Iran has always been a team to beat in Asian football. They brought the best out of Indian players, among whom is Shabbir Ali, a youth international and later a member of the senior squad. The ace striker had scored a goal in the 1974 Asian Youth Championship final against Iran in Bangkok and eventually, his team was declared joint winners after the 2-2 draw.
He is also remembered for his Kolkata league career with East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. There were on-field tussles with Iran professionals Majid Beskhar, Jamshed Nassiri and Mehmood Khabazi.
“Iran displayed physical play and skill, a combination of rough-and-tough tactics and build-up from the back. Sudden switches in tactics is their hallmark, then and now,” quipped Shabbir about the Asian Youth final match in Bangkok.
“Nobody gave us a chance to stand up against Iran, the defending Asian Youth champion, so we were over the moon after the final whistle. Team spirit and team effort, from players and coaching staff, made it happen.”
India has not won an Asian title before or after the Bangkok win.
He returned to Mumbai and rejoined Tata Sports Club in the Harwood League, three seasons later, moved to Kolkata by joining EB. By the time the three Iranians joined the club to create a buzz, Shabbir had switched to Mohammedan Sporting. “The performances against Iran (final) and Thailand (semifinal) at the Asian level increased my confidence. My ambition was to represent my state (Maharashtra) and try to get into the senior national side. I was already second highest goal-scorer in Harwood league and moved to Kolkata as an established player, unlike many others who join a Kolkata club to make a name," he said.
The India youth international adjusted to Kolkata football quickly and made a mark as a sensational goal-getter. He recalls football experts expressing doubts about a Mumbai player surviving in Kolkata conditions. “People said as a one-touch player, the muddy maidans would be a problem for me. They forgot that the Mumbai ground conditions were worse than Kolkata and all those matches in muddy Cooperage gave me the confidence.”
The EB stint over two seasons gave him the chance to renew friendships with 1974 India Youth teammates such as Prasun Banerjee, besides facing the Iranians in front of packed crowds.
“Jamshed worked hard to become an effective player, later he joined Sporting when I was captain. Majid was the best of these three, we played and toured together at Sporting from 1982 onwards, winning many tournaments," he said.
The powerful Iranian, 1978 FIFA World Cupper for his nation drove the fans crazy with his skill and control of the ball. “Can anyone forget Majid’s 30-yard goal in the 1980 Rovers Cup final?” The Iranian’s booming strike (Bhaskar Ganguly on goal was at the receiving end) confirmed a 1-1 draw for EB against Sporting, the two Kolkata clubs returned home as joint winners.
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