Pele wows Kolkata

Pele, wore his customary smile as he appeared in person in front of an expectant crowd at the Kolkata airport, his wizened face betraying the ravages of time but the cult of his stardom remaining undiminished.

Pele is offered a piece of cake by the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at a felicitation function in Kolkata. Music Director A. R. Rahman and former Indian cricket captain Sourav Ganguly look on.   -  ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

The Mohun Bagan football club players, who were in the 1977 team that played against Pele’s New York Cosmos team at the Eden Gardens, meet the legendary Brazilian at a special function in Kolkata.   -  ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

For Kolkata, which treats football like a religion, Pele is a God that its faithful preferred to offer the highest obeisance. The expectations reached a peak when it was announced that the legendary Brazilian footballer would be making his second visit to the city after a break of 38 years.

There were many who were among the thousands who had reached the giant Eden Gardens stadium on the afternoon of September 24, 1977 to see the Black Pearl in action. The coffee houses and tea stalls around the city were agog with discussions as the new generation flocked around the older one venerably listening to the recollections of how the owner of three World Cup titles mesmerised the audience with his skills, while turning out for New York Cosmos in the autumn of 1977.

Despite being at the fag end of his playing career, Pele was the biggest asset of world football and commanded the utmost attention of the Kolkatan, who has always been proud of the pioneering role the city had played in introducing the sport to the country more than a century ago. Pele did not score a goal in the exhibition match, which was a part of Cosmos’ Asian tour, but one of his appeals apparently earned the visitor a penalty towards the end of the match from which the Italian forward Giorgio Chinaglia scored the equaliser to give the visitor a face-saving 2-2 draw.

The first time when he set foot in the city, he was the superstar of world football, in his second visit almost four decades later he returned as the greatest player of all time.

‘Pele, Pele, Pele,’ the chants rent the air once again as the legendary Brazilian, walking with some difficulty following a hip surgery three years ago, honoured the rendezvous with the passionate fans on October 11, 2015. The next three days were devoted in reaching out to a new generation of fans in the city which has “always touched me with its warmth and hospitality,” said Pele reliving the connection with Kolkata.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento wore his customary smile as he appeared in person in front of an expectant crowd at the airport, his wizened face betraying the ravages of time but the cult of his stardom remaining undiminished. Waving to the loud cheers, Pele got into a waiting car, which took him to his hotel, where he was received by Subimal (Chuni) Goswami, India’s own football legend from the city. Pele spent the first day in the confines of his hotel room in a bid to shake off the jet lag. The second day was again nostalgia time as the 74-year-old legend felicitated the veterans of the Mohun Bagan team that had hosted him on his first visit to the city. The organiser also set the clock ahead by 11 days for a premature birthday bash making the ‘King of Football’ slice up a cake designed in the shape of the Jules Rimet Trophy, that he had helped Brazil retain forever after the team’s third World Cup triumph in 1970.

The King encountered another icon whom the city prefers to call its prince — former India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly. Pele’s trip was promoted as the meeting of the King and the Prince setting the tone for an absorbing tete-a-tete between two great names hailing from different sports. “Please suggest a way for the development of Indian football,” Sourav Ganguly, who has seen India reach the top of excellence as its cricket captain, put the question to Pele as one of the owners of the ISL football franchise Atletico de Kolkata.

“Start working at the base, it is important to train kids for the future,” Pele gave the first and the most important lesson which the promoters of Indian football have always missed, that is giving grassroots development the least priority. Ganguly, who is a recent entrant in sports administration being the President of the Cricket Association of Bengal, asked specifically about another underdeveloped aspect of Indian football — infrastructure.

“You have to give a chance to players to go abroad and play in Leagues where they can gather experience. They can then come here and share their experiences. But firstly you have to support the base,” Pele said in reply. “You should have football in universities, schools and colleges. It is important to start the sport at the right level,” Pele put the fact straight before Ganguly and the whole nation trying to rebuild the game.

When the maestro was asked what he thought about the problems ailing modern day football, he said, “In my time the players belonged to the clubs but the players now belong to the ‘impresarios’.” What he meant was that the modern day footballers were more commercially inclined, their lives being dominated by agents and managers. “I had the fortune having some great team-mates like Garrincha, Didi and Vava. Later I have played with the likes of Zico. When I was with New York Cosmos, I played alongside Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia, who were also great footballers. I did not play alone. There was someone who always played beside and with me to make us succeed as a team,” was how Pele acknowledged the support of many talented colleagues who contributed to his greatness.

When he was asked to pick his best, Pele said, “People do not take much notice of defenders. To me the best was Bobby Moore. But over the last 10 years without a doubt it is Messi.” Again, on a comparison between the Portuguese star Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi, Pele said, “A lot of people compare Messi with Ronaldo. But they are players of different kind. Ronaldo is more of a scorer, more like a centre forward. Messi plays more deep, but both are fantastic.”

Pele feted the 13 players and coach P. K. Banerjee of the 1977 Mohun Bagan team, who were present in person to receive the honour at the Netaji Indoor Stadium. Subrata Bhattacharya, the captain of the then Mohun Bagan team, called in all the players on stage. Pele greeted each one of them with a shawl as the podium turned into a reunion where everyone tried to reconnect with the images and sentiments of the great Brazilian’s first visit. The recipients included a host of former internationals and captains like Shibaji Banerjee, Prasun Banerjee, Gautam Sarkar, Bidesh Bose, Shyam Thapa and Pradip Choudhury.

Pele made the biggest public appearance on October 13 when he went to see the ISL match between the defending champion Atletico de Kolkata and last year’s runner-up Kerala Blasters FC. The Brazilian great relished the atmosphere at the Salt Lake Stadium where more than 61,000 spectators had come to see both Pele and ATK. “I see a new generation of football fans since the last time I came. It feels nice to see that they love football in the same way they had received me in my first visit,” was Pele’s tribute to the city’s enduring passion for the sport.

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