BY KAUSTAV BERA
A 35 year old Brazillian walks into the stadium, the everyone present goes up in raptures. Even the opposition fans reluctantly stop their usual abuse and show begrudging respect to him. Even though he is not in the Starting XI, the fans still chant his name, eagerly awaiting his introduction into the match with the whole stadium going down in thunderous applause the moment he is brought on.
No this is not in native Brazil and 'this' 35 year old is not the World Cup winner Ronaldo Luis de Lima. Rather the place is the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata, India and the scene is the world-famous Kolkata derby involving bitter rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. Although India pales in comparison to the mighty Brazil when it comes to footballing prowess, the passionate Kolkata football fans would give the Brazillians too a run for their money.
The man in question is Jose Ramirez Barreto and rather interestingly both Ronaldo and Barreto were born in September,1976. Both of them started off in Brazilian native clubs, Cruzeiro and Gremio respectively. Yet while one went on to carve out his name in European football and world football, the other went on to ply his trade in little known India. While one achieved greatness winning the World Cup with Brazil, the other remained uncapped.
To Mohun Bagan supporters HE is no less than the rampaging Ronaldo, and to the Indian football faithful, he is arguably the best foreign import in India of all time. And India did have the Baskars, the Chimas and more recently the Odafas and Rantis. But Barreto brings something more to the game - a touch of exquisite class you don't get to see everyday.
Worshipped as a GOD in Kolkata by the Green and Maroon faithful, and affectionately nicknamed as the "Green Parakeet' the Brazillian hitman has amassed a massive 238 goals in his career in India. Even in this season where injuries and an advancing age have stunted his contribution, he has worn the captain's armband with elan putting in brave displays whenever required and has also chipped in with 5 goals and 2 assists in 14 appearances for the Mariners.
What also increases his appeal among the Kolkata crowd is his loyalty to the club that brought him to India. It was 1999 that the young and wide eyed Brazillian had come to Kolkata and had slotted into Subrata Bhattacharya's side in a deployed forward's role behind Uzbek hitman Igor Skyrvin. That Mohun Bagan team went on to win National Football League titles in 1999-2000 and 2001-02 with Barreto top scoring in the 2000-01 season where they narrowly lost out. Since then the Brazilian maestro has continued at the highest level for so long, possibly winning everything that had to be won in India.
Even though disillusioned with the management, he left the club in 2004 to Malaysia, yet the lure of Indian football brought him back only for him to join Mahindra United in the 2005-06 season and boy did he make an impact, leading them to the Federation Cup and National Football League double, the first and only NFL title in Mahindra's history.
He returned next season to HIS club, Mohun Bagan, owing to the Mariners' faithful driving up in processions to the club administration to get Barreto back and the club obliged with a record transfer signing. And from 2006 onwards, it is in Mohun Bagan that he has stayed. Although he has not won the I-League with the Kolkata giants after that, he has won the Federation Cup and Kolkata League a few times over.
More than that, however the "GOD" status that he enjoys among Mariners' is what has possibly made him stick to one club. In an age when the Bhutias and the Nabis frequently switched clubs between the two reigning giants of Kolkata, the Brazillian magician has stayed put. He has been a constant thorn in the sides of the other side of the divide though, scoring an incredible 16 times in derby encounters in Bagan colours. Only Bhaichung Bhutia has more goals but he has played for both clubs so that doesn't count.
What endears him even more to the fans is his 'less talk more action' attitude as he allows his performance on the field to speak for themselves. A soft spoken man, he always steers clear of controversies and is a leader on the pitch.
A brilliant striker in his early part of the career where his pace on the ball coupled with unmatched shooting ability and acceleration made him every defender's nightmare, Barreto has matured like fine wine. With age he may have lost the pace but every bit of his intelligence and trickery is intact as he can still make the defenders dance to his tunes.
He has converted himself to more of a attacking midfielder these days as he sits just behind the front two forwards. Yet just like the Mariners' faithful always rely on him, it is the ageing Barreto magic that has still rescued matches for Bagan. In the second match of the season against lowly Chirag Kerala when the match was going for a tie, it was a gem of a freekick from the Bagan captain that gave them all three points. Battling injuries he has not had a consistent run in the team but more often than not he has made the chances count, as was evident again when Barreto played master architect in the recent 6-1 thrashing handed out to Shillong Lajong.
His untiring displays on the field where he often goes on to help out the defense when the opposition is on the prowl; such commitment rouses the whole team to pull on their socks and shift to another gear. In the all important derby in the I-League which Bagan eventually won 1-0 back in November last year, the energy levels of the 35 year old were beyond amazing as he marshalled the defence in a match where the winners were most often on the backfoot against relentless East Bengal forays.
As he has just announced that he would be leaving Mohun Bagan at the end of the season, Mariners' and football lovers in general should salute the man who has given his all for the club for whose supporters he was no less than 'Ronaldo'. And the man himself has no regrets as he said candidly:
"I have no regrets. I have always given 100 percent for the club. If mistakes happened they happened... You cannot change them now. Past is past,"
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