Pele Birthday Special: Pele’s Visit To Kolkata Still Remains The Highest Honour For Any Football Fan In India

Happy Birthday Pele...
In India, football has always been one of our most popular sports. However, in the football crazy city of Kolkata, it is a more of a religion and Brazilian legends are considered nothing less than God personified.

Recently Kolkata witnessed the visit of famous footballers like Diego Forlan, Branco and Diego Maradona. Legends like Roger Milla and Enzo Fransescoli have come and played competitive matches on Indian soil in the past as well.

One of the most famous of such encounters came when Mohun Bagan entertained the world famous New York Cosmos for an exhibition tie at the Eden Gardens in 1977. Brazilian legend and perhaps the most famous player on the planet, Pele, took part in the match.

On the occasion of Pele's 70th birthday, caught up with a seasoned fanatic who was present at the Eden Gardens stadium to catch a glimpse of Pele to understand what the mood was back then in Kolkata.

Anirban Mukherjee, a retired banker who also happens to be my next door neighbour, was lucky enough to witness this historic match.

Sharing some stories about the build-up for the match Anirban said, “The date 22nd September still remains to be one my most cherished days in my life. We had read in every newspaper that Pele was most likely to come and play a match in India. But we never thought that was possible. It was only on the 20th of September when the word spread that the soccer God had indeed taken the flight to Kolkata along with other team members of Cosmos, that it sunk in.”

“The match was a clash of the titans. Cosmos was like the Real Madrid of the world as the team had many famous players. Mohun Bagan too had a wonderful team and were Calcutta League and IFA Shield Champions making them the strongest team in India at that point of time.”

Pele and Brazil has always been the favourites for Kolkata fans. So when Pele was confirmed to play the game there must have been madness all around the City of Joy. Recollecting the troubles he faced to get the tickets for the game, Anirban said, “The ticket sales were poor until we were convinced that Pele was confirmed to play. So the day after his arrival to the city people from every nook and corner travelled to the Maidans in search for a ticket. I personally got up at 5 am and took the first tram. I still remember that it was so crowded that I almost felt like giving up. But after a wait for six hours, I managed to buy three tickets for the historic match.”

“It was not only about getting the ticket for the match. It was a very special thing. The match tickets were a prized possession as many thousands of people had to go back home empty handed. Television sets were not that common in Kolkata back then so only few people had that luxury. The rest depended on the radio.”

Bagan kept India’s head high as they held Cosmos to a 2-2 draw. Coached by P. K. Banerjee, the then IFA Shield champions were successful in restricting Pele for most of the match.

“It was a great match. As a Mohun Bagan fan, I think till date that match is the best ever performance by any Mohun Bagan team. We could have easily scored three-to-four goals in the first half. Players like Bidesh Bose, Prosun Banerjee and Goutam Sarkar were a class act. I must specially mention the performance by Subrata Bhattacharya, he was given the task to mark Pele and he did it successfully for the 30 odd minutes that Pele played.”

“Goalkeeper Shibaji Banerjee also had a great game. He was at full stretch to deny Pele and on another occasion he saved a spot kick. Bagan were also leading 2-1 for quite a long time.”

The match was attended by more than 100,000 people. Sharing some unimaginable stories about the match the lucky eye witness said, “The match was played on a Thursday and it got underway at 3 pm. You will not believe that our school remained closed so that the students could enjoy the match at home. We had reached the ground at 12 noon to catch as many glimpses of Pele as we could.”

“There is a very famous saying which states that when Pele played even the birds had flown in to the Eden Gardens stadium to watch the game.”

Recollecting the performance of the legend who celebrates his 70th birthday on Saturday, Anirban said, “It was raining heavily that day. The pitch condition was not good and so Pele played only  for about half hour. He took about three shots on goal. He had forced the goalkeeper to save on one occasion while the others were not on target.

“What struck me was the fact that Mohun Bagan players and the referees had rushed to Pele after the match to either get an autograph or pose for a photograph. I guess our local heroes could have avoided such an embarrassing scene after a great performance!”

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