Thursday, June 17, 2010

It's the World Cup... and memories of the Calcutta football league come alive

I love it when it’s time for World Cup Football. Apart from some lovely recent memories of World Cup matches, every time the tournament arrives it takes me back to my boyhood, when I used to be an avid follower of the First Division football matches in Calcutta. During the league, the matches would be played in the late afternoon, and commentary would begin around 4.15 on All India Radio. Only three teams mattered to most Calcuttans then – East Bengal whose fan I was, Mohun Bagan and Mohameddan Sporting, the first two more than Sporting. There were, of course, other top teams such as Tollygunge Agragami, Howrah Union and Sporting Union (I forget the other names) but they didn’t really matter – you would finally expect either East Bengal or Mohun Bagan to win the league. The same went for the IFA Shield too.

In school, there was a clear divide between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan supporters. There would not only be vivid descriptions of matches and the skills of the star players but also heated arguments about who was the better team. Three of my neighbours, classmates all of us, were ardent Mohun Bagan supporters and I remember in the early 1980s when television had arrived, I would go next door to watch East Bengal-Mohun Bagan encounters (television came to our home later), keeping my emotions under check as I was surrounded by Bagan supporters.

Cricket even then was very popular. Sunil Gavaskar was the undisputed king and there would be endless discussions about him, Salim Durrani (he would hit sixers on demand), Bishen Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna, Venkat, Engineer, later Kirmani…. almost an endless list. But when spring and summer arrived, it was football that brought many of us boys to the radio in the 1970s.

Football was a working class game and Calcutta had followers in the thousands; it’s the same even today although there are no stars like of old. I was hooked to radio commentary also because of commentators such as Ashish Ray (is he in London now?) who, with his perfect diction and flawless English, made matches even more memorable and I’m sure even created his own fan club. In cricket, it was Anand Setalwad and Suresh Suraiya.

And then there were the stars. What are games and tournaments and championships without stars anyway? I had no favourite as such; there were so many of them you enjoyed watching on the field. They were our own Maradonas and Messis (there can only be one Pele). On top of my list I would place Surajit Sengupta, a wily left-winger, a dazzler with the ball. Even the best defenders such as Subroto Bhattacharya (served Mohun Bagan during most of his career) found him hot to handle. I was once fortunate in seeing him firsthand play five-a-side football at the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club and there was one chip shot I remember he essayed with effortless ease – it sailed past a solid line of defence and landed at the foot of the striker. I don’t remember whether a goal was scored, but that chip by Surajit was sheer poetry.

I would place Md Habib very close to Surajit. I have never seen Habib play; only listened to his exploits on radio. But it was clear he was a master strategist, a craftsman, and the opposition respected him. Habib and his younger brother Akbar (wonder where they are now), together with Subhash Bhowmick, formed at one time in the 1970s the main striking duo for East Bengal. The brothers worked in tandem and many a time found the net in league and IFA Shield matches. This was long before the likes of Shabbir Ali and Shyam Thapa of the bicycle kick fame (in 1979, when I was a teenager, Thapa’s bicycle kick goal against East Bengal gave Mohun Bagan the IFA Shield that year).

Then there was Bhowmick, that mercurial striker who even my sister seemed to know. He switched between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan all through his career, but on his day he could bulldoze through any defence. I still remember a picture that appeared in The Statesman of Md Nayeem (Md Sporting), a great defender, trying to halt Bhowmick’s progress, but in vain as it turned out. Bhowmick went on to turn coach and in recent years came under the scanner for being caught red-handed accepting a bribe. But my memories of him will always remain the man who posed a threat to any defence and could score goals almost at will.

Gautam Sarkar and Pintu Choudhury were great half-backs or linkmen as they used to be called in those days. Ball players both, they were instrumental in turning the tide of many a game, feeding the forwards while at the same time retaining possession of the midfield. Sometimes, you wonder why India never figures in the World Cup. All that you hear are the heydays of Chunni Goswami and P.K. Banerjee. I used to wonder then, when there seemed to be a surfeit of such footballers, most of them from Bengal. There was Inder Singh of JCT Mills, Phagwara (Punjab), of course, and Harjinder Singh, and may be a couple of Goan players (I can’t recall the names now), but Bengal’s contribution to Indian football in those years was just extraordinary.

There were several other players who made a mark on the playing fields of Calcutta in the 1970s and early 1980s, players such as Swapan Senguta and Ulaganathan, speedy wingers both. Their runs down the flank at times mesmerised spectators and defenders alike and I really don’t know whether the Kolkata league as it must be now called is fortunate to see their likes now. It must be said that the country's top footballers made a beeline for Calcutta then, the Mecca of football, to try and make a mark. Most did, some left without a leaving a trace.

The change in the football scene in Calcutta began in the early 1980s when two Iranians, Majid Bhaskar and Jamshed Nassiri, arrived. They played for East Bengal initially. Majid was a master craftsman and it was said that he played for Iran in the World Cup. In any case, he weaved magic on the field and both these Iranians were the forerunners to other imports to the league, including the Nigerians. Heard of Chima Okerie who ended up playing for all the three major clubs? Sadly though, after the advent of Majid, Jamshed and Chima, football was quite never the same in Calcutta or Kolkata. I haven’t heard of homegrown legends in years. More about the World Cup later.

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