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regular-article-logo Monday, 27 May 2024

‘We are still relevant because of him’

Pele was aware of his responsibilities and was very courteous, says former Mohun Bagan captain

PRADIP CHOUDHURY Published 31.12.22, 05:45 AM
Pele (No. 10) in action during an exhibition match between New York Cosmos and Mohun Bagan at Eden Gardens on September 24, 1977. Also in the frame are Mohun Bagan’s Gautam Sarkar (left) and Pradip Choudhury.

Pele (No. 10) in action during an exhibition match between New York Cosmos and Mohun Bagan at Eden Gardens on September 24, 1977. Also in the frame are Mohun Bagan’s Gautam Sarkar (left) and Pradip Choudhury. File picture

Forty-five years have gone by yet every time the name Pele crops up in any adda, invariably those 11 who played against him on that September 24, 1977, afternoon at Eden Gardens unwittingly come into the discussion.

Such is the everlasting appeal of that exhibition match between New York Cosmos and Mohun Bagan.

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The match ended 2-2. It remains the highlight of my career, playing against the greatest footballer of all time. And now as I write a first-person account of that match I have that feeling that because of Pele we are still relevant, spoken about. Even after 45 years when Pele and his breathtaking football skills will be discussed in an adda somewhere in the city, Mohun Bagan and also those associated with that match will find a place.

When Dhiren Dey — the most influential Mohun Bagan official at that point in time — told us that we will play an exhibition match against Pele’s Cosmos we first thought he was joking. But soon the tent was getting a face-lift, the club was being decked up, and we realised that this was for real. Initially Pradip da (legendary coach and former India captain PK Banerjee) and most of the players were sceptical. The impression was that a team of that stature would score goals at will and we would be a big embarrassment. We had just lost a Calcutta Football League Derby against East Bengal and the IFA Shield match against them was coming up. So a humiliating loss against Cosmos would have dealt a killer blow to our already sagging morale. But Dhirenda would not listen to any of that and ensured we were prepared.

The hype and excitement built around that match was mindblowing. People from different parts of the country were asking for tickets. People from abroad also were planning to come to the city to watch the legendary Brazilian play. We understood that this was the match.

Coach Pradipda decided we would be defensive from the start and would venture into the Cosmos half only if we were given some space. In the build-up to that match it rained continuously for two to three days. That made the Eden Gardens pitch unplayable. There was a doubt that Pele might not play as his insurance agent feared he would be injured on such a treacherous field. Pele did not listen to his agent and took the field. The instruction from the Bagan think-tank was we would try to mark him in our half and Gautam Sarkar would be after Pele when the ball is in the Cosmos half.

After a while, I realised it was impossible to mark this man even on such an unplayable pitch. We conceded the first goal when he dragged me out of my position and played the ball in a vacant area. At first I thought why did he do that but in a flash Carlos Alberto Torres came out of nowhere and scored. That was my firsthand experience of the genius of Pele. He knew Carlos Alberto Torres would be there to make the most of his pass. We scored two through Mohammed Habib and Shyam Thapa but later, thanks to the referee, Cosmos made it 2-2 through a contentious penalty. Pele did not score but nobody complained. They saw the greatest footballer in action. I am sure it’s still a matter of pride for them.

At the post-match dinner, everyone wanted to get a piece of Pele. There I understood what separates a great footballer from a good one.

He was aware of his responsibilities and was very courteous. Those days he was not still in the grasp of the English language and most of the time was speaking in Portuguese. But he knew he was not just an ambassador for Cosmos, he was also representing his country Brazil, he was here for football, the beautiful game.

On Thursday, world football lost its most famous son but he and that 1977 match will remain forever.

Author is a former Mohun Bagan captain and India player

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