Emitting beams of light

HE was the `linkman' in the football arena for close to 10 years for India between 1980 and 1990.

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

HE was the `linkman' in the football arena for close to 10 years for India between 1980 and 1990. And he continues to be the last link between Hyderabad and Kolkata, the `Mecca of Indian football'. For Victor Amalraj happens to be the last footballer from the `City of Pearls' to have played for all the three leading clubs — Mohammedan Sporting, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. Not just playing for them, he also had the unique distinction of even leading all three clubs — an honour which remained a dream for many of his contemporaries.

Former India football captain Victor Amalraj believed in ball play and not rough play.-H. SATISH

Those were the days when players like Amalraj used to avoid the public glare. Not for fear of any adverse reaction, but to avoid being surrounded. Such was the fan following for the sport those days. Amalraj recalls that even for training sessions, there would be at least a few thousand watching the players.

Even going for a cinema needed planning. Amalraj and his team-mates used to go to the theatres late and leave the place 10 minutes before the movie ended to keep a safe distance from the soccer-crazy crowds. Those were heady days compared to the present scenario when near empty stands often greet the players in some cities.

Coincidentally, one has to display the skills of a soccer player to meander one's way to Amalraj's residence in Cantonment Area in Secunderabad. It is located in a cluster of average middle-class houses. His romance for the sport may have made him name his residence `Soccer Villa'. But the compact house is symbolic of his simple lifestyle — sans flamboyance.

But Amalraj's monetary benefits pale into insignificance considering that a player like Baichung Bhutia is paid roughly Rs. 35 lakhs for a season now. The highest Amalraj got for playing for Mohun Bagan was Rs. 90,000. No doubt, that itself was a record of sorts in those days. Yet, the love for the sport transgressed all barriers and if football is still alive and kicking, it is because of players like him.

Some of the contenders for the slot which Amalraj occupied on the field, included Parminder Singh Sr, Pushparaj Kumar, Devaraj, Gautam Sarkar, Prasun Banerjee and Prasanta Banerjee. All of them could have easily walked into any Indian XI. It was also a reflection of the standard of the game then.

Those were the times when players were very sentimental and even superstitious. For instance, Amalraj recalls that the players would vehemently prevent the team's bus driver from even moving the vehicle slightly backwards once it had halted. For they believed that it meant the team would be on the backfoot. And for Amalraj himself, if a glass was broken on the eve of the match, the fear of losing match constantly haunted him.

Ironically, back home the story was and still is pathetic. This is what really saddens him. He hails from the Trimulgherry-Cantonment Board stretch of Secunderabad which produced some of the big names of Indian football — K. P. Dhanraj, Balaraman, Peter Thangaraj, D. Kannan, P. Ramaswamy, John Victor (Amalraj's brother) — to name a few. Now, not many youngsters play football on the ground adjacent to the national highway in Trimulgherry.

"You have to live with reality and we are virtually helpless," Amalraj moans, apparently, displeased at the way things were allowed to drift to a point of no return. "My dear son, please don't play football. I know what it means to be a footballer. I am not financially sound to bear the brunt anymore," advises Amalraj who led India in the President's Gold Cup in Dhaka in 1983.

Exchanging pleasantries with veterans Kannan (left) and Peter Thangaraj.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

"Leave alone the money part, it is a big gamble to become a footballer. An uncertain future always haunts you," he argues. In the same breath, he is not too cynical. "My thoughts are only representative of the mess the sport has landed in Hyderabad," he stresses. Not many can argue on this count in a City where die-hard fans still thrive on past glory and where officials seem unwilling to make amends.

Yet, for the likes of Amalraj, life has to go on. He keeps in touch with the world of football and also other popular sports like cricket, tennis and also chess. A regular viewer of the European leagues, this 45-year-old footballer keeps himself remarkably fit and is clearly enjoying life with his small family — wife (Edna), son (Clinton Amalraj) and daughter (Vanessa).

For, someone who was inspired to take up football thanks to his late father (also named Victor), Amalraj strongly believes that unless someone shows complete commitment to whichever discipline he picks, justice cannot be done. He recalls that during his playing days they had daily four training sessions. His coaches included P. K. Banerjee and Amal Dutta who are themselves big names of Indian football who know what it takes to be a footballer. How difficult was it to be away from the sport since last playing in 1990? "It was more painful because I don't see any quality football back home in Hyderabad. Family obligations forced me to shift my base and I am thankful to the gesture of my employers, Food Corporation of India (in which he is an Assistant Manager in Public Relations). But the fact that I just cannot see any football on the field saddens me," says a dejected Amalraj.

Yet, he has absolutely no regrets for playing the game. The other day Sourav Ganguly was in town. And when Amalraj took his son for an autograph, it was the cricketer who walked across the hotel lobby on seeing Amalraj and then affectionately greeted him before obliging the footballer's delighted son. "Even now when I go to Kolkata, people still flock around me and some even offer money to play for the clubs," says Amalraj.

History stands as proof of his stature and contribution to Indian football. He has the rare distinction of being a member of teams which have won almost every major trophy in the national calendar. The best part being that he was never shown a yellow card on the field for he believed in ball play rather than rough play. Incidentally, Andhra Pradesh won the junior Nationals in 1976 when he was a team member but never again thereafter. And more recently in 2002, Amalraj as the coach, guided Andhra to a win in the South Zone under-21 championship after another long gap. These facts portray the depths to which the game has sunk in Hyderabad — a region which once had the distinction of fielding six players in the 1956 Olympics.

The soft-spoken Amalraj of course keeps himself updated with all the developments in the world of sport. Interestingly, like many sports personalities, he too has been a die-hard reader of The Hindu right from his formative days. He recalls how he used to travel long distances in Kolkata to collect copies of the newspaper. "It has a special place in my huge collections," he points out.

Victor Amalraj with his wife Edna, son Clinton Amalraj and daughter Vanessa.-H. SATISH

His most memorable events remain leading India in the President's Gold Cup in Dhaka and the meeting with Mother Teresa in 1986. "She was a big football fan and the moment I met her, I remember what she told me: `You play football, I know, I know.' A terrific human being," recalls Amalraj.

His favourite player is the legendary Pele not just for his skills but also for being a "wonderful ambassador of humanity". One of his regrets is missing the chance of playing in the 1982 Delhi Asian Games because of an ankle injury. The other one being absent from Kolkata when his childhood idol Pele played there with the Cosmos Club in 1976. "Then I was in Hyderabad and just trying to make an impact," he says with all humility.

Unlike many sportspersons of his stature, Amalraj is very practical about certain things. Like not being conferred any awards including Arjuna Award. "Where were the results in international arena those days. May be, if Arjuna Award is given for contribution alone to the sport, then I would have had an outside chance," is Amalraj's honest reply.

But, what gives him greater satisfaction is the pride with which he wore the team jerseys and gave more than 100 per cent on the field. He recalls here an interesting incident. "One day when I was playing for Mohammedan Sporting and was having lunch with my team-mate Babu Mani, some of the Mohun Bagan players joined us. Soon, word spread around and our manager wanted to know what was happening. Then, I told him if you have any doubts please drop us. But we were picked in the eleven and we also scored a goal each to prove our commitment," says a proud Amalraj.

No wonder, this genial Hyderabadi is enjoying his `homecoming' thanks to FCI's gesture and quite naturally relishing his favourite dish — Hyderabadi briyani. The one thing he never misses is a visit to the Church on Sundays. The Church is the only other place where he loves to be, other than a football field. The rest are all secondary to him.

There is no doubting that he has done his bit to be part of Indian football history. The citation and the memento from East Bengal Club fittingly describe his career. "You have made our Club feel proud. And, we are proud of you." A compliment which can sum up what was truly a brilliant career at a time when media spotlight on the game was not as much as it is now.