Kolkata is a hotbed for Indian football. In a country that loves its cricket, a country that adores its superstars that ply their trade with a bat and ball, Kolkata stands out for its footballing heritage, the sort of culture that’s more popular within the western side of the world. In these parts, India’s more popular sports, whether it be cricket, hockey or badminton, take the back seat to the world’s most popular sport, and its prominence was well-highlighted and enhanced in 1977 when the king had arrived.
The city was no stranger to hosting high-profile names. From international royalty to A-listers from showbiz, Kolkata loved the big occasion. But in that year when one name was announced to arrive, the inhabitants – authorities included – had gone berserk. Pelé was set to come to the famous Indian city and play his career’s penultimate game against Mohun Bagan, one of India’s most cultured football clubs, but one that was struggling under the shadow of their local rivals, East Bengal. The two have a rivalry that goes way back in time, so this coup was a turning point. For a while, East Bengal had the bragging rights in town, but this one encounter swung the pendulum the other way.
It was just two years prior that Mohun Bagan had been demolished 5-0 by their fierce rivals and it was clear who was the dominant force in the city. East Bengal had formed a dynasty in Indian football in that time, and Mohun Bagan could do nothing but watch. It wasn’t until the following year when the club took a stand to reclaim their place on the throne, to fight back against the superpower and win back their legacy.
The revered Dhiren Dey was the club’s Assistant General Secretary in the hope of winning back some momentum in the land. In a time where they were seriously struggling, Dey would prove to be an influential figure for the club and that would be evident through his transfer dealings and unconditional love and support for the famous green-and-maroon stripes of Mohun Bagan.
Within a year, Dey signed players that had made East Bengal so successful, thus weakening their rivals and adding some winning swagger to his own ranks. Star names such as Subhas Bhomwick, Surajit Sengupta and Shyam Thapa had all dropped the famous red-and-gold to wear the stripes of the enemy and it was only a matter of time before the trophies had arrived. The Calcutta Football League was the first trophy East Bengal gave up, having won it for the previous six years. At this point, it appeared that there was set to be another power shift in the city.
However, the Calcutta Football League success was just a mere anomaly. In the next year, Mohun Bagan struggled in the Federation Cup – the country’s premier knockout competition – and just a few months after that, they would give up their Calcutta Football League crown after being comprehensively dismantled by the flawless East Bengal. This defeat would bring potentially fatal consequences. The team’s camp was often attacked by disheartened fans and the players’ lives were in danger. India’s most passionate rivalry had been set alight.
Two years after the investment and promise, Dey’s hands were tied. He had to deliver something, whether it was on the pitch or financially. Having failed to sustain their success for a prolonged period, it could be said that if something hadn’t changed for The Mariners, the next few years would attract serious trouble.
That was when Dhiren Dey decided to take advantage of a situation that was occurring 13,000 kilometres away. Over in New York, the Cosmos were planning a farewell tour for the great Pelé, arguably the greatest of all time. Having learned about this, Dey was adamant on bringing Pelé to Kolkata as it would be beneficial in more than one way. Not only would the Brazilian legend’s arrival boost Indian football, it would also give Mogun Bagan the international coverage it had been craving – the sort of attention that would have given them a huge boost past their overwhelming local rivals that had the better of them for the best part of the last decade.
Within weeks, Dey worked closely with the secretary of the Indian Football Association, Ashok Ghosh. He drew up a plan that would be sent over to the New York Cosmos that highlighted the events before, during and after Pelé’s arrival and this audacious proposal would be approved. There was an immediate setback, though. The Cosmos requested a huge sum – some reports claiming it to be around $500,000 – which would be unfeasible for the club. At a time when they were struggling, paying money like that would harm the long-term future of the club, no matter how much benefit or fanfare the short-term brought.
The initial setback was not taken too strongly, however. With a major coup on the line, Dey was persistent on bringing the world’s greatest footballer to his city and with that motivation, he personally got involved to get his man. Dey sent out another letter to Pelé’s representatives, sharing stories of Mohun Bagan’s role in India’s hunt for independence not so long ago as well as the importance of India and Indian culture to the world and the love the footballer would receive upon his arrival to the country.
Touched by the personal sentiment of the letter and fascinated by the prospect of playing in a region that was as passionate about the sport as his native Brazil, Pelé agreed to the offer and worked with the Cosmos administration to arrange a match in Kolkata. Although this wasn’t a trophy or an iconic footballing success, the plan of a friendly against a historical side such as the New York Cosmos was a huge achievement for Mohun Bagan and Dhiren Dey. To add to that benefit, it would cost the club much less than the initial sum requested due to Pelé’s own intervention in the situation. Overall, this would prove to be a turning point in Kolkata’s footballing folklore.
Scheduled for a late September match, Pelé’s arrival provoked a mass hysteria in the region. Schools were shut on the day and a reported 80,000 people were set to attend the elusive fixture as the maestro took the field for the second-last time in his illustrious career. Heavy rainfall greeted the Cosmos to India, but that wasn’t the only welcome they had. Upon their arrival, the airport, and the path leading up to it, was packed as thousands flocked to catch a glimpse of Pelé. Played at the famous Eden Gardens, currently India’s largest cricket ground, the historic venue was fitting for a man of Pelé’s stature.
There are several accounts and conflicting reports of what may have occurred at the fixture. The final score was a 2-2 draw, but there still isn’t sufficient clarity of what happened during the match, or how much Pelé was involved. To this day, there are three different stories of what might have transpired that afternoon.
One account comes from a chartered accountant who went by the name of Manabendra Majumdar, who claims he was there at Eden Gardens to attend the fixture. He claims that Pelé didn’t play in the game, instead just turning up at half-time and showing the enthusiastic crowd glimpses of his genius by playing around with the ball and displaying some flashy tricks. This view is often discarded, and it would make sense to do so, seeing as the fanfare that the whole event brought out would’ve turned on the organisers and do more bad than good for the club.
According to Shaymal Majumdar, the current editor of the Business Standard in India, Pelé only played about 30 minutes of the match and Mohun Bagan, who were largely unfancied in the build-up to the game, were strikingly impressive. In the supposed half-hour that Pelé was involved, he only had three shots on goal, two of which were wildly off-target which led many to believe that this wasn’t the actual Brazilian icon, instead, he was being portrayed by a famous Bengali imposter who went by the name of Shanti Gopal.
The actor had been famous for portraying some giants of history such as Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx, and during the clash there were whispers amongst the jam-packed audience that Gopal had shifted away from political re-enactments and expanded his forte by switching to sports. Disappointed by the lacklustre showing from the three-time world champion, Majumdar claims the crowd were raucous at the end of the clash, bursting off into loud jeers as they believed that the organisers of the event had flattered to deceive.
The most believable and fanciable account is that Pelé played the whole game, or at least the most part. This view suggests that Pelé was at his usual best for the encounter, starting off by creating the opening goal with a brilliant through-ball to his team-mate, Carlos Alberto Torres. There was also an impressive showing from Gautam Sarkar, a member of the Mohun Bagan back-line who had the prestigious task of man-marking Pelé. According to many reports, Sarkar didn’t allow the Brazilian much space or time to weave his usual magic and kept him quiet for much of the half.
Mohun Bagan were at their best for the big clash. After going down early in the game, they came back and took the lead. The equaliser came immediately from Shyam Thapa, now a cult figure amongst the Mohun Bagan faithful having joined from East Bengal. And a quarter-of-an-hour later, Mohammed Habib gave the home side the lead going into half-time. For much of the match, goalkeeper Sibaji Banerjee was under constant threat but he kept his composure and pulled off a few outstanding saves – including one from a well-struck free-kick by Pelé – to deny the New York side from getting back into the game.
That was until the 75th minute when the Mariners’ resistance was finally broken. Defender Sudhir Karmakar committed a rough tackle inside the box and a penalty was awarded without any hesitation. Former Lazio forward Giorgio Chinaglia stepped up and converted the spot-kick and that would be the final significant action of an exciting afternoon. The home side outdid expectations with an excellent performance, while the hysteria of Pelé ensured that all the people at the venue were satisfied on the day.
To understand the importance of the day and everyone’s desire to get involved, the scenes on the touchline can provide a sufficient example. Late in the game, Manas Bhattacharya, the Indian international, was set to come on for a cameo appearance, but the man he was set to be substituted for, Subhash Bhowmick, refused to have his playing time cut down. That led to Bhattacharya bursting into tears and eventually, having noted that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to come up against the great Pelé, goalscorer Shyam Thapa volunteered to come off and give his team-mate a few unforgettable minutes on the pitch.
If there was one occasion that set Kolkata apart from the rest of India in footballing terms, it is this. This match, although just a friendly, put Kolkata on the map and gave Mohun Bagan a major boost in the city. Buoyed by the confidence of coming up against a legendary player and outfit, and putting on such an encouraging display, they would begin their own era of dominance in the region, starting with the 1-0 defeat of East Bengal in the IFA Shield just four days after the friendly.
Since 1977, the likes of Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Roger Milla, Diego Forlán and more have come to the city, but the excitement generated by Pelé has been unmatched. In a football city, the arrival of one man changed the fortunes of one club and gave the watching audience two memorable, hysterical hours.