The year was 1977. It was a different world, yet it was the same. The world was largely an analogue one – computers were in their infancy, television had just started to make its headway into the common household, there were no little square tablets in the palms of everyone’s hands, nor did people have easy access to videos of great athletes and their magnificent performances. But the love for the beautiful game, and indeed for the global superstars that made the green plot of land their very own canvas, remained the same.
The Dumdum Airport (now known as the Netaji Subhash Chandra International Airport) in Calcutta felt like a stadium around midnight of September 22, 1977; Pele was coming to town – along with his teammates from the New York Cosmos, who were to play an exhibition match against Mohun Bagan towards the end of a goodwill tour of Asia. For the City of Joy, it was a little matter of entertaining a galaxy of superstars like World Cup-winning Brazilian Carlos Alberto Torres and Italian player Giorgio Chinaglia. The sole spotlight, however, was on one man – the King, the Emperor.
Former India international Subrata Bhattacharya, who led Mohun Bagan that fateful afternoon on September 24, 1977, recalled all the excitement around that match.
“The entire credit (for Pele’s visit) should go to Dhiren De (Mohun Bagan official). He was the one who took the initiative to bring Cosmos and Pele to India,” said Bhattacharya.
“When we first came to know that we’d play against Pele, we were all very excited. Cosmos were a very good team, and they even had other World Cuppers like Carlos Alberto too. We were so overwhelmed that we even stopped our warm-up before the match just so that we could watch him.”
The late Subhas Bhowmick, the former India striker, was also on the pitch that day against New York Cosmos and was completely awestruck.
“I never thought we were competent enough to play against him. He was the King, and we were ordinary subjects of the game. It was a privilege that I, at least, didn’t deserve. His ball control, heading, right footers and ability to bring down any defence on its knees was absolutely extraordinary. Time and again, he rewrote the grammar of football. We just watched in awe,” Bhowmick had said in an earlier interview.
The match itself almost never happened if some reports are to be believed. First, there was the matter of around Rs 17 lakhs which the organisers doled out to have the King come to India and play. To make things more uncertain, Pele himself was reportedly not too pleased with the ground, which had taken some battering in the Bengal monsoon. However, the mass hysteria that ensued once the Emperor set foot in the City of Joy was enthralling, to say the least.
The quality of the match may not have reached the expected heights, as many fans in the city recall, with a young Mohun Bagan side earning a 2-2 draw against a far more experienced New York Cosmos. Though Pele did not score a goal, some of his touches and a free-kick that was saved by Mohun Bagan goalkeeper Shibaji Banerjee, amply displayed the greatness of the man.
“I’ve played at the top level for more than a decade for clubs like Mohun Bagan and Tata Sports Club and was fortunate enough to captain the nation as well. But that day, when I played against Pele, remains the greatest moment in my football career. It was like I was meeting God. I was too overwhelmed,” said Pradeep Chowdhury, one of the players that had the unenviable task of man-marking the Brazilian legend.
“Gautam Sarkar and I were tasked with marking Pele by coach PK Banerjee. Maybe the spectators present that day can say whether we succeeded in our mission. I would say, however, that the ground condition was not ideal for good football,” he said.
However, as a famous Bengali proverb goes – ‘ratan e ratan chene’ (diamonds can identify one another) – Chowdhury was all praises for Pele.
“Pele’s greatest quality, in my opinion, was to foresee at least four passes ahead of the ball being played. It made him extremely unpredictable on the pitch. There probably won’t be another like him in the next thousand years,” said Chowdhury.
Choudhury’s partner in marking Pele, midfielder Gautam Sarkar even earned plaudits from the great man himself. “He smiled at me and said, ‘So you are that number 14 who did not let me move.’ I was awestruck,” Sarkar recalled.
“Chuni da (Chuni Goswami) was standing by my side on the podium and overheard this. After that, he told me to give up football,” Sarkar laughed. “What else was left to achieve after such praise from Pele? This really was the biggest achievement of my football career.
“Not to boast about myself, but I’ve seen a newspaper report that my photo still hung in the New York Cosmos club. Pele was so impressed by our play that he wanted to meet the players first. Perhaps he never thought a club side from India could play the way we did,” he said.
Now, as Pele sets sail for greener pastures in the heavenly abode, the entire footballing world joins in to mourn the loss of one of the greatest footballers the planet has ever seen, of a man, a King, or perhaps a God, who not only won three out of the four World Cups in which he played but also reportedly stopped a vicious war with his mere presence – because friends and foes alike, all wanted to watch him play.