Surajit Sengupta, whose artistry and sharp game-reading ability as a winger became the stuff of Maidan football legend, especially during his stint with East Bengal in the seventies, died on Thursday from complications arising out of Covid-19.
He was 70 and is survived by wife Shyamali, son Snigdhadeb and daughter-in-law Keka.
Sengupta had contracted Covid-19 last month and had been admitted to a hospital on January 23, just the day after the passing of another Maidan stalwart and fellow winger, Subhas Bhowmick. Sengupta was on ventilator since Monday.
Sengupta was a classical winger, quick on his feet and blessed with dribbling skills that helped him outfox defences. He had a sharp game sense and could send pinpointed crosses and his trademark curling lobs for the strikers to hit home.
Sengupta formed a lethal combination with Shabbir Ali at East Bengal.
“Today I lost a dear friend. He was a fantastic winger and his crosses were always meant for me. We played together for the India junior team in 1972 and the senior national team from 1974-77. Though Surajit was usually the provider, in one local league match in 1979 he scored off a pass from me,” Shabbir told The Telegraph from Hyderabad.
“He was a brilliant singer and a die-hard fan of Lata Mangeshkar,” he added.
Sengupta started his first division career with Kidderpore Club in 1970 under the tutelage of Achyut Banerjee and joined Mohun Bagan in 1972. In 1974 he switched over to East Bengal.
During his six-year stay at the red and gold brigade, Sengupta scored 98 goals, won 12 trophies and was the captain in 1978. His mesmerising goal from close to the corner post against a team that played as South Korea XI in the 1979 IFA Shield semi-final is still part of Maidan folklore. Sengupta struck a shot from almost “zero degree” that swerved past the South Korean goalkeeper Kim Duk Gil, somewhat like Marco van Basten’s now-legendary goal in the 1988 Euro final.
Many would hail it as “the goal of the century” by an Indian footballer.
Unlike Bhowmick, Mohammed Habib or Sudhir Karmakar, Sengupta, though, did not enjoy much success as an India player. He did take part in the disastrous 1974 and 1978 Asian Games campaigns but scored a solitary goal. That was against Kuwait in 1978.
Shabbir, however, disagrees with the assessment.
“I will not buy the idea that Surajit did not thrive in India colours. In fact against Bahrain in 1979 in one of the friendlies, Surajit was unstoppable. I scored a goal from one of his trademark centres in the 2-0 victory,” he said.
Sengupta, who made his international debut against Thailand in the 1974 Merdeka Cup, represented India in 14 matches. One of the reasons for Sengupta’s lack of international exposure could be the then Bengal government’s reluctance to release players for India matches in the early 70s. Then chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray gave priority to the Calcutta Football League and clubs were reluctant to release players for tournaments such as the Merdeka Cup.
“That was a killer blow to players like Bhowmick and Sengupta. There was no Calcutta footballer in the 1973 and 1976 India squads for the Merdeka meet,” an old-timer recalled. “Also India did not participate in the Merdeka from 1977 to 1980. Otherwise Surajitda could have played at least 14 more internationals.”
Sengupta’s one-year stint with Mohammedan Sporting was controversial. In 1979, following a schism in the East Bengal club, players like Sengupta, Bhaskar Ganguly, Chinmoy Chatterjee joined Mohammedan Sporting, who had come into substantial funds that year. But Sengupta’s stint lasted only a year and he returned to Mohun Bagan where he played till 1983. He retired the next year after a season with George Telegraph.
Sengupta’s association with Mohun Bagan earned him 54 goals and 10 trophies. Sengupta later joined a Bengali newspaper where his incisive reports were hugely popular.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, in her condolence tweet, described Sengupta as a “Heartthrob of football fans and an outstanding national sportsman as well as a perfect gentleman”.