Shyam Thapa belongs to that brilliant era of Indian football that has been treasured in gilded letters. The back volley and the bicycle kick have been patented in his name for the beauty of their execution.

During a stroll down memory lane with Sportstar , Thapa, currently the chairman of the All-India Football Federation’s technical committee, recounts many anecdotes from his long journey as an outstanding footballer.

How do you recount the initial days of your career?

The start was quite interesting. In 1965, the mighty East Bengal came visiting Dehradun to play an exhibition match against Gorkha Brigade on the request of great players like Bir Bahadur and Ram Bahadur (Chhetri), who was from Dehradun and was a big name in East Bengal. Interestingly, because of India’s war with Pakistan that year, a lot of the regular players of Gorkha Brigade could not join the team. And, as I was the captain of the Gorkha Military School, the commandant of Gorkha Brigade requested my school’s principal to release me for the match.

That incident provided the lucky break in transforming my career as a footballer. I spent the greater part of the match on the bench and came in as a substitute for the last 15 minutes. The legendary general secretary of East Bengal, Jyotish (Chandra) Guha, seemed to be impressed by whatever little I did in those 15 minutes. He walked up to me after the match and asked me through Ram Bahadur, who translated his query in Nepali to me, whether I was interested in going to Calcutta and try for East Bengal. It was the biggest opportunity that a footballer in India could think of at that time, and I convinced my parents and came to Calcutta in 1966 before the new season started.

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How do you remember your early days in Calcutta?

I could not bear the heat and humidity of my new address and would arrange two electric fans when I used to take my lunch in a mess located in the Gariahat region of Kolkata. That would make quite an amusing sight for my seniors like (Peter) Thangaraj, who laughed seeing the boy from the hills trying to cool off squeezed between two fans. I remember Thangaraj asking Ram Bahadur jokingly, “Hey, Ram. Did you bring this kid to be killed (by the weather) here?”

I started practising in the company of greats like Thangaraj, Parimal Dey, Gurkirpal Singh, Ram Bahadur, among others. I got a break when Parimal Dey was struggling for form and he was sent on forced leave by the indisputable J. C. Guha Saheb to a hill station (Darjeeling) to rest and recover his touch. One day I saw my name on the team list a day before the match. We were playing Rajasthan Club, which was then counted as the fourth big side outside the top three (East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting). I was so excited that I scored a hat-trick on my debut for East Bengal. East Bengal beat Rajasthan 4-0 and I remember riding on the giant shoulders of the 7ft-tall Thangaraj, who was so overjoyed that he carried me around the ground to let the East Bengal supporters have a close look at the new discovery.

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“I joined Mohun Bagan in 1977, and in 1978 I scored the back volley against East Bengal in a CFL derby. I became a rage with Mohun Bagan fans and the back volley became the point of celebration,” says Thapa.

 

Why did you go back to Dehradun and how did you return to Kolkata?

I returned to Dehradun and Gorkha Brigade in 1967 as my parents wanted me to join the army as a commissioned officer. I was also asked by none other than the great General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw, who saw me in action during the Durand Cup, to join the army as an officer. I tried twice, but I could not secure a commission.

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I left Gorkha Brigade in 1970 as East Bengal renewed its offer on seeing me score the winning goal in the final of the 1969 Durand Cup against BSF. My army commission dreams were over and I returned to Calcutta to become Shyam Thapa the footballer.

The East Bengal influence got me a place in the national team that year and I was a part of the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games where we won the bronze medal. That was an important year for me as East Bengal won the first CFL (Calcutta Football League) crown on its way to creating the record of six successive titles.

Do you have any regrets?

The saddest part of my life was being omitted from the 1978 Asian Games, which would have been my third Asian Games. I was the highest scorer in two nationals (Santosh Trophy) for Bengal and was playing really well. Even after seeing Bengal become the champion at the nationals in Srinagar (in 1978), my name was not considered for the national team. I scored the winner for Bengal with a back volley (the second of that year) against Goa.

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The people of Kashmir, who came to see the match, were so happy with my performance that they were showering money on me when I was returning to the dressing room. The big heartbreak came after the match when the probables were announced. I could not take the conspiracy and cried the whole night at Srinagar’s Mughal Gardens. It was a time when the Indian captaincy would also fetch the Arjuna Award, and I was denied that, too.

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Shyam Thapa played for Mohun Bagan for seven seasons and rejoined East Bengal in 1984.

 

Do you have a favourite goal?

My best goal was in 1975 when I returned to East Bengal after spending four not-so-happy seasons with Mafatlal Mills in Bombay. Shanto Mitra, then East Bengal captain, convinced me to return. The year 1975 became the best season in my playing career. There was a big exodus of prominent names from East Bengal to Mohammedan Sporting, which was bolstering the side to stop East Bengal from overhauling its record of five consecutive CFL titles (1934-38). The onus fell on me and (Subhash) Bhowmick to take East Bengal to the destination. The legendary P. K. Banerjee, who was then our coach, said the East Bengal supporters would throw us all in the adjoining river Ganges if we failed to secure the title.

I worked extremely hard and in the very first derby at Eden Gardens, I dribbled past four Mohun Bagan defenders in slushy conditions to score the best goal of my career. Unfortunately, that match was abandoned in the second half because of rain. As I sat by the sideline trying to recover my energy, I could see a supporter running towards me with some policemen giving chase. He outran them to gift me a big hilsa fish (the favourite delicacy of East Bengal supporters) in appreciation of my effort.

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After the match, 30-40 East Bengal supporters hoisted me above their heads and carried me for a kilometre from the stadium to the club tent. In the same year, East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan in the IFA Shield final with that historic 5-0 margin. I scored twice but missed a hat-trick as I failed to convert a penalty. That margin of win is still untouched in the long history of the two teams’ rivalry.

What do you remember of your back volley?

I joined Mohun Bagan in 1977, and in 1978 I scored the back volley against East Bengal in a CFL derby. I became the rage with Mohun Bagan fans and the back volley became the point of celebration. I started receiving invitations to inaugurate functions during the Durga Puja festivities and my back-volley attempt was recreated in lightings in various Puja pandals . I continued to play for Mohun Bagan for seven seasons and rejoined my favourite club East Bengal in 1984 from where I retired.