Last man standing

Subrata Paul… towering presence under the ban.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Subrata Paul has buried the ghost of his past and moved on in life to become the undisputed No. 1 goalkeeper in the country. By Vijay Lokapally.

Five years ago his career was mired in controversy when his clash with Christiano Junior resulted in the death of the Brazilian. It was a critical situation in Subrata Paul’s career. His ambitions lay in tatters. He was alone in a team game, left shattered at the end of that Federation Cup final in Bangalore.

The death of Junior saw the goalkeeper being slapped with a two-month suspension. More than the punishment, the stigma worried him. How would he overcome this painful episode that happened so early in his football career? Today, at 23, Paul is in a better position to deal with any adversities.

As he stood under the bar at the Ambedkar Stadium, a nation’s hopes rested on his shoulders. Tie-breakers can never be predicted but Paul’s team-mates were convinced he would pull it off. And they went delirious after Paul’s astounding work in the penalty shootout. Syria lay flat and India emerged the Nehru Cup champion for the second time running. Incidentally, it was Paul’s sensational performance that had carried India to the Nehru Cup title in 2007 at the same venue.

“I don’t live in the past,” Paul proclaimed. Goalkeepers simply can’t afford to worry about the past. They have to gather strength from every debacle and move on.

“It is a difficult job. A thankless one.” That was Bhaichung Bhutia’s precise observation. It does not help if you save ten and let in one. Goalkeeping is about holding your nerves and Paul has proved time and again that he is the best in the country. His athleticism and anticipation add to his towering presence under the bar. To rank him among India’s all-time greats would not be out of place.

Paul was the hero that night. His three saves in the penalty shootout left Syria frustrated. The Syrian coach, Feras Ebrahim, was all praise for the Indian goalkeeper’s wonderful deeds. “He was too good,” said Ebrahim. He was only echoing his counterpart Bob Houghton’s words.

“Luck was on my side,” said a modest Paul. But he was remarkable that night. He made three penalty saves, something that he could not remember doing at any level in the past. It was his gift to Indian football.

Paul’s sterling performance triggered an invasion of the ground by fans who wanted to acknowledge the efforts of one man who changed India’s destiny that night against the marauding Syrians.

It has been an eventful journey for Paul. His passion for the game took him to the Agarpara Mahajati Vidyapith School in Sodepur where Samir Chatterjee was his early tutor. He then honed his skills at the Tata Football Academy and found his way to Mohun Bagan. “It was a dream come true,” remembered Paul.

After the incident involving Junior, Paul was hurt by charges of accepting bribe to let in goals in a match against East Bengal. He took time to regain his composure and joined East Bengal to resurrect his professional career. He, however, lost his place soon and was relegated to the bench by coach Subhash Bhowmick.

But Houghton and former India goalkeeper Debashish Mukherjee backed Paul and helped this affable goalkeeper revive his career. Pune FC is his new club. Paul, drawing motivation from India’s sterling Nehru Cup 2009 victory, looks forward to some exciting times ahead under Houghton’s guidance.