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
Picture by AIFF / Twitter

Edson Arantes do Nascimento aka Pele is one of the greatest players to step on a football pitch.

Having led Brazil to as many as three FIFA World Cups (1958, 1962 and 1970), Pele’s legend is beyond reproach.

“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,” Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, once said about the Brazilian.

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 on September 25.

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.

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, who played for just 30 minutes, 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 occasions 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.

It was Pele's penultimate match of his career. He stayed only a day in Kolkata and played his final match a week later.

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.

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