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Pele to Bhajji: India should produce many champions

Star off-spinner invites the ‘King’ to India
Harbhajan Singh, at the iconic Maracana, during the France versus Ecuador World Cup match, on June 25. The champion off-spinner was there in his capacity as the brand ambassador of Hublot, the official time keepers in the World Cup

Calcutta: Harbhajan Singh has again been overlooked for Team India, but the country’s most successful off-spinner (and the first bowler to take a Test hat-trick) isn’t sitting in Jalandhar and brooding. Rather, he’s just ended a most memorable trip to Brazil.

Right now, Harbhajan is in London for a few days, on the way back to India, and spoke to The Telegraph from there on Monday afternoon.

Excerpts...

Q Meeting ‘King’ Pele... Watching the World Cup... All in Brazil... Could it have got better?

A (Laughs) No. The last week was more than special for me and I’m thankful to Hublot, my sponsors for the last four years, who made the six-day trip to Rio de Janeiro and Recife possible.

[Hublot are the official time keepers in the World Cup.]

How much time did you spend with Pele?

I met Pele twice, on Friday... On the second occasion, in the evening, we spoke at some length. His humility stood out... Pele had a big charity event that day and Hublot made a handsome contribution towards it.

I’m curious... How did you address Pele?

Always ‘Sir’.

Does Pele know a lot about cricket?

Pele’s aware of the game and that it’s very popular in India, but he didn’t take names. I didn’t want to talk much cricket with him either.

Besides Pele’s humility, what struck you the most?

Like all greats, I found Pele actually listening to what I was saying, instead of merely being polite. He made me feel comfortable.

The two of you must have talked about the World Cup. Who did Pele say would win?

Brazil, of course! Pele made a brief speech and ended by saying ‘I’d like my friend from India to enjoy Brazil’s hospitality and to see Brazil winning the World Cup’... He’s confident.

Did Pele mention the possibility of coming to India?

In fact, I’ve invited Pele to make a trip. Let’s see what can be worked out. The Indian Super League kicks off this year, so he could be its face... It’s just a thought. If they need my help, I’ll be glad to put in a word.

[Pele’s only visit to India — to Calcutta, actually — was in 1977, with the New York Cosmos.]

What did you make of Pele’s impressions of India?

Pele said he’s aware that Indians are big on sport. Also, that given our population, we should produce many champions across disciplines.

Did you seek Pele’s ‘advice’ on trying to quicken your India comeback?

Pele said that (at 33) I’m ‘young’ and I should ‘keep the ball rolling’. That’s the Pele mantra.

You watched the France vs Ecuador and Germany vs USA matches in person. What was the experience like?

Amazing. I’ve played in front of 70,000-80,000 fans, but for the first time I was myself like a fan in the midst of thousands... I’ve always respected fans, but seeing the ones in Brazil, I have to emphasise that fans make sport. Hats off to them. Those who can’t get tickets, head for the Fan Zones... Entire beaches have been converted into such zones. Kamaal ke fans hain... Kamaal ka atmosphere in Brazil.

Which team are you backing?

Argentina... They’ve got a good side. And, of course, they have Lionel Messi... However, I accept that beating Brazil, at home, won’t be easy... When the Neymars take the field, the country comes to a standstill. No cars on the roads, nobody in the malls... You have to see the Brazilians’ passion to truly appreciate it.

Favourite footballer?

Messi... I also like Neymar. Not too long ago, I used to be a fan of Ronaldinho.

You’re in London... Are you negotiating with a County for a short-term contract?

That’s the idea... Counties need spinners in the second half of the summer and, hopefully, I’ll strike a deal.

Finally... When do we see you back in the India colours?

Soon, hopefully... I did well in domestic cricket in the last season, did well in the IPL... I’ve done everything from my side. It’s up to the selectors now... I haven’t given up and I believe that God is great.