Tulsidas Balaram, one of the country’s finest footballers and a member of the golden era of Indian football (1951-1962), passed away due to multiple organ failure in Kolkata on Thursday. He was 86. Last month, he was admitted to Apollo Hospital in Kolkata, his adopted home since 1957, due to low dietary intake and abdominal distention. Since his condition deteriorated, he was in ICU.
In 2021, he had a blood clot removed from his brain.
Balaram, originally Balaraman, played in two Olympics in 1956 and 1960 and reached the pinnacle of Asian football when India, under the guidance of legendary coach Syed Abdul Rahim, won the Asian Games gold in Jakarta, beating South Korea 2-1 in 1962.
In the Rome Olympics, widely hailed as his best moment in international football, he scored twice against Hungary and Peru.
His career was acutely brief, spanning eight years between 1955 and 1963, and was cut short by tuberculosis at 27. But on the field, he ripped through the toughest defensive ploys on the football field with effortless ease.
Born on October 4 1936, to Tamil parents - Muthamma and Tulsidas Kalidas - in Ammuguda village in the garrison town of Secunderabad, Balaram scored 131 goals, including 14 for India, across seven seasons.
Many of those goals gained legendary status, like the one against Kidderpore in only his second match for East Bengal in the 1957 Calcutta First Division League. “I still vividly remember that match. Balaram scored the goal after his dazzling dash on the left flank. He was unstoppable. With the ball glued to his right foot, he became hungrier for the goal.
He dribbled past all the dirty tackles posed to stop him and scored the solitary goal for East Bengal. We were stunned to see a frail boy scoring with sheer pace and skill. It was a pure example of Balaram’s ability. He was a match-winner,” recalled G.C. Das, a former journalist with World Soccer.
But more than his goals, Balaram was renowned for his fascinating ball control, dribbling, sense of passing, insatiable appetite for forming the attack and versatility. A product of Rahim’s coaching, Balaram had the uncanny ability to adapt to different positions. An inside forward, he could play as a winger and withdrawn forward, often creating the attack and dragging himself deep into the play to launch a counterattack.
Hakeem, the late son of Rahim, would recollect, “Balaram knew how to pick a ball for the benefit of the team. He played in the Hyderabadi style of one-touch football, which used to hail the player who could create an attack and set up his teammates for goals. He epitomised that throughout his career before moulding himself also as a scorer while playing for East Bengal.”
Balaram, who learned football wearing heavy leather military boots in his village, could accelerate, decelerate or pivot in a flash. He could control the ball with either foot. He was equally brilliant in set pieces.
Balaram sprang into the national limelight at the 1956 Santosh Trophy. Born and brought up in Ammuguda, a breeding ground of Olympians and internationals like K.P. Dhanraj, D. Kannan, and B. Narayan. His parents - who migrated from Thanjavur to Secunderabad in search of a better life - worked in the kitchen of the Residential House (later Rashtrapati Nilayam). Following his elder brothers, Balaram devoted himself to football, much to his mother’s annoyance.
Balaram was scouted by a Railwayman called Dhanakoti from the Lallaguda workshop ground, the venue for the Secunderabad league, for a local match between Civilians and Army XI. An excellent performance would earn him a chance to play in Hyderabad for the first time. Playing for Ryders Club, he would impress the chief guest, Rahim, and from there onwards, there was no looking back.
Rahim, famous for his tactical shrewdness, used Balaram for dual roles, and his ward adapted well. He was an attacking playmaker operating just behind centre-forward D. Kannan while being served by the left-out Moinuddin and half-back S.A. Lateef. He could become the second striker if necessary. In the final against Bombay, despite being victim to the brutal tackling of defenders Punewalla and David Solomon, he scored twice. Hyderabad won the match 4-1 to claim its maiden national title.
When Balaram made his national team debut at the Melbourne Olympics, he was 19. He could have played the game against Australia in India’s famous 4-1 win, but Rahim decided not to introduce the youngster to tall and sturdy Australian defenders. He played the semifinal against Yugoslavia instead, a match India lost 1-4.
Signing for East Bengal
After a failed deal in 1956, when his parents stalled his move to Kolkata, Balaram, impressed by the city’s boisterous football culture, decided to play in Kolkata in 1957, when he attended a national camp for the Far East Tour.
He could have played for Mohammedan Sporting had Noor Mohammed and S.K. Azizuddin not blocked his move and arranged a meeting with East Bengal secretary J.C. Guha instead. Impressed by his novelty and yearning to play in Kolkata, Guha offered him a princely sum of Rs 3,500, the highest the East Bengal player earned around that time.
Yet, he had a final hurdle to overcome. Vehicle Sub Depot, the military department for which he played in Secunderabad, lured him with an official rank. It was too high a position to deny for Balaram. But he eventually preferred East Bengal.
During his initial days in Kolkata, Balaram struggled to adapt to the city’s slushy pitches as football was played at the peak of the rainy season. He managed only 16 goals in the first two seasons.
In the 1959 season, cornered and criticised by fans and the club, Balaram produced mind-boggling performances but the silverware eluded him. He finished the season with 35 goals, the most by a player.
Balaram, surrounded by brilliant but ageing players, dragged East Bengal deep into the action, putting himself in a mould that allowed him to tick all boxes for which he was renowned. He scored himself, created chances for fellow forwards, and if needed, dragged himself deep into the defence to initiate counterattacks.
His best season in the Red and Gold jersey came in 1961, when he scored 23 goals in the league and won the league and IFA Shield double for East Bengal. That season, he was adjudged best player by the Veterans’ Football Club.
These were Balaram’s best years on the field, and from 1956 to 1962, he was considered the finest attacking player in India and even Asia. He was part of an invincible trident – the other two were Chuni Goswami and Pradeep Kumar Banerjee – who helped Indian football reach its pinnacle. During this time, Balaram participated in two Asian Games, in Tokyo in 1958 and in Jakarta in 1962. The gold medal that the team won in Jakarta is India’s only success in any international tournament to date.
In the ’50s and ’60s, the Indian football team was an Asian superpower, an indomitable side known for its flair and enchanting passing skills. Balaram, Chuni and P.K. enthralled fans across Europe with their crafts. They were so good with the ball that their solo dash and dribbling had given the Japanese, Koreans, Hungarians, and French defenders nightmares. They had become demigods to the Indian masses.
One of Balaram’s finest moments in international football came in the 1960 Rome Olympics when he tormented Hungary with his sheer speed and ball control. On receiving a pass from Chuni, he scored the lone goal for India with a flick. In the dying minutes, the desperate Hungarians physically assaulted him, tearing apart his jersey to stop him from scoring the winner.
But the honeymoon was soon to end.
In 1962, when Balaram returned from Jakarta after the Asian Games triumph, he learnt that his mother was unwell. He went straight to Secunderabad from the Kolkata airport, to be by her side, without letting the East Bengal Club know of his change in plans. The club was not pleased, or sympathetic. It fined him and also deducted the airfare from his remuneration. The year before, he was brutally taunted and tormented by the fans and the club management for not managing to score against Hyderabad City Police. People accused him of underperforming as Rahim was the opposition coach. It is something Balaram had never forgotten. Or forgiven. Such was his loathing towards the club that he had put a signboard in front of his door. It read: “When I die my body should be donated and not be taken to the East Bengal club.”
Three years back, during a conversation, tears welled up in his eyes when he recalled his mother’s reaction to his arrival in his hometown. As the Asian Games gold medallist started walking towards his home from Ammuguda Railway Station, his ailing mother ran forward to embrace him. She was so emotional that she even apologised to her son for objecting to his decision to play football in his childhood.
As soon as the football season ended, Balaram terminated his association with East Bengal and rejected every plea to rejoin the club. He was so deeply hurt that even when he underwent surgery in March 2021, he refused the club’s offer to help with funds.
Having resigned from East Bengal, Balaram started playing for the Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) in 1963. It ensured him a government job. Then the axe fell: he was forced to retire from the game that same year as he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and weak lungs. The football prodigy was only 27 years old. And he would never marry. “My mother was so disappointed that she was weeping when I told her that I would not marry. I cannot spoil anybody’s life. I was unwell,” Balaram would say.
Post-retirement, Balaram coached the BNR team for a few years as well as the Kolkata Mayor’s team, taking them to Germany, Sweden, and Norway. Renowned players like Sangram Mukherjee, Mehtab Hossain, and Chandan Das trained under him in their initial days. But his proximity to the communist establishment of West Bengal did not go well with the Congress at the centre. It harassed him whenever it got a chance.
Balaram is an Arjuna awardee, but he was gravely upset when his contribution to the nation was not rewarded with the Padma Shri, an award Chuni and P.K. had received. In 1990, Balaram was nominated for the award, but his file got mysteriously “lost” at the last minute.
This was not long after Balaram had done a stint as a national selector with the All India Football Federation (AIFF). He did not occupy the post for long. He believed his uncompromising nature and impeccable integrity had gotten in the way. He also served the Indian sports ministry as part of a committee responsible for finding ways to improve sports in the country. He quit that too when his letter went unanswered.
After he was denied the Padma Shri, Balaram distanced himself from the game and retreated to the shadows. He lived a simple life, never possessing cars or anything luxurious, nor was he a regular face in the media, analysing World Cups. He said it was never about the award, but his contribution to the nation was ignored.
Lived in Uttarpara on the bank of the Hoogly river, far from the game he once loved, the country’s colours he once donned, and the roar of fans that cheered him on, Balaram took solace in spirituality in his final days.
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