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Reminiscing Kolkata’s tryst with Pele

Pele with Bagan captain Shyam Thapa

Over the past week or so, the football frenzied population of India has been elated by the announcement that the legendary Pele is going to visit our country next month. While he will primarily be coming to grace the Subroto Cup Finals in Delhi on October 16, latest developments suggest he might visit Kolkata to meet the defending ISL champions too. If that plan does materialize, it will be the second time the “Black Pearl”, as he is popularly known as, would visit the City of Joy.

Around 38 years ago, the iconic Eden Gardens played host to the legend, albeit as a player. Reminiscing how awestruck the audience was then, we look back at our only tryst with the 3-time winner of the World Cup. Indian football was still a force to reckon with then and the fans from Kolkata were the most privileged, for it was there that the best football was being played in the country.

The clubs needless to say were the most reputed in the country and thus it came as no surprise that New York Cosmos, having assembled a host of big games decided to choose the city as one of the venues for a series of exhibition matches they had planned to play in Asia in September 1977. Dhiren Dey was the visionary who dreamt of making Pele play here. He started communication with the Cosmos Authorities, who demanded a whopping sum of 4 cores to play a match in India.

While that momentarily served as a deterrent, Dey was determined not to give up and contacted Pele personally and urged him to come to India. He assured the legend that he will overwhelmed by the response of the people and the experience that he will endure, will remain unmatched no matter where else he played thereafter. This plea made Pele and the Cosmos authorities reconsider and thus on 22nd September 1977, the Air India flight carrying the Cosmos team and Pele, landed at the DumDum Airport.

A massive mass of football fans greeted the galaxy of stars upon their arrival and there were conch shells blown all around. The warmth and love that was promised to Pele was on view and by his own admission left him speechless. After taking a day off, it was on 23rd that Pele for the first time stepped on a ground in India.

More than 80,000 people turned up for the match

More than 80,000 spectators were present at the Eden Gardens to witness the historic fixture between Mohun Bagan and the team from New York. Amidst chants of, ‘Pele, Pele, Pele’ the referee blew the opening whistle and soon a brilliant through ball from Pele split the Mohan Bagan defense and an overlapping Alberto tucked the ball into the net for the opener.

P K Banerjee, the coach of Bagan decided that it was time to man mark the legend as such he deployed Gautam Sarkar behind Pele. What followed next has been talked about in detail, as Sarkar managed to man-mark the legend & didn’t allow him any space. Soon after the hosts had equalized, in the 23rd minute Akbar struck a powerful 30-yard shot.

The ball ricocheted off a diving Yesin, the Cosmos goalkeeper and landed before Habib who helped Bagan regain the lead with a powerful strike. Contrary to all expectations, Banerjee’s boys were leading 2-1 at half-time.

Pele came out for the second half full of confidence

Post the break, though, normalcy resumed and NY Cosmos threatened to break down Bagan’s defense continuously. Pele took a brilliant free kick to chip the ball over Mohan Bagan’s wall, to Cannilia who passed it over, but failed to score from a close range.

It was in the 70th minute that Mohan Bagan conceded a penalty with Sudhir Karmakar bringing Alberto down in the area. Cannilia responded to the challenge and struck a well-placed penalty to level the scores.

From what reports suggest, Mohun Bagan organized an honorary dinner later that evening where Pele was presented with a glittering diamond ring. Mildly proficient in English then, he had uttered, “It was wonderful coming here; I assure you I will be back”.

The crowd had roared back, “asche bochor abar hobe.” (a popular Bengali chant, which roughly translates to “It’ll happen again next year”). A little more than a year has passed, but it’s happening and needless to say, the City of Joy will be extremely joyous, come this October!

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Edited by Staff Editor
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