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Maidan medio by Messi’s side

- Argentina via East Bengal

Lionel Messi, Javier Mascherano and... Julian Camino. Barcelona, Barcelona and... East Bengal.

Yes, East Bengal Football Club has had a hand in Argentina’s march to the World Cup finals after 24 years in the form of Camino, assistant coach of the team and Alejandro Sabella’s deputy, who had donned the red-and-gold jersey on the Maidan in 1988.

That was a time when Argentina was the reigning world champion and Maradona the resident deity of football-crazy Calcutta.

And now, Camino’s presence at the Maracana on Sunday night will ensure that Calcutta has a direct sporting link with Argentina that goes beyond the blue-and-white coat that Mamata Banerjee has draped the city in.

Having played alongside the likes of Manoranjan Bhattacharya, Chima Okorie and Krishanu Dey, Camino now helps orchestrate the tunes to which Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain move.

Often seen on television, sitting in the dugout in a crisp suit, many would recognise him as the man who had sprung up to catch a tumbling Sabella during the quarter-final clash against Belgium.

Amader Camino? Shei Camino? (Our Camino? That Camino?)” said Swapan Ball, general manager of East Bengal, in surprise when Metro asked club members if they were aware that their former midfielder was now a senior strategist of Team Argentina.

Arre hyan theek toh. Or chool-er chhat ta ekhono ek aachhe (Oh yes, that’s right. His hairstyle is still the same),” remarked another official who is a loyal Argentina supporter.

WITH THE COACHES - Camino and coach Alejandro Sabella exult after Argentina pipped The Netherlands to a berth in the final (AFP) and (below) Camino receiving words of wisdom from East Bengal coach PK Banerjee in 1988

Club officials recalled first noticing Camino in 1984 when he had arrived as a part of the Argentine contingent to play in the Nehru Cup. A muscular 23-year-old then, he had operated primarily as a defensive midfielder.

“A couple of years later we were looking for a footballer who could operate both in defence as well as in the midfield. We felt Camino would be a good fit and contacted his agent Carlos Fraga,” said Ball.

The Argentine had arrived in September 1988 and was handed over the number 2 shirt of the club. “He spoke only Spanish and hence spoke little but was very composed on the field,” recalled star defender Manoranjan.

The groundsmen remember Camino as the “sahib” who would eat “beef steak and rice” together.

The hype surrounding the South American midfielder had ensured a turnout of 120,000 spectators for that year’s East Bengal vs Mohun Bagan derby which ended goalless. Despite a moment of brilliance from the 27-year-old.

“Camino had conjured up a terrific pass down the right to Chima Okorie in the fifth minute. I still remember that lovely through ball. Had Chima scored that sitter we would have won,” Ball sounded sad 26 years on.

Within days, however, it became apparent that Camino was not fully fit and had a chronic injury on his right knee. It did not miss the hawk eye of coach P.K. Banerjee.

“He had a number of small tattoos inked on his knee which he had said were done to ward off evil and eliminate the injury,” recalled ‘PK’.

During his year-long stay in the city — before signing for a club in Tel Aviv, Israel — Camino had established a friendship with teammate Kartick Sett, who knew a few Spanish words and phrases. His preferred mode of transport, according to club officials, was Sett’s scooter. The East Bengal striker would pick Camino up from the star hotel he was put up in and go for practice together.

“He used to pronounce my name with a heavy Spanish accent, ‘Kyaaartik’! It feels great to know that the man I had taken around Calcutta on my scooter for so many days is now deciding the on-field strategy for the best footballers in the world,” Sett said.

The only occasion when East Bengal players had seen Camino lose his cool was when Chima had missed a penalty against Salgaocar during the penalty shootout in a Federation Cup match in Delhi. “He was furious after the loss and had given Chima a piece of his mind,” recalled Ball.

No wonder Messi and Co. did not dare miss a single penalty shot against The Netherlands in the semis.

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