When legendary Pele took the field against Mohun Bagan in 1977
Much earlier than Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" event sparked local football fervor, Bengal's relationship with the "beautiful game" was inaugurated by Brazilian master Pele.
In the waning stages of his career, the three-time World Cup champion faced Mohun Bagan at a slushy and full Eden Gardens on September 24, 1977, and was awestruck by the level of quality an "unknown" Indian team had.
In desperate need of a comeback following East Bengal's dominance, the PK Banerjee-coached Mariners not only prevented the "King of Football" from scoring, but also came close to winning 2-1 before a contentious penalty rendered the game against the illustrious New York Cosmos 2-2.
Gautam Sarkar, a midfielder, had been given the significant responsibility of man-marking Pele by PK. Sarkar gave it all, and the legend subsequently acknowledged as much. The following evening, Pele was to receive a diamond ring at a ceremony organised by Mohun Bagan, but the "Black Pearl" was more eager to get to know the players first.
Shibaji Banerjee, a goalkeeper, was at the top of the list. Pele emerged from the wall and hugged the sixth player as his name was called, who was then encircled by a sea of spectators.
"Sporting a wry smile he told me, 'So, you are that number 14 who did not allow me to move...' I was left awe-struck," Sarkar remembered that evening vividly, even after 45 years. "Chunida (Chuni Goswami) was there standing beside me on the dias and heard all this.
He soon told me: 'Gautam you now give up football -- what's there to achieve after hearing this compliment'. Indeed, this was the biggest achievement of my football career." "I don't want to boast about myself, but according to a newspaper report my photo is still hanging in the New York Cosmos club. He was so overwhelmed by our play that he wanted to meet the players first. Never thought a club team from a country like India would play like this."
The exhibition game was made possible thanks to the efforts of Dhiren Dey, the general secretary of Mohun Bagan at the time and a renowned football official in Kolkata Maidan.
"It seemed unreal when Dhirenda told us that Pele would play against us. We all told him to 'stop lying, it's unbelievable'. But as days passed and we got to know about it, we all had sleepless nights," Sarkar told PTI. Three weeks prior to the event, Mohun Bagan had to make a point.
"The prospect of playing against Pele was one of the reasons why I moved from East Bengal to Mohun Bagan. As it happened, it all changed our club's fortune," Shyam Thapa who famously gave Mohun Bagan the lead said.
When Mohun Bagan and East Bengal faced off in the coveted IFA Shield final four days later, the Mariners ended their archrivals' winning streak by prevailing 1-0. "It was a platform for us to revive our fortunes. The result gave us much-needed confidence to face East Bengal. We found our mojo back," Subrata Bhattacharya, a well-known Mohun Bagan defender, was recalled.
As they went on to win the Durand Cup and Rovers Cup, they kept up their comeback. "We wanted to give everything in the field. The match helped us grow as a team," Prasun Banerjee, a midfielder for Mohun Bagan at the time who is now a TMC legislator, stated.
Pele's finest opportunity to score came from a free kick that was taken from the top of the area. Shibaji Banerjee dived to stop the ball as it lifted and looped in toward the left upright. Pele returned to the city seven years ago for the Durga Puja festival; this time, he was accompanied by a walking staff, but his aura mesmerised everyone, even self-described Brazil supporter and local cricket legend Sourav Ganguly.
"I've played three World Cups. There's a big difference between being a winner and a runner-up. To hold that World Cup and a few Golden Boots must be phenomenal," During the awards event at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, Ganguly remarked that he was in awe of the great guy. Pele also got together with the deceased Shibaji Banerjee, Subhash Bhowmick, and renowned PK from the 1977 Mohun Bagan class.
Pele stated, "I chose to come to India because I adore the people here. When someone in the audience questioned the King of Football if there would ever be another Pele, he responded with a sly remark.
"Listen, I'm sorry. My father and my mother closed the machine. There will be no other Pele." His last words before signing off were: "If I can help in some way, I'll be here again."