I lay on the ground and was trying to get up. By the time I got back to my feet, there was a deafening roar from the stands… Goooooaaaal! Surajit Sengupta had scored. His smooth dribble left me off-balanced as he bent to the left and jumped over my stretched right leg in a flash. Effortlessly tricked, but I was not embarrassed.
If his footwork bore the signature of Surajit Sengupta the footballer, what he did soon after the goal defined him as a person. He jogged back and extended his right hand to pull me up.
I knew in his prime Sengupta used to whiz past defenders as if they were not there. Those were heady days of 70s and Sengupta ruled Indian football like a colossus. But even at 60, he seemed a man possessed whenever he had the ball at his feet.
When the news of Sengupta’s passing away reached me on Thursday, my mind raced back to that February afternoon in 2012. I was representing the Calcutta Sports Journalists’ Club (CSJC) team against the Former Footballers’ XI in a friendly at the Kamalgazi ground, on the southern fringes of the city. Sengupta and a glut of former players were playing against mostly out-of-shape mediapersons.
Sengupta ran me ragged right from the very first minute. As he dribbled past me, I would be either rolling down the ground trying to gather what struck me or left completely stranded. I was panting in exasperation and thinking when the ordeal would end.
That afternoon, Sengupta did not spare the goalkeeper also. The ’keeper was left sprawling on the ground as the former India international fooled him by aiming for the far post and, in the last moment, with the outside of his famous right foot hitting the ball at the near post.
“I saw you intently watching my right foot’, he said to him, adding “but you took your eyes off the ball. Never do that.”
We were down 0-3 by half-time. Thirty more minutes were left. We conceded another goal soon after the break, but I was relieved that Sengupta had taken a break. But he returned soon and my humiliation continued. I then threw everything at him. Playing as the left-back, I tried to pull him down and then tug at his jersey, but he was unstoppable. At 60, he seemed to have younger legs than my then 24-year-old self. Needless to say, the CSJC XI lost the game, 1-5 was the margin.
A perfect gentleman, he walked up to me after the match. We shook hands and he patted me. “You did very well. You tried your best and that is what counts.”
I asked him about his brilliant goal against a South Korean XI in the 1979 IFA Shield semi-final. After some prodding, he shared how he prepared for the match. “After a training session at the East Bengal ground, I had gone to my guru Achyut Banerjee. He made me practise shots from the byline on the match-eve, with two ’keepers under the bar. That special training probably made the difference,” he had said.
I had played table tennis too against him. He was no bunny there either.
He was an amiable gentleman off the field, but was fiercely competitive during a contest. He was aware of his reputation and didn’t yield an inch without a fight. It didn’t matter who was in the opposition, the best of professionals or an absolute amateur like me.