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Several footballers clad in the Green & Maroon jersey sat in front of their coach P.K Banerjee listening to his pre-match pep-talk. Mohun Bagan was about to go in front of thousands of people to play against New York Cosmos. The American club had players like Pele, Carlos Alberto and Giorgio Chinaglia. Befuddled by the strength of opponents, Banerjee was telling his players how they should be more defensive and minimize the number of goals conceded. After a while, Bagan’s wiry and lean forward stood up. In a clear voice he said to his coach, “Look, we have heard a lot about Pele. But we have nothing to be afraid about him. He is a footballer and so are we. If we have to learn something from him we will. If we have to teach him something we will oblige. The fight will happen on the field, lets give our best”. A charged up Mohun Bagan went down 1-0 but came back strongly to make it 2-1, with the forward scoring the first goal. The match eventually finished 2-2 as Mohun Bagan picked up one of their most famous results. That pre-match speech from the striker had helped players. But then again, it was something common place from that man. After all, Mohammad Habib’s ability to fight for every blade of grass was unmatched in Indian football.

Born In a Football Family

On 17th July 1949 Mohammed Habib was born in Hyderabad in a family which would later give rise to a clutch of quality footballers. Habib had five brothers. Some of them played and excelled at state-level while some of the other, including Habib himself represented the national team. Habib started playing at a tender age and by the time he turned into a teenager he was a regular for City College Old Boys’ Club in Hyderabad. After spending few years in his first club he joined the now defunct Hyderabad Telephones side and it is here where he would first attract the scouts of the bigger clubs.

In 1966 East Bengal had lost a number of important players like Ashim Moulik and Chandreswar Prasad to their arch-rivals Mohun Bagan. Club official J.C Guha didn’t lose his composure after losing almost half his team but focused on bringing fresh blood into the club. Along with Shyam Thapa, Sayeed Nayeemuddin and Afzal, Mohammed Habib also made his way into Kolkata football. He had not even turned adult at that time but was lining up to play for one of the biggest clubs in India. Guha was impressed with the youngster after seeing him play in the Santosh Trophy for his state and said to another official Ajay Srimani, “If I am not mistaken, he will be one of the best footballers in India in the coming years”.

Habib [c] khela magazine

A natural leader

Habib played a very important role in East Bengal’s young team as they embarked on a memorable season. Mohun Bagan had won the IFA league for four consecutive seasons and their strong outfit was aiming to become the first side since Mohammedan in 1930s to win a fifth title on the trot. In a closely fought season East Bengal eventually shone through, clinching the title one the very last day and preventing their arch-rivals from touching a unique record. The Red & Golds also won the IFA Shield after defeating BNR. Habib had not only impressed the Kolkata football crowd but to make things even better, he had scored for his team in the very first Kolkata derby of his career, often the marker to judge players.

1967 brought more success and proved to be a landmark year for the club as they won their first ever Rovers-Durand double. The Durand Cup final was especially memorable for Habib as it was his goal that settled the match against an extremely strong BNR side.

The period in East Bengal was a crucial phase in Mohammed Habib’s career. He was very young at that time and if not groomed properly he could have easily lost his way. Thankfully, he received paternal care from JC Guha, and the lessons he picked up from Guha about maintaining discipline would serve him well for the rest of his career. Habib had not even turned 20 but had already won the three major Cups in India, as well as the league.

Joining Mohun Bagan And Asian Games 1970

After spending two seasons in East Bengal, Habib shifted base to Mohun Bagan in 1968. Incidentally it was also the season when Chuni Goswami retired from football. His first season in the Green & Maroons was slightly mixed as the club only managed to win the Rovers Cup. There was more success in 1968 though, as Habib won his first league and Shield double with Mohun Bagan.

The 1969 IFA Shield final is one of the most famous matches ever played between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Using Amal Dutta’s previously unseen tactic of overlapping full-backs in a 4-2-4, Mohun Bagan swept aside all competition, including a sound 3-1 beating of East Bengal in Shield final. Habib started as a center forward but dropped back as the match progressed, playing the role of a schemer, which would later become a hall-mark of his success. Habib also assisted one of the goals scored Pranab Ganguly in that match. 1969 was also a special year for Habib in personal level as his younger brother Mohammed Akbar also arrived in Kolkata. Akbar would also enjoy a long and successful career in Indian football and was one of the most prolific goal-scorers in 1970s.

In 1970 Habib moved back to East Bengal. That season eventually proved to be a historical one for the Red & Golds and a personal high for Mohammed Habib. Under PK Banerjee’s coaching East Bengal had assembled a side which could stake a claim to be the greatest ever in Indian club football. With Habib as a crucial component, East Bengal became the first club to win the IFA League without conceding a single goal. In Durand Cup final Mohammed Habib scored both goals as East Bengal defeated Mohun Bagan 2-0.

The highest point that season though, came on 25th September, 1970. Facing a strong Pas Club team from Iran in the Shield final East Bengal was expected to lose heavily but led by Sudhir Karmakar in defence they shut out Pas strikers. Habib, who had typically fought for every ball during the game was injured few minutes before it ended. He was replaced by Parimal Dey who scored the match winner with almost his first touch. The victory against Pas Club is often considered as one of the greatest matches in East Bengal’s history and it helped the club to win three major trophies for the first time in history of Indian football.

After a highly productive season Habib travelled with the Indian squad for 1970 Asian Games, with PK as manager. In the very first match India trailed 2-0 to hosts Thailand at half time. After a bollocking from Indian chef de mission, Habib delivered one of his typical war-cries to his team-mates. A charged up Indian team came in second half with Habib in the thick of things. He assisted one of Subhash Bhowmik’s two goals and could have easily scored the match winner but for a few inches, as India mounted a brilliant come-back. A day later he opened the scoring with a 20 yarder in a 2-0 win over South Vietnam and by the time India beat Indonesia 3-0 in the third match, they were being tipped as a title contender. The coaching team then made a crucial mistake, not deciding to rest players against Japan in an inconsequential encounter. India lost that match after a late goal but to make matters worse, the players were completely spent during the semi-final, losing to Myanmar. India did eventually win bronze after defeating Japan but the talented team lost a good chance of winning their third gold.

Just like Asian Games, Habib also played a vital role in India jointly winning the Pesta Sukan Cup in Singapore in 1971. He struck both goals in a 2-1 win over Indonesia in the opening game and grabbed another brace as India thrashed Malaysia 6-0. A 0-0 draw with South Vietnam meant India was declared joint winners. That trophy would be the last won by the national team outside the sub-continent for next three decades.

Mohammed Habib = Trophies

From 1970 to 1974 East Bengal enjoyed an era of success unmatched in the club’s history. To make things even better, they enjoyed an incredible unbeaten streak against Mohun Bagan, not losing to them for 1932 days. East Bengal won the IFA League five consecutive times, touching Mohammedan’s record and breaking it in 1975. Habib was part of every squad till 1974. In 1972 Mohammed Habib was in unstoppable form in Durand Cup as he scored a record 12 goals in 7 matches, helping East Bengal to their seventh Durand title. Habib even scored in the final that year as East Bengal defeated Mohun Bagan 1-0 in a replayed final. Along with five league titles Habib won the Durand Cup twice (’70 and ’72), Rovers Cup twice (’72 and ’73) and IFA Shield four times (’70, ’72, ’73, ’74). Habib was often his team’s most dangerous player and scored decisive goals in tournament finals.

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Habib And Shyam Thapa : Deadly Duo

After a tremendously successful period in East Bengal Habib moved to Mohammedan SC and played for the Black & Whites in 1975. This was the only period in his career where Habib tasted little success.

In 1976 Habib rejoined Mohun Bagan along with his brother from Mohammedan. Habib joined ranks with some of his old team-mates from East Bengal as well as the same coach. Mohun Bagan ended East Bengal’s reign in IFA League that season, winning their first title in 1970s. By 1977 the tables had turned and Mohun Bagan was without a doubt the strongest team in India. Habib continued his trophy winning streak in Mohun Bagan winning IFA League twice (’76, ’78), IFA Shield (’76, ’77, ’78), Durand Cup (’77) and Rovers Cup (’76, ’77). In 1977 Mohun Bagan scored a massive 82 goals in 27 matches in IFA League, a record till date.

After spending 1979 season in Mohammedan, Habib was back in the Red & Gold jersey in 1980. The same year he would also win the Arjuna Award. Till 1984 he played alternatively for both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan before retiring. Overall, Habib had played eight seasons in East Bengal, seven seasons in Mohun Bagan.

In terms of winning silverware there are very few equals to Habib. According to a study published in Ei Samay paper earlier this year Habib had won a massive 50 trophies in his career. During his East Bengal career he scored 62 goals in the IFA League and features in their all time top-5 scorers in the league.

Habib, the fighter

Ask any defender from that era to name the most dangerous forward they have faced or any striker as the most effective partner they have played with, you are likely to get Habib’s name more often than not.

What made him so effective? His long time coach PK Banerjee offered an interesting assessment. According to him Habib didn’t possess the natural talent to become a top class footballer. He was not strongly built, didn’t have a particularly powerful shot or tackling ability. But all his technical shortcomings were covered by his mental strength, Banerjee adds. Habib’s fighting spirit, concentration and passion for the game made him possibly the most important player for his club sides or the national team.

Ace defender Sudhir Karmakar maintains that despite playing against top international strikers like Kamamoto, Habib was his most dangerous foe. Karmakar states, “Habib was different from everyone else. He had fighting spirit in his blood and never gave up on 50-50 balls. I have never seen any other striker take risks like him”. Even Arun Ghosh points to Habib as one of the trickiest players he had ever faced.

In 1968 Mohammed Habib was badly injured in the Santosh Trophy semi-final against Punjab. He was rushed to the hospital and had to be given saline. Shockingly, he signed a personal bond and came back the following day, insisting to play in the replay against the defenders who had sent him to hospital. Inspired by him Bengal won the semi-final replay. In 1969 Habib scored 5 goals in the final of Santosh Trophy, a record, as Bengal trounced Services 5-1.

Habib’s mental stamina made him an exceptional player for the big occasion. With 10 goals in the Kolkata derby, he is the fourth highest scorer of all time in the fixture, though all of his goals came for East Bengal. He was a leader on and off the field, regardless of him sporting an arm-band – evident from his dressing room speeches in 1970 or 1977. Habib scored in his first ever derby in 1966 and set up numerous scoring chances for his team-mates as Mohun Bagan beat East Bengal 2-0 in 1981 when he was at the twilight of his career.

Another major aspect of Habib’s greatness was his performances against foreign teams. In 1972 Habib scored in the Bordoloi Trophy final as East Bengal defeated Bangladesh XI. A year later, he played a deeper defensive role as the Red & Golds held out for a 0-0 draw against North Korean club Dok Ro Gang in DCM trophy. The North Korean club side contained a clutch of players from the 1966 World Cup North Korean side. East Bengal held them to a draw in the replay and was awarded the trophy when the North Koreans refused to play a second replay.

In 1977 Ararat Yerevan, arguably the greatest team to visit the country, came to India to play in IFA Shield. Then known as Ararat Sports Club, the currently most successful Georgian club had won the Soviet Top League just a few years before and was one of the better teams in a very strong Soviet League. Ararat dispatched East Bengal in semi-final before facing Mohun Bagan in the final on 9th July, 1977. Within 15 minutes Mohun Bagan trailed 0-1. It was Habib who scored the first goal to spark the fight-back as the match eventually ended 2-2 despite Mohun Bagan dominating their European counterparts.

Since his retirement in 1984 Habib has remained a part of football. He has coached the senior teams of Mohammedan SC and ITI but his greatest feat has been with TFA where he oversaw their rise as the prime academy in India. For any footballer or fans who encountered Habib during his playing days, the Hyderabadi remains an inspirational figure.

Sources: History of Indian Football by Nirmal Nath, Mohun Bagan-East Bengal Reshareshi by Manas Chakravarty, Stories From Indian Football – Jaydip Basu. Articles in Khela and newspapers.