Mariappa Kempaiah - India's legendary midfielder


M Kempaiah

July 2013 is the fifth anniversary of the death of arguably India’s fittest midfielder Mariappa Kempaiah. Life is full of strange ironies. During his playing days Kempaiah was noted for his indefatigable stamina, fitness and nutritive diet. Yet in the last years of his life his movements were restricted due to a crippling attack of diabetes. The fittest player of the Indian team in the 1950s and early 60s was confined to the four walls of his house at Ulsoor in Bengaluru until his death in 2008.

His career started with Bangalore Muslims, and then he shifted to East Bengal in 1956. A year later, he joined Mohun Bagan and stayed with them till he retired in 1964-65. He was discovered by the astute national coach S.A Rahim, whilst playing for erstwhile Mysore in the 1954 Santosh Trophy at Calcutta.

Kempaiah was called to the national camp in 1955 and he represented India regularly for eight years from 1955 till the pre-Olympics in 1964. He played in two Olympic Games, Melbourne 1956 and Rome 1960. During his entire playing career he never earned more than Rs. 7,000 per annum.

After his club career got over, he returned to Bangalore and stayed in a small two roomed house. Due to severe attack of diabetes, he could not walk properly during his last years. One of India’s greatest ever midfielders, died unsung, forgotten and with limited finances.

There are numerous stories of the fitness of India’s first and most complete box-to-box midfielder. National coach S.A. Rahim always checked the fitness of each player before announcing his selection of the Indian team. However he never bothered to check with Kempaiah, as he was confident of his fitness.

Even before the names of legends like Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Jarnail Singh, T. Balaram, Yusuf Khan and Peter Thangaraj were written, Rahim would jot down Kempaiah’s name. He was always sure of the fitness, work rate and commitment of this short-statured midfielder who was born in Bangalore, started his career with Bangalore Muslims before switching to Kolkata where he excelled for Mohun Bagan from 1957 till 1964.

After Rahim’s death on 11 June 1963, the Englishman Harry Wright took over as coach of the Indian team. An ardent advocate of physical fitness, he made the Indian players take several laps around the ground before and after each practice session. In all these fitness sessions, Kempaiah would lead from start to finish. The other Indian players would cajole him to run slower and not expose the rest of them. Harry Wright was so impressed with Kempaiah’s fitness and said it was comparable to any English professional player.

His phenomenal fitness levels were due to his rigorous practice sessions. After each training session, Kempaiah would take about a dozen laps of the ground (that is almost 5,000 metres). Even in the twilight of his career, he was fitter than all the younger players. During his stint with Mohun Bagan, younger stars like India’s 1962 Asian Games captain Chuni Goswami and left-winger Arumainayagam would join him in these grueling laps around the ground. Chuni and Arumai would inevitably stop after 5 to 6 rounds, but Kempaiah always finished his circuit of 12 laps of the field. Such regular practice led to his amazing fitness. He was the epitome of dedication, a sentiment echoed by all his coaches and contemporaries.

Kempaiah was an excellent snatcher of the ball and excelled in closing down an opponent. The best Indian and Asian forwards of his generation would struggle to beat him. Even if a player dribbled past him, his repeat tackles were exemplary. A religious man, he always maintained that his great energy was due to good food and eating meals at the right time.

He was a man of regular habits and healthy lifestyle who believed in the dictum, “after lunch rest a while, after dinner walk a while.” During his long stint with Mohun Bagan in Kolkata, he stayed at Broadway Hotel. In those days all outstation players of Mohun Bagan, including the great defender Jarnail Singh stayed in this hotel.

Every day after an early dinner, Kempaiah used to walk about 4 miles alone along the Chowringhee, Dalhousie (present BBD Bag) and Bowbazar area. When left winger Arumainayagam, also from Bengalaru joined Bagan in 1961, Kempaiah got a partner in his night walks.

Starting from Broadway hotel, which is very near to Esplanade, they first visited the Maidan Market area to have a glass of banana fruit juice. After completing the round trip they had a glass of thick, creamy milk at a shop in the Bowbazar area, before returning to their hotel. During his playing days, he had a fetish for nutritive food and his favourite mantra was “eat more, play more.”

In Delhi, Kempaiah first came into prominence with the outstanding East Bengal team that won the 1956 Durand tournament. It was the 54th Durand tournament and was held from 13th December 1956 to 5th January 1957.

Seeded into the 2nd round on their way to the final, they beat Mughals Club, Delhi 2-1 (Moosa 2) on 23 December, drew with Caltex, Mumbai 0-0 on 27 December, won the replay 1-0 (J. Kittu) on the next day, twice drew 0-0 on December 30 and 1 January with MRC Wellington in the semi finals, but then won the second replay 2-0 on 2 January with goals by Kannaiyan and a self goal. In the final on 5 January they beat mighty Hyderabad City Police 2-0 with Balasubramanium and Moosa scoring.

M Kempaiah waiting in defence

M Kempaiah waiting in defence

In all their matches, the stadium was capacity full, as East Bengal had the most attractive forward-line in the country. In the 2-3-5 formation, their playing eleven was:

Goalkeeper: Makhan Lal Chatterjee

Defenders: T.A. Rehman and J. Fenn

Midfielders: Hasan, Bir Bahadur and Kempaiah

Forwards: Kannaiyan, Balasubramanium, Varahlu, J. Kittu and Moosa.

The year 1956 was memorable for Kempaiah. He played with distinction for India in the Olympics, excelled in East Bengal’s triumph in the 1956 Durand tournament and played for Mohammedan Sporting on loan in the Rovers Cup. He helped Mohammedan Sporting overcome Mohun Bagan 3-1 in the Rovers Cup final. With his timely tackles and interceptions, Kempaiah impressed against a star-studded Mohun Bagan (with Olympians S. Raman, Kesto Pal, Samar Banerjee and Chuni Goswami in attack).

Consequently Bagan roped him in for the next season and he stayed with them till he retired. During his tenure, Mohun Bagan played five consecutive IFA Shield finals, winning the title thrice in a row from 1960 to 1962 and he also won the Durand Cup five times.

He helped Bagan become the first Indian team to win the Durand title three years in a row from 1963 to 1965. Mohun Bagan beat Andhra Pradesh Police in the replayed 1963 final 2-0, beat East Bengal 2-0 the following year, and in 1965 beat Punjab Police by the same margin in the final. Kempaiah was in the thick of the action in all these memorable triumphs for his club.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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