OBITUARY | BY ATANU MITRA Follow @Atanu00 on twitter
A golden chapter in India’s football history came to a close, as Sushil Bhattacharya, one of the best coaches ever to grace the nation’s football arena, passed away at a Kolkata nursing home on Saturday. He was 90-years-old.
Born in Bagdogra, a city in the northern part of West Bengal, Bhattacharya started his football career at Town Club of Behrampore and went on to represent them in the IFA Shield. He later shifted to Kolkata (then Calcutta) to join Vidyasagar College and was therein spotted by the Sporting Union officials. He soon became famous at the Maidan playing for Sporting and decided to jump ships when East Bengal came calling in 1945.
In his first season with the Red and Golds, he played a crucial role in by helping them clinch the Calcutta League and IFA Shield for the very first time in their history. His consistent performances on both flanks in a 3-2-5 formation earned him a call in the national team in 1946.
After spending four seasons at the club, he joined Eastern Railways in 1949 before being taken back on loan by East Bengal during the Durand Cup in 1951. Bhattacharya was part of the team that defeated Rajasthan Club 2-1 in the final to win their first ever Durand Cup after the title-decider ended in a 1-1 draw in the first leg. If myth is to be believed, East Bengal loaned him after making it to the semi-finals, while he had already represented Eastern Railways in the tournament. However, no definitive proofs of this event could be found.
A number of top Mohun Bagan officials, including the 1911 IFA Shield winning players like Gostha Paul and Abhilash Ghosh vied for his signature, but couldn’t persuade him to sign for the Mariners. Bhattacharya had even signed on the dotted lines for Bagan but wthdrew in the next couple of days.
After hanging up his boots, Bhattacharya started his coaching career as an assistant to Bagha Shome in Eastern Railways. The team had a few Indian internationals in its ranks and became the champions of Calcutta League in 1958. Till date the team comprising of the likes of P.K.Banerjee, Pradyut Burman, Prashanta Sinha and Nikhil Nandy remain the last team outside the three Kolkata giants to win the league title.
On the other hand, all was not well at his favourite club. East Bengal had not won the league since boots became mandatory in 1953. Arch-rivals Mohun Bagan won the treble in 1960 – emerging victorious in the Calcutta League, the IFA Shield and Durand Cup. Till then East Bengal was managed by officials who would take the tactical calls also. However, the six year barren period meant that East Bengal appointed their first ever professional coach in Sushil Bhattacharya.
It was a dream start for the former player of the club, as they won the local league after nine long years, apart from sharing the IFA Shield with Bagan.
Other highlights in his coaching career include leading Tollygunge Agragami to the top tier of Kolkata football after starting in the fifth division, apart from reaching the IFA Shield final in 1971. He had also coached age group teams of Bengal and the Narendrapur Ramkrishna Mission College team for a long period.
During his 50-year-long coaching career, he has guided a number of Indian internationals including the likes of P.K.Banerjee, Subhash Bhowmick, Krishanu Dey, Bhaskar Ganguli, Sukumar Samajpati and Tuldisas Balaram.
His primary contribution however, was for women's football. At a time when there was no competitive football for women, he took up the job of Bengal's women team to set it up.
“In 1975, an advertisement appeared in the local newspapers that notified that a women’s team will be formed to represent Bengal. 150 girls like us had no idea about how the things work in professional football. Sushil Bhattacharya selected 16 girls that day. Apart from me, Shanti Mullick, Minati Roy, Shukla Dutta and Judy D’Silva were among the few who made the cut. The trial was held at the Kalighat ground,” Kuntala Ghosh Dastidar, one of the most reputed Indian women footballers shared her memories with Goal on Saturday evening.
This was Bhattacharya’s first foray in women’s football, but it turned out to be a long journey. The Bengal squad selected on that day went on to win the first ever women’s national championship in Lucknow later that year. They defeated Vidarbha in the final while Karnataka came third in the competition.
This was the time women’s football in India had started to take shape. S.Raman, the first Indian to score a goal in the Olympics, was the visionary in the southern part of the country. The forward, who had scored against France in 1948 Olympics, scouted the likes of Chitra Gangadharan, Gayatri Ponappa and Brinda to start a strong footballing culture in Karnataka.
However, when the India national women’s team was assembled for the first time, Bhattacharya was the first choice to be the head coach. The man, who had earlier become the first gaffer of Kolkata giants East Bengal, achieved another ‘first’ in his career.
Like the men’s national team who won the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962, Bhattacharya’s troops also earned plaudits at the continental level. In the nation’s maiden appearance in Asian Women’s championship in 1980, the team finished second best to Chinese Taipei while performing better than countries like Hong Kong, Malaysia and Australia. They continued their success story in 1981, when they finished third while claiming the second spot again in 1983.
“He was more like a father to us. Most of his students have served the nation for a long time. The biggest quality of his was not to get involved in any controversy ever. Also coaches often get criticized for their actions, but this was rarely the case for Sushil Da, such was the respect for the man. It was great to see the whole Kolkata football fraternity getting united to pay him the last homage,” Kuntala further added.
His coaching also helped the women footballers getting recognition worldwide. National team goalkeeper Chitra and Judy were selected in the first Asian All-Star team that went for a European tour in 1977. To put things in perspective, Atanu Bhattacharya remains the only male footballer from the country to have achieved this feat. Shanti Mullick, the lethal striker of the team became the first women’s footballer to be handed the Arjuna Award in 1983.
“As a man who loved to keep himself away from fanfare, he never got his due recognition. We, be it the male or the female footballers, have been lucky to get him as a guide. As Sanjoy (Sen) was telling today, we have to carry forward his legacy to develop Indian football further,” Kuntala signed off.
East Bengal paid homage to their first gaffer by draping his body in the club flag. The club flag was flown at half-mast.