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1977: Getting Pele to India
The Times of India, Oct 12 2015
How Mohun Bagan pulled off the Pele coup in 1977
The legend's first trip with Cosmos had a backstory
How Pele came, saw and conquered Calcutta (as Kolkata was then called) 38 years ago is well-documented. The mass hysteria which followed Pele's every step from the airport to the Eden Gardens was a sight his teammates got accustomed to during New York Cosmos' farewell tour with the legend in 1977. Quite understandably , the God of football took centre stage from the moment he descended on the city . But to get an idea of how the then-short, now historic trip materialized, one needs to travel a back in time. It may have be faded knowledge today , but in 1977, Pele and NY Cosmos were in India as guests of Mohun Bagan. Their visit was preceded by a troubled and turbulent phase for the Calcutta super club. The scars of the 0-5 humiliation at the hands of East Bengal in the 1975 IFA Shield final had still not been wiped out and the green and maroons were still being forced to play second fiddle to their arch-rivals, who then ruled not only the Maidan but also Indian football.
There was pressure on Mohun Bagan officials to deliver something quick. In 1976, the revered Dhiren Dey , who was the club's general secretary then, pulled off a coup by snatching away a clutch of stars who had orchestrated East Bengal's domination in Indian football. With the likes of Subhas Bhowmick, Shyam Thapa and Surajit Sengupta switching allegiance, Mohun Bagan managed to win the Calcutta Football League crown that year, halting East Bengal's record-breaking run of six successive titles.
But that turned out to be an `aberration'. Despite boasting of a star-studded line-up, Mohun Bagan failed to displace the red-and-golds as the dominant power. Bagan lost to ITI in the 1977 Federation Cup final in Bangalore in May . In June, it was further catastrophe for Bagan as a muchweakened East Bengal rode goals from Mihir Bose and Samaresh Chowdhury to stun them en route to regaining the CFL crown. Bagan players were attacked by angry and disenchanted fans at the club tent. Some of the players even sought protection from Dey , telling him that their family members were also being targetted. Pushed into a corner, Dey was desperately looking for `salvation'. It was then that he learnt about Cosmos' tour of Asia. Following a discussion with then-IFA secretary Ashok Ghosh, he quickly chalked out a blueprint and got cracking on the audacious project of Mohun Bagan hosting Pele and his Cosmos team.
When Cosmos received Dey's communication, the club asked for an exorbitant sum as appearance fee. So steep was that figure that it almost led to the grand project falling through.
However, undaunted by the initial `setback', Dey shot off another letter, this time to Pele's agents, highlighting Mohun Bagan club's role in India's struggle for independence and how “the country where Mahatma Gandhi was born“ was eagerly waiting for a date with the Brazilian legend. Much to the delight of Dey and Mohun Bagan, Pele agreed to play ball and convinced the Cosmos management to add India to the list of destinations in Asia. Most importantly , thanks to Pele's intervention, Mohun Bagan had to cough up less than what was initially demanded.
At a time when East Bengal were still basking in the glory of regaining the CFL crown from their arch-rivals, Bagan had staged a silent coup with a stunning impact.
Torrential rain greeted Pele and Cosmos when their Air India flight landed on Sept 22. The rest, as they say , is history. Pele was largely off-colour in the match, but Mohun Bagan went on to hold Cosmos 2-2 in a performance which brought about a remarkable change in their fortunes.
As Pele returned to New York to play his testimonial match against Santos, Mohun Bagan players -buoyed by the swagger of playing against the greatest footballer of all time -tore East Bengal apart in the IFA Shield final a week later, winning by a Shyam Thapa goal. Thapa was at it again in December, scoring a brace to get the better of East Bengal in the Rovers Cup semifinal, on way to the title beating Tata Sports. This was followed by another triumph in the Durand Cup.
If the early and mid-70s belonged to East Bengal, the post-Cosmos period was Mohun Bagan's as they re-emerged as a force to reckon with in Indian football.
Mohun Bagan-Cosmos match, 1977
The Times of India, Oct 11 2015
Sibaji Banerjee `Bagan-Cosmos match was a life-changing experience for me'
Not even in my wildest dream had I thought that Pele would come to India again. They say you are lucky if you get to see `God' once in your life. It is quite unbelievable that I will get to see him again when he comes to Kolkata on Sunday. The Mohun Bagan-Cosmos match in 1977 was an extraordinary event for all of us. Mohun Bagan were going through a lean patch. We had lost in the Federation Cup and had gone down to East Bengal in the Calcutta League. Our supporters were quite unhappy . We had started preparing for the IFA Shield with an eye on a final against East Bengal.
Quite out of the blue, we were infor med by club secretary Dhiren Dey that Mohun Bagan will play an exhibition match against Pele's New York Cosmos and we need to be ready in two weeks' time. It gradually dawned on us that we will be representing our country and need to showcase Indian football.
We started following Cosmos' tour of Asia. Before coming to Kolkata, Pele had scored in China and Japan. Pele had this special ability to make the ball appear to stop in mid-air before suddenly gathering speed on way to hitting the target. Coach PK Banerjee had trained us to defend set-pieces but I knew very well that Pele's free-kicks would be a different ball game.
On the day of the match, before leaving home, my father -late Subodh Banerjee who had been a goalkeeper himslef -gave me an invaluable piece of advice. He reminded me that if Cosmos get a free-kick, Pele will surely take it and the whole world, including Mohun Bagan supporters, will be hoping for the legend to score.When Pele takes the free-kick, father advised me, “don't reach for the ball, rather wait for it“.
On match day, the Red Road there was a big traffic jam and the players had a tough time getting to the Eden Gardens. We were excited about the fact that we were going to play against Pele's team. As we trooped on to the field to warm up, I was gazing at Pele from close range even as the `King' went about his warmup drills with professional expertise. There appeared to be a rhythm to everything he did. It was as if he had springs attached to his feet.
The ground condition was not good as it had rained earlier but it suited us more than the Cosmos players. Our boys played extraordinary football that day I probably made five or six t good saves in the game. But the two saves that are still etched in my memory involved Pele.
Cosmos got a free-kick and Pele stepped up to take it. The Brazilian legend took a lot of time to place the ball and concent trated hard before taking the shot. We had our wall at the first post while I took up my position t at the second. A few seconds bet fore Pele took his shot, my father's advice rang in my ears don't reach for the ball.
Pele swung the ball around the wall. The ball was coming towards me when I inadvertently took a step towards it.
Then all of a sud den, it appeared to stop and hang i n t h e a i r. I checked myself in time and dived fulllength and managed to clutch the ball which had propelled forward spinning viciously. Luckily I managed to keep it under control.
The other save was certainly the best of the match and my career. Tony Field crossed into the box which Pele brilliantly trapped with his chest, controlled it with his thigh and just as he was going to volley, I threw myself at his feet and pouched it.Pele was still in the air and his boot just inches from my face.Like a true pro, he checked himself and jumped over me to avoid a nasty clash.
It is not easy for a goalkeeper to dive in front but I had no time to think and just went for the ball. It turned out to be one of the most defining moments of the match.
When we were going out at half-time, Pele hugged me. At the Cosmos team hotel in the evening, he kissed me and said, “Goalkeeper you saved your team“. The Pele match was a lifechanging experience for me.