season after he took over – winning their first treble of Durand, Rovers and IFA Shield. His usage of Babu Mani and Bikash Panji along with reviving the career of Krishanu Dey was absolutely vital. Playing unstoppable football, Nayeem’s East Bengal won three more trophies the following season – winning the league along with defending Shield and Durand titles.

After winning six major titles in East Bengal, Nayeemuddin joined Mohun Bagan in 1992. The same year he was also awarded the Dronacharya Award, reserved for coaches, becoming the first footballer to win it and Arjuna both. In his first season with the Green & Maroons Nayeemuddin won the Federation Cup, Calcutta League as well as the Rovers Cup. He successfully defended the Federation Cup in 1994 and oversaw his club winning a total of 10 titles in 2 seasons.

Nayeem (extreme right) leading his Mohammedan team during 1980s

Switching to East Bengal in 1994 he continued his winning juggernaut – sealing Rovers Cup and IFA Shield titles that season.

Success with Indian national team would also come in 1997 as India won the SAFF Gold Cup in Nepal. Using a 4-4-2 formation, Nayeem managed to successfully combine Baichung Bhutia and IM Vijayan along with Jo Paul Ancheri. An unstoppable India scored 12 goals in 4 matches with Vijayan finishing as the tournament top scorer with 6 goals and Baichung grabbing three.

As the noughties came Nayeem began to be overshadowed by a new breed of coaches like Subrata Bhattacharya and Subhash Bhowmick. East Bengal’s first NFL title in 2000 was won by building on the base set up by Nayeem’s pre-season conditioning (he himself resigned in mid-way taking moral responsibility for their failure in Durand and Rovers). But a common allegation against Nayeemuddin in this period was that he was too old fashioned, focused too much on physical preparation and didn’t give his players enough freedom. The nadir of his career came in 2006 when Nayeemuddin and the then technical director PK Banerjee faced an ugly and publicized rebellion in the national team, led by Baichung Bhutia. Both were dumped unceremoniously and Nayeem’s relationship with the Sikimese Sniper has been cold since.

Clubs in India had an indifferent attitude towards him in 2000s but that opened up new channels as Nayeemuddin went to Bangladesh, coaching Brothers Union in multiple stints. He found success in Bangladesh too, typically, leading Union to their first ever Bangladesh Premier League title in 2003/04 season. Uniquely, Nayeemuddin also coached the Bangladesh national team, making him the first Indian coach to manage two separate national teams.

Few months back Nayeemuddin’s financial crises due to lack of employment came to the forefront as he stated in anguish “I have become a national beggar”. Kolkata clubs came to his aid as a benefit match was organized in East Bengal ground on 2nd March, 2013. Perfectionist that he was, Nayeem was never fully happy with the way the match was organized. He felt insulted by the whole affair and incredibly, returned the cheque of Rs 12 lakhs, 10 thousand to the organizers. Other ex-players in his position might have accepted that cheque but he is Syed Nayeemuddin, who has never made compromises with his self-respect. In his own unparalleled style he quipped, “Tiger kabhi ghaas nahi khata” (a tiger never eats grass). Unbowed, unbent, unbroken.

Sources: History of Indian Football by Nirmal Nath, Stories from Indian Football by Jaydeep Basu, Articles in Khela and newspapers, this article by Novy Kapadia.