Those days with the soccer ball: Part One

The good thing was about the goal posts. They were flexible. Depending on the mood of the group. It could be asymmetrical on either side of the arena. It could be as wide as the width of the arena. It could also be only a foot wide. Putting the ball through the smaller goalposts was the true sign of advancement of skill. And seniority. Terrace soccer was our life. There was badminton, and the occasional cricket during winters. But the only all season habit we all had was soccer.

Balls changed. From tennis balls to round balls made by rolling newspaper to the real deal- leather bound soccer ball. Real soccer balls bought from the sports shops in College Street. Those were rare but they were there. Usually when the action shifted to the lanes outside. The gulleys. Yes- we rarely had gulley cricket. It was always gulley football. Days of bandh (there used to be quite a few), days of public holidays, and sometimes even at night with a large 200watt lamp and other streetlights serving as the floodlights. But all that were usually the domain of the elders. For us single digiters it was usually terrace football. With tennis balls or paper balls.

Central Kolkata is one single building block running for many square kilometers. I know you will not believe me. But check out on Google Map. Every adjoining building shares the adjoining wall with each other. At least one wall of any building is attached to its neighboring building. So it is not a locality of many houses with lanes and by-lanes. It is a locality of super-houses of enormous width ocassionally getting broken by lanes. Terrace soccer required a skill other than ability to play football. You also needed to know terrace hopping. Or what the kids of today call parkouring? OK- that’s bragging. We were not as good as the free-runners of today. But we could give any professional burglar a run for their money in our abilities at scaling walls and terrace hopping. OK- not me personally to begin with. But some of us. Those ball recovery experts. For every time a ball fell out of the terrace it did not fall onto a road. It fell on top of someone else s terrace and mostly there would be no one there to throw it back.  Thus ball recovery was an essential skill to continue our engagement in soccer. It was needed for other sports too. But then we weren’t playing much of other sports.

School soccer was more conventional. There was the school field. The recess. The school football and some of the tennis balls bought by some of the classmates for use during recess. It was standard stuff. Recess was fun though. Usually there would be 4-5 groups playing soccer in the same arena. (Some of the other groups playing cricket in corners, but we soccer players usually treated them with scant respect). With 4-5 balls bouncing around and various groups running after various balls the prospect of a comedy of errors was always palpable and in many occasions was a hilarious realty. Many occasions of the goalie making an acrobatic save of an unrelated ball while the relevant ball rolled slowly into his goal, or the attacking player confidently speeding ahead to find unexpected defensive thrust from completely unknown quarters. Or the raging dispute on every goal being scored as to whether the goal was scored by a relevant player at all.

The games after school were less chaotic and definitely more engaging. And every game would result in a few of us friends taking the long walk home and all the while discussing the game which we just played and how we should have won it or how we were too good for the other team. My cousin sister who came to pick me up from school once in my lifetime would tell you that all she saw me doing was running after the ball in all possible directions, but that’s ok. I don’t mind her. You know sisters. In my defense I did play in the house teams in junior and middle school. And once also for the school. This was before I changed school before I grew up and before my broken ankle made me bid an early good bye to soccer. For now in junior and middle school soccer was my life. And also the life of the city.

Interestingly cricket was an alien sports with curiosity more than genuine interest going for it. That was in my days of toddler-ship. Before 1983. 1983 was the year I turned nine and Indian Cricket turned the corner with the World Cup win. The years after that did see increase in popularity of the game. But it continued to be a winter sports. One with much less spontaneity for the likes of us. Our heroes resided in Kolkata and played their game in the Maidans.

the real lagaan. 1911


shyam thapa with the god of soccer

Going to the Mohun Bagan grounds was a monthly treat. Multiple promises of good behaviour, sound studying and healthy eating used to be taken before dad would wake me up early on a Sunday morning and take me to the wooden stands of Mohun Bagan club to watch my heroes practice. I vaguely remember Shyam Thapa shaking my hand. I vaguely remembered anything else happening for a few months post that. Shyam Thapa. The hero of my childhood. The expert striker of Mohun Bagan. The possessor of the legendary bicycle kick. Till today the hero-worship of the guy never ceases. After all these years I remember the rush of blood and excitement when I saw him on a talk show on the TV.

the bicycle kick

There were others. Prashun Banerjee  and Prashanto, his brother. There was the mercurial Subrato Bhattacharya, the rock of Mohun Bagan defence and Mona- Manoranjan, his nemesis in the East Bengal defence. The silken legs of Krishanu and the work horse Krishnendu. Brilliance of Bhaskar in the East Bengal as well as the Indian goal to be matched with the penalty saving magic of Shibaji Banerjee for the Mariners.  There were the players who came from out of Bengal. Though soccer was mostly a Bengali affair those days there were brilliant players from outside Bengal who came into the club. There was Ulganathan, Xavier Pius, Victor Amalraj, and one of my favourite players- Babu Mani. Partnerships and combinations used to be legendary those days. Bidesh-Manash of the invincible years of the club, with Sudip Chatterjee and Satyajit   in mid-field. East Bengal’s Manoranjan and Tarun Dey were the defensive wall with Krishanu-Bikash in attack (the latter a Mohun Bagan find).

Every time a team won a title the para signboard would have a garlanded collage of the team, made by the supporters. In the ensuing one week there would be palpable tension with the opponent club supporters threatening to tear off the same and the defenders threatening back with dire consequences. Such tension rarely came to blows. But there were the para elders to get down to business in case of any violence.

Playing with Pele: Mohunbagan 2- Pele2

Sudip and Bidesh. Anyone who saw the India- Argentina match of 1984 Nehru Cup will never forget these names. It was a complete Argentina 1986 World Cup winning team sans Maradona. Maradona was replaced by Gareca due to club commitments. India lost the match 1-0. But everyone including the Argentina coach, the legendary Carlos Bilardo was stunned by the performance of a team a few hundred ranks below them. Sudip matched Valdano step to step in creativity and brilliance in the mid-field. Bidesh’s speed in the left wing left their backline with pants down on multiple occasions. However India lacked quality in its strike force- Shabbir Ali/ Krishanu simply could not do justice to the build-ups. Argentina scored through Gareca and Bilardo and his men thanked their lucky stars. Post match Bilardo had predicted India to play the World Cup in a decade. Milovan, the Indian coach had mentioned that India had two World Class players in its ranks. They needed to build more. The two players were Bidesh Bose and Sudip Chatterjee.

Prashanto against the argentines

The battle of equals. Prashanto exchanging jersey with Valdano after match

the legend- bidesh bose

sudip chatterjee the temparamental genius

We all waited with breathtaking excitement for the predictions of Bilardo to come true. In the coming decade a sports phenomenon did hit Kolkata. However it was not in football. The phenomenon was named Sourav Ganguly. And the sports topography of the state changed forever. These days everyone wants to be Sourav. Everyone has managed to get a cricket kit. There is good money in cricket. Thanks to the BCCI and its events. It is an affordable sport for the middle class today. All through the year and all through the parks in the city everyone plays cricket. There is the net and there are the teeming hopefuls taking their chance at being Sourav. No one plays football much. There arent too many Bengalis in the Indian Soccer team. Last we heard they lost to Afghanisthan in SAFF games.

Some years back I came across a news article. Sudip Chatterjee was dead. He had died before he could be treated. He had died in pennury. Some 17 years after retiring he died, neglected and forgotten. One of the greatetst mid-fielders of Indian soccer could not last two decades post retirement. Subrata commented once that he would never let his son pursue soccer. His son is not a soccer player. He is a budding actor.

The rainy afternoons. The rain-drenched exhilaration on a terrace. One smallish rubber ball. Breathtaking excitement. The Mohunbagan-EastBengal derby had just got over. The serenading poetry of Ajoy Bose’s voice had finished describing the proceedings.The whole group till now sitting in front of one radio comprised of the under 15s of the para. The supporters were fighting tooth and nail on the terrace now to prove supremacy. And show their allegiance to their club. The youngest in the group suddenly managed to push the ball into the defined goal of the opponents mostly by accident. The seniors around him- including the oponents exclaimed with wide eyes- “tap korey goal korli! daarun!!” Everyone took turns to lift the young “talent” on their shoulders in their appreciation and affection which lasted beyond the match. So did the indulgent nickname they gave him that day- for a year or two- Tupul Thapa, in acknowledgement of his hero Shyam Thapa…we were the soccer boys…

(More in part 2)

link to excerpt from match between Pele’s Cosmos and Mohun Bagan- when Pele played in Kolkata.

the SHyam Thapa inteview


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