Life is often full of uncanny coincidences. On 2 March 2006, Syed Nayeemuddin was sacked as national coach of India. The only man to have won both the Dronacharya Award (1992) and Arjuna Award (1970) then went through the worst phase of his career. For seven years, he went from pillar to post in search of a job. Nayeem, who has won 35 tournaments as a club coach, three international titles as national coach (1987 SAF Games. 1997 SAFF and 2005 SAFF Championships), and acquired all the required professional coaching licenses from Europe, was shunned by everyone. His savings got depleted as he is a professional coach, with no other source of income.
Nayeem’s pride is hurt as he is dependent on financial support of his two sons Syed Fazaluddin, former Davis Cup player, and Syed Safuddin. He had spent his savings to turn his sons into professional tennis players and giving his now married daughter a good education. He is 69 years old and an old scooter is his only mode of transport. He was hurt that his expertise was ignored and he was made to feel unwanted. He knocked at many doors, the Bengal state government (both Left Front and Trinamool Congress) for help, the Indian Football Association (IFA) and AIFF for coaching junior teams or regional academies but was ignored. In desperation he would sarcastically remark, “I have turned from National coach to National beggar.”
But now the wheel has turned full circle. The Good Samaritan who has come to his rescue is eminent sports journalist Manas Chakraborty whose company Sports and Beyond is organising a charity match on 2 March 2013 for Nayeem’s benefit. The match will be played between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal veterans. The teams will consist of players who Nayeem coached during his career. The coach of East Bengal veterans is Shyam Thapa, and Biswajit Bhattacharya for Mohun Bagan. Some ex-internationals, Mauricio Afonso and Camillo Gonsalves of Dempo, are flying to Kolkata at their own cost to play in this benefit match, to be held at the East Bengal ground. Nayeem started his Calcutta playing career with East Bengal in 1966.
The great coach who India shunned for several years is appreciated abroad. Officials from Bangladesh and Brothers Union (Dhaka) are flying in for this match and will also provide financial help. The time span in which he was neglected in India, it was Bangladesh who used his expertise. He was national coach of Bangladesh in 2007-08. During his coaching stint with Brothers Union of Dhaka, he has helped them to win five domestic tournaments. Nayeem is the only Indian who has been national coach of a foreign country. He is revered in Bangladesh by players and officials alike. He revived the international career of striker Mohammed Alfaz Ahmed, who rates Nayeem as the best coach he has worked under. Alfaz, currently the coach-cum-player of Dhaka Mohammedan Sporting has said that, “Nayeem’s training methods are better than any foreign coach and he prolonged my career.” With his exceptional eye for talent, Nayeem spotted and moulded young Bangladesh internationals Zahid Hasan Ameli and defender Mohammed Nasirul Islam, who are now amongst the best players in their country.
Throughout his coaching career, Nayeem has been like a father figure for his players. During the 1996 Santosh Trophy in Goa, when Baichung Bhutia had a tooth-ache; Nayeem took him to a dentist. Ex-international goalkeeper Virender Singh (now Salgaocar’s goalkeeper’s coach) and ex-international midfielder S. Venkatesh have said that Nayeem always tried to provide the best facilities, nutrition and care for his players.
Nayeem’s attention to detail and analysis of a player’s ability are unique. To improve Nigerian striker Chima Okorie’s fitness, he made him do a lot of sand running. He extended Krishanu Dey’s career by making the diminutive play maker do weight training. He introduced sand running, circuit training, weight training and practise sessions twice a day in Calcutta football. It was Nayeem who first spotted Baichung’s amazing reflexes and felt he could be a striker rather than an attacking midfielder. Nayeem used Baichung as a striker in the 1995 Santosh trophy final against Punjab. Bengal won 2-1 with a dramatic back volley golden goal by Baichung. From that tournament onwards, Baichung’s career was transformed and he played as a striker.
Nayeem’s has transformed the careers of so many players by personal attention. For instance, he gave a new dimension to the game of Nigerian international Emeka Ezeugo, who played for both East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting in the 1980′s. As Mohammedan Sporting coach, Nayeem made Emeka realise that he lacked the necessary speed to succeed at the highest level as a striker and transformed him into a midfielder. The rest is history. Emeka, who had come to India as a student, became a professional in Europe with Lyngby of Denmark, and later, Honved of Hungary. He was chosen to play for Nigeria as a midfielder in the African Nations Cup, which they won in 1994 and later in the 1994 World Cup in USA. Emeka has always acknowledged Nayeem’s help in transforming his career
The players admire Nayeem’s focus, seriousness of effort and attention to detail, but at times resist his interference in their personal life styles. This Hyderabad-born coach’s point of view is that he tries to ensure that his young players live a disciplined life style, to avoid the pitfalls of fame and quick money. Older players have a double-edged reaction to Nayeem’s coaching. They assail his rigorous coaching but also realise that the attention to fitness and diet will extend their playing careers. He always insists that his players should only drink mineral water, have lots of vitamins, and intake food which increases their strength and stamina. His stress on nutritive diet and the best of living conditions is often misunderstood by both club and AIFF officials. He has been branded as an expensive and demanding coach. Mohammedan Sporting hired him in July 2010 but dismissed him in September, claiming he was too expensive. Nayeem had got the club authorities to install a geyser and washing machine in the club premises so the players could benefit, but these gestures misfired for him.
Nayeem is very pained that his efforts to improve the fitness levels of his players and their eating and living habits are always misconstrued. Like his mentor, the late S.A.Rahim, he also believes in pithy axioms and says that, “just as cars need petrol to run, so a player needs rest and good food to perform well.” He practices what he preaches. Often, if club officials have demurred at the extra cost, he himself buys dry fruits, chicken and fruits for his players after a match or training session.
So what went wrong on March 1, 2006? India lost 0-3 to Yemen in their Asian Cup qualifier at the Ambedkar stadium, Delhi. It was the day that former President of the United States of India (USA) George Bush had landed in Delhi. There was tight security and the Delhi Metro had limited reach in those days. Hence, there were few Indian supporters at the stadium and they were outnumbered by the vociferous Yemen fans, mostly students at the several central Universities in Delhi.
An off-colour Indian team gave a lacklustre display. There were rumblings against the strict coaching regime of Syed Nayeemuddin and a day later – on 2nd March, 2006 – he was sacked. He was made a scapegoat for that defeat, and since then, his career has been in the wilderness. Out of frustration, he made some uncharitable comments about foreign coaches and Baichung Bhutia, but he retracted them soon afterwards. He has been branded as an over-strict, expensive and rigid coach and ostracised by football officials in India. But Sir Alex Ferguson, Fabio Capello and Daniel Passarella are also strict coaches who enforce discipline (Capello banned the English players from using mobile phones on match days) but they were not branded. Nayeem has been more sinned against than sinning because his detractors have refused to understand his point of view.
During his playing days, Syed Nayeemuddin was the most accomplished and artistic defender in the country. His ball skills, anticipation and clever passing were exemplary. A versatile player, he has functioned as wing- back, stopper back, midfielder and even forward for club and country. He led the first Indian team for the Asian Youth Football championships in 1963, and represented the senior national team regularly from 1964–1971. He was captain in 1970 when India finished third in both the Merdeka tournament and the Bangkok Asian Games. In 1967, he was chosen to play in the Asian All Stars team. His career took off with Andhra Pradesh Police from 1961 onwards under the tutelage of the legendary late Rahim. In 1966, he shifted to East Bengal, Calcutta and later he played for both Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting. A trendy dresser and classy player, Nayeem became a pin-up boy of the 1960′s, and was nicknamed the “Dev Anand of football” by East Bengal’s supporters.
The proceeds of the exhibition match on March 2 will help solve some of Nayeem’s financial worries. Staging such a match has also revived the dignity and morale of the forgotten man of Indian football. Earlier, Sports and Beyond had successfully staged matches to support Peter Thangaraj, Sudhir Karmakar, Parimal Dey, Arun Ghosh, Santo Mitra and Gautam Sarkar. All efforts are being made to ensure that Nayeem’s benefit match is also a resounding success.