A father's recollection adds weight to the greatest player argument.
In my last year of high school, my father announced he would be moving us as he sought yet another change of employer. By that age I no longer raged or rebelled against the decision. Rather, a childhood filled with relocations leaves one with a more resigned expression. From the monotony of packing to the wear of travel it is a fairly impassive experience, at least until it comes to the saying of goodbyes.
Indeed in an effort to lessen the blow of the many inevitable separations from friends and loved ones, I undertook to prepare myself against it in any way I could. I rationalized that I could still visit them from time to time. I reasoned that I would be seeing less of them anyways when I started going to university. I made a list of things to say to ease the imminent yearning.
Still, when faced with the actual ordeal I found that all of my rehearsals had only left me too exhausted to summon the actual words. And of course, no matter how many times I could have practiced it would never have been enough. It could never amount to the number of goodbyes I wound up having to say. Worse, with each farewell I was left with something nearing the guilt of abandonment, if not pure betrayal against those I had been so close to.
Thus, with only the consolation of blank motion to look forward to, I loaded the car, eager to be lost along the ride. The first half hour or so passed in almost complete silence. It was almost as though my mother, my father, and I were in different worlds or perhaps we were too disorientated from leaving home to be able to connect with one another. Then in one moment, my father broke the air by asking me a question.
“Who’s the best player in the world right now?” Of course it would have to be football to take my, and our, minds off of things. “Lionel Messi,” I replied almost automatically before I went on to list the endlessness of his accomplishments.
Ignoring my words my father firmly countered, “Pelé.” He continued, “I saw him play, you know. It was 1977 and I was a boy, only a little younger than you, when Pelé came to play against Mohun Bagan AC.
He was part of the legendary Cosmos team at the time, and Mohun Bagan had to fight hard to get him to come. But when Pelé heard that we wanted to see him play in India, he urged the team officials to let them travel.
Calcutta repaid the favor in full, and Pele was treated as a guest of honor from the moment he set foot off the airport. In 1977 television was only just being introduced in India, and most of us had only heard stories of Pelé’s brilliance at the World Cup. He was still thought of as the same player who dominated oppositions effortlessly, and the local players were eager to test their ability against him and other legends: Chinaglia, Beckenbauer, and Carlos Alberto.
On one wet, pouring night the match was played. The Cosmos stars were not used to the monsoon weather, and the water logged pitch greatly hampered their play. The Mohun Bagan players were able to hold their own in the opening minutes, but I remember them still conceding a goal early. I was watching at a cousin’s house and I could hear the crowd erupt into chants of “Pelé, Pelé, Pelé!” But I remember the Mohun Bagan players being unshaken. Indeed as far as I could tell they played the game of their lives after conceding the early lead. There was such quick interchange and understanding between them that even the Cosmos players looked worried, and Mohun Bagan were ahead 2-1 at one point.
The moment I best remember is when Pelé took a free kick from distance. It was ferociously hit, but the post prevented him from scoring. Even with the graininess of the old TV sets and the crackling sound quality, I could feel how hard the post thudded from his shot.
Near the very end, Cosmos was awarded a penalty which many Mohun Bagan players and fans protested against. But after the match the entire crowd cheered both for the class of Pelé and the Mohun Bagan players. Analysts weighed in that from the 19 touches that Pelé received he made or started 17 good moves. Still the Cosmos could only draw 2-2.”
My father’s account was crude compared to the extensive records of the meeting which litter the Internet, but in that moment - sitting in that in car - it was a revelation to me. I was astounded that an Indian club had come up against Pelé, that too on home soil. The fact that Mohun Bagan managed a draw even though they rarely had the chance to face quality opposition, made it all more extraordinary.
I was certainly shaken out of my moping. While it was in my right to regret the friends and familiar surroundings which had left me, I never paused to think of what I had taken away from my time with them and what I could do with it. Compared to the significance of the meeting between the World Cup superstars of the Cosmos and the local heroes of Calcutta, my gloom and moodiness only seemed silly.
As my father had phrased, the Mohun Bagan players played “the game of their lives” even when they came against their own idol. While the match could have become a mere novelty in their career, they ensured that it would come to define them. In fact after the visit of Pelé, India became much more invested in growing football, and competitions such as the Nehru Cup and Federation Cup were established.
The Federation Cup became the first nation-wide tournament among Indian clubs, and the Nehru Cup is an international tournament which has been graced by legendary players like Enzo Francescoli, Ronald Koeman, and Jorge Burruchaga. The constant supply of strong competition has seen India progress as a footballing nation, and the Cup has also increased India’s appeal among the footballing world. In 2008, Oliver Kahn came to play his testimonial in the Salt Lake Stadium, and the Bayern Munich players were awe-stuck by the 120,000 strong crowd. Afterwards Kahn was emotional, and he ended the night speaking into the microphone, "I want to say thank you for this great moment in my career. This is very special. Thank you for this great night."
It’s startling that India has been host to so many so special moments for so many special footballers while it still hasn’t even qualified for a World Cup. But the respect for football has never waned in the nation, and because of that they’ve still been able to be a part of football’s luminous history. Because of their values they’ve still been able to maintain their connection with football.
Likewise I’m still far from the friends who I grew up with, but in some ways the distance has allowed me to value them more than before. As in football, rather than bemoaning one’s lot when things don’t go in one’s favor, it’s much more worthwhile to preserve that which is precious.