The date September 24, 1977 remains etched in gilt in the annals of Indian football for its rendezvous with the emperor of world football, Pele. He was the man who had made the World Cup (the Jules Rimet Trophy) virtually his own preserve by winning it thrice. And that put him on the highest esteem of Bengal’s football aficionado like no other player in the game. The incandescent memory of his Calcutta (now Kolkata) visit has been set in perpetuity in the ethos of the football-crazy state, so much so that it still keeps recurring as a favourite topic in the endemic discussions on the sport. Pele’s passing away on Friday has refreshed the vivid images of his much-celebrated visit with the New York Cosmos team, which played an exhibition match with Mohun Bagan on that date of September 1977.
“The Eden Gardens that day was brimming with 90,000 spectators. Those were the lucky few who could get hold of a ticket among the millions of his fans dying to catch a glimpse of the greatest footballer on earth. As a footballer, I had always idolized Pele and decided to join Mohun Bagan from East Bengal dreaming to play against the Brazilian wizard,” reminisces Shyam Thapa, a legend in his own right.
“I used to collect video recordings of Pele’s matches whenever I had a chance to visit abroad and would practice his trademark bicycle kicks and side volleys. It was a dream come true when I could really take the field against him and scored the first of the two goals for Mohun Bagan (the match ended 2-2). The best part was when the emperor himself appreciated my goal during the dinner at a prominent hotel in the city the same evening,” says Thapa, who himself was the bicycle kick expert in the Indian context.
“The meeting with Pele served as a big motivation for Mohun Bagan, which went on to win a triple crown (IFA Shield, Durand and Rovers Cups) after that,” Thapa added.
“Mohun Bagan was one of the best Indian club sides at that time with the likes of (Mohammad) Habib, Akbar, Sudhir Karmakar, Shyam Thapa, Gautam Sarkar, among others, filling up the roster under the coaching of the legendary P.K. Banerjee. Since the day our Club secretary Dhiren Dey announced the arrival of Pele and New York Cosmos, Pradip da (as P.K. was called by the players) started training us on the strategy to stop the greatest footballer on earth. And the 2-2 draw against Pele’s Cosmos was a big success of our plan,” says then Mohun Bagan captain Subrata Bhattacharya.
“I still treasure the appreciation I received from Pele, who said looking at me with a smile that ‘this jersey No. 14 did not allow me space during the match’ and then gave me a warm embrace. Such was his greatness that he was always inspiring other footballers to give their best and make the game even more beautiful,” said Gautam Sarkar, one of the key players in the Mohun Bagan midfield.
Pele made his second visit to Kolkata 38 years later in October 2015 and met with the same craze and hysteria that had greeted him on his first visit. The Brazilian great was moved by the reception as thousands gathered at the city airport to greet him. Pele stood on the floor of the vehicle and waved to the crowd, which cheered in frenzy at the sight of football’s biggest icon. Then, at 74 Pele, could not play a match but he attended coaching clinics to inspire the young footballers and enthralled thousands of his fans with his views on football at a big reception organised in his honour at the Netaji Indoor Stadium.