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The story of Subrata Paul – From death, to love, to Arjuna Award

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Amlan Majumdar


Subrata Paul's life and career so far can easily make it to a Harper Lee novel. Something of the Bildungsroman genre, where the protagonist comes of age. The switchblade-wielding teen has now transformed into someone who believes “humanity is the greatest religion of all”.

I was too young to properly formulate any emotion when Ayrton Senna passed away in 1994. But by the time Raman Lamba perished in Bangladesh, I was old enough to realize that even sport is not sacred enough to protect people from death. As a sports fan, I have experienced varied emotions during the deaths of the likes of Marc-Vivien Foe, Marco Simoncelli, Phil Hughes, and Jules Bianchi, but the most prominent scar, perhaps, was left by the demise of a much less popular figure—Cristiano Junior.

I would witness the accident at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix on live television which led to the death of Jules Bianchi nine months later. I vividly remember Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi nearly running over Marco Simoncelli at the Malaysian Grand Prix in 2011. However, Cristiano Junior's death during the 2004 Federation Cup finals is the first fatal sporting incident I had watched on live television, and those grainy DD Sports images are still fresh in my mind. In the 78th minute, Cristiano Junior was through on goal with just Subrata in front of him. The goalkeeper came charging out of his line and clashed into Cristiano just after the striker had hit the ball towards the empty net. The ball went in, but the Brazilian forward fell down after the collision.

While we mourn the dead in such accidents, it is often the living who carry the burden of guilt for the rest of their lives.

While we mourn the dead in such accidents, it is often the living who carry the burden of guilt for the rest of their lives. 38-year-old Mehrab Hossain is yet to get over his pull shot which hit the skull of Lamba, Colin Edwards and Valentino Rossi are still haunted by the crash which killed Simoncelli, while Sean Abbott will think twice before bowling a bouncer for the rest of his career. Similarly, Subrata Paul, whose tackle led to the demise of the Dempo striker 12 years ago, still refuses to speak about that incident.

While most of these names have received support and consolation from their respective sporting fraternities, Subrata Paul was squarely blamed for the incident.

"This is a very unfortunate incident. Junior's death is a great loss... It was because of unsporting play by Paul that Junior is not with us," former Indian captain Bhaichung Bhutia told reporters back then.

Despite such allegations, Paul, who sports Swami Vivekananda's words "Everything can be left for the truth but truth cannot be left for anything." as a tattoo on his shoulder, did not flinch. In fact, Paul was used to such abhorrence since his childhood. Back then, he lived in one of the smallest houses in his locality and he was not too popular among his neighbors. He is also aware of how people's perception changes with success. Earlier this year, when he walked up to receive the prestigious Arjuna Award, people who were calling for his blood 12 years ago were seen glorifying his achievements.

“He was the once-brooding, switchblade-wielding teen from a poor Kolkata suburb. Neighbours at the Natagarh Bidhan Pally at Sodepur in those days couldn't wait to see the back of him. But over the years the footballer has become from an outcast to outstanding. Now they are proud of their own ‘Mistu’ (Subrata’s nickname)!” Nilesh Bhattacharya, who comes from the same locality and is one of India’s senior football journalists said while speaking about the change of attitude of local people towards him after the 2009 Nehru Cup triumph.

Yet, his career was almost over even before it had started. In a bid to escape from his troubled childhood, Subrata Paul turned to football and traveled to Jamshedpur to attend a trial organized by the Tata Football Academy. However, he was late and the trials were already over by the time he reached. Subrata, though, was adamant, and he spent two nights in front of the academy's main gate unwilling to leave till he was provided with a chance to prove himself. In truth, he did not have a place to return to. The TFA was his only chance at redemption and, eventually, he was given one by his first coach at the TFA, Ranjan Chowdhury.

Determined to make a career in football, Subrata trained harder than any of his contemporaries, and two years later, he was playing for one of the biggest clubs in India—Mohun Bagan. But his first professional season was cut short by the Cristiano Junior incident, as the AIFF banned him for two months. The fact that there were no doctors present at the Sree Kanteerava Stadium because the organizers 'could not afford Rs 1,000 per doctor', that both Mohun Bagan and Dempo were without their doctors despite the AIFF guidelines, the fact that the ambulance present at the stadium was not equipped to deal with such emergencies and the fact that the referee waited for seven minutes before allowing the physiotherapists to attend him because he thought that Dempo were just celebrating their second goal became secondary. Subrata was vilified in the media, and his Mohun Bagan career was all but over.

However, there were few people who retained their faith in him and helped in restoring his career, and former India goalkeeper Debashish Mukherjee was perhaps the most significant of them. He guided him both on and off the field, and their relation was only strengthened by the fact that Subrata fell in love with Debashish's daughter Debasmita. A coach, a friend, a mentor, and a father-in-law—Debashish has played varied roles at various stages of Subrata's lives.

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Subrata Paul moved to Mohun Bagan's local rivals East Bengal, and he played crucial roles in their Federation Cup winning campaign in 2007. Simultaneously, he also flourished under Bob Houghton for the Indian national team and produced his most memorable individual performance in the 2009 Nehru Cup win for India. Subrata saved three Syrian penalties and helped India win the match in shootout, after it finished 1-1 in extra-time, and retain their title. It was the most successful phase in Subrata's career - he had also been crucial in India's 2007 Nehru Cup win and 2008 AFC Challenge Cup victory.

Accolades came in from every corner as the custodian buried the ghosts of his past. He went on to become the first goalkeeper to captain the Indian side in 25 years, while the Korean media gave him the 'Spiderman' nickname after he saved 16 of the 20 shots on target South Korea had during the 2011 Asian Cup Group C match.

However, time does not stand still. A new hero between the sticks has emerged for India in recent times. Gurpreet Singh has displaced Subrata Paul as the first-choice goalkeeper for the national team now while grabbing the headlines by plying his trade in the Europa League. Subrata Paul's stint at the Danish club FC Vestsjælland, which was the first European stint for an Indian goalkeeper, is a thing of the past now. He was in fact close to signing for the now Bundesliga club RB Leipzig, where he impressed the coaches with his shot-stopping abilities during a trial but was turned down due to his short stature.

He impressed with Mumbai City in the first season of the ISL, but his form had deteriorated in the second. Now at the age of 29, Subrata Paul is desperate for a new start. He is determined to have a long career and believes that if Mark Schwarzer can, so can he. His inspiration Gigi Buffon is still going strong at Juventus.

His life and career so far can easily make it to a Harper Lee novel. Something of the Bildungsroman genre, where the protagonist comes of age.

At NorthEast United, a club which is hungry for success after two fairly disappointing seasons, he has a chance to resurrect his career, and the new challenge is bringing the best out of him at the moment. With 24 saves and 3 clean sheets, he is currently leading the chart while NorthEast are leading the points table. He might have to do a lot more to snatch back his place from the young and talented Gurpreet in the national team, but he is well on his way of doing so.

His life and career so far can easily make it to a Harper Lee novel. Something of the Bildungsroman genre, where the protagonist comes of age. The switchblade-wielding teen has now transformed into someone who believes “humanity is the greatest religion of all”. The kid from Sodepur who struggled to buy goalkeeping gloves now goes around and gives away gloves to budding keepers who are struggling financially. He has done that innumerable times, but he has refrained from flaunting his charity.

“I try to become a better person everyday and that is something which I have tried to do since I was very young.” Subrata said in an interview last month, and that is something even Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Spiderman can be proud about.