Feature

When Pele brought Kolkata to a standstill

In India with the New York Cosmos side, the Brazilian legend mesmerised football fans during a friendly against Mohun Bagan at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata.

By Naveen Peter ·

One - if not the - greatest players ever to step on a football pitch, Edson Arantes do Nascimento aka Pele turned a year old on Friday.

The Brazilian celebrated his 80th birthday with a few family members at his home outside Sao Paulo. He was inundated with tributes and wishes from his fans across the world.

Taking to social media to share his wish, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, said: “I hope you will have plenty of opportunities today to celebrate and be celebrated.

“Unfortunately, you never made it to the Olympic Games, but nevertheless, you are an Olympic athlete because you have been living the Olympic values in all your career.”

These very values were evident in the first of his two visits to India in 1977.

Playing for the famous New York Cosmos, Pele flew down to Kolkata - the homeland of the beautiful game in India - to take on Indian giants Mohun Bagan in a friendly tie at the Eden Gardens.

The Brazilian, who led the Selecao to three World Cup titles, was in his final year as a professional footballer when the Indian tour came about. So the football-crazy people of Kolkata lapped up the opportunity and did everything to get a glimpse of the man who they have mostly seen on television or in the pages of sports magazines.

“Lakhs of people gathered outside the Dum Dum Airport to greet the Brazilian legend. There were also teeming crowds outside his hotel in central Kolkata, waiting to catch a glimpse of the only man who had won three World Cups for his team,” football historian Novy Kapadia recounted the incident in his book, Barefoot to Boots.

Football legend Pele was in India with the New York Cosmos side for a friendly against Mohun Bagan. Photo: Mohun Bagan/ Twitter

And it was no surprise that about 80,000-odd spectators filled the Eden Gardens to see Pele and his New York Cosmos side that had Brazilian World Cup-winner Carlos Alberto and Italian Giorgio Chinaglia in it.

Despite overnight rains rendering the pitch almost unplayable, Pele ensured that he gave the Indian fans what they were waiting for. The Brazilian entertained the crowd with his sleek footwork against a gritty Mohun Bagan team, coached by the legendary late PK Banerjee.

Having roped in quality talent in Subhas Bhowmick, Shyam Thapa and Surajit Sengupta from city rivals East Bengal a season prior, Mohun Bagan too was up to the task and surprisingly took the lead in the 18th and the 33rd minutes. But the visitors equalised on both the occasion as the match ended in a 2-2 draw.

Mohun Bagan’s Mohammed Habib was the standout player of the match, and Pele ensured that he personally congratulated the striker for his fine performance.

Years later, in 2015, the Brazilian great was once again back in India, but this time as a chief guest at the Subroto Cup, a national-level inter-school competition.

His most recent visit was in 2018 during the Leadership Summit of India’s national newspaper, the Hindustan Times. Pele was interviewed by India’s best-known football face, Bhaichung Bhutia.