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HomeSportFrom Eden Gardens to Gol Maal — how Pelè made his way...

From Eden Gardens to Gol Maal — how Pelè made his way into India’s popular memory

The three-time World Cup winner visited Kolkata in 1977 to take part in a friendly match for the New York Cosmos against Mohun Bagan.

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New Delhi: “I can’t understand anything. They didn’t ask anything about accountancy, only weird, weird questions” — a disgruntled chartered accountant tells Amol Palekar’s character, Ram Prasad Dashrath Prasad Sharma, in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1979 classic Gol Maal.

The questions Sharma would receive thereafter from an old-fashioned businessman Bhavani Shankar, played by actor Utpal Dutt, revolved around cricketer Sunil Gavaskar and the ‘Black Pearl’. Much to Sharma’s confusion, he never imagined a pearl could be black in colour.

It is only upon clarification from Shankar that Sharma realises the pearl in question referred to a Brazilian man named Edson Arantes do Nascimento, or Pelè.

Pelè, who passed away aged 82 in Sao Paulo’s Morumbi district Thursday due to complications from a colon tumour, is widely regarded as one of the greatest male footballers of all time, having scored 77 goals from 92 appearances for Brazil and been a FIFA World Cup winner in 1958, 1962 and 1970.

But to Mukherjee, Dutta, Palekar and many other Indians of that era, the ‘Black Pearl’ was also known for his 1977 visit to Kolkata, which has been the subject of storied legend locally.

Aged 37 at the time of his visit, Pelè was in the twilight of his professional career, six years removed from his last match for Brazil, and keeping his career going with globetrotting exhibition matches for the then newly-created US club New York Cosmos.

Pelè and the Cosmos were to play a friendly match on 24 September, 1977 against one half of the iconic ‘Boro Match’ derby — Mohun Bagan, also known as the Mariners. It mattered little that this was a professional match in name only, because it meant the world for a football-mad city in a country that had never qualified for the FIFA World Cup or seen megastars outside cricket or the Asian Games grace its shores.

The bits and bobs from the media headlines were wide ranging in their description of the fanfare and chaos, as retrospectively documented by the BBC following Pelè’s passing.

The ‘Black Pearl’ “gave a disarming smile and burst into laughter”, Mohun Bagan had spent “nearly 1.7 million rupees”, 35,000 policemen deployed for a 60,000-capacity Eden Gardens crowd and surrounding areas, fans queuing up to win match tickets in a lottery — these are some of the details the BBC has compiled from the news coverage at the time.

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The 1977 match in Kolkata

While the ‘Black Pearl’ himself immortalised that golden Brazil jersey and blue shorts with his contributions to three World Cup victories, his time in Kolkata was previously best summarised by the late Delhi-born football writer and commentator Novy Kapadia in his seminal book on the history of Indian football called ‘Barefoot to Boots’.

Much like the hullabaloo surrounding Pelè’s claims about having scored over 1,000 career goals, it is tempting to get lost in the contemporaneous hype that surrounded the New York Cosmos-Mohun Bagan encounter.

But Kapadia cuts through the pre-existing discourse to reveal the biggest nightmare before the game actually took place — getting Pelè on board.

Kapadia writes how the Eden Gardens field on 24 September, 1977 was all “rain-soaked and slushy”, slippery enough that Pelè refused to play. With match organiser Dhiren Dey and police officials warning the Brazilian icon that fans would “get violent and lynch the [Mohun] Bagan officials” if he did not take the field, a compromise was reached in Pelè treating the game like a glorified training session, not playing at full strength and avoiding risk of injury.

The BBC refers to the final result as an “anticlimactic” 2-2 draw as Pelè predictably — given the context — puts in a listless performance that pundits at the time had put down to his near-retirement age by professional standards. Instead, Kapadia notes that it was Hyderabad-born Mohun Bagan forward Mohammad Habib who was the star of the match, recording two assists.

“At the end of the match, Pelè personally congratulated Habib for his inspiring performance,” Kapadia concludes, in the book’s first chapter titled ‘Bengal: Indian Football’s El Dorado’.

Fans reportedly greeted Habib and the Bagan side with rapturous applause and the post-game reception to Pelè was colder, with the BBC citing fan complaints over a “fake Pelè” — perhaps the 1970s equivalent to the 2022’s Pak Bean saga — and a lack of crowd at the airport to mark his departure. Pelè retired from the game just a week later, on 1 October, 1977 following a friendly between the Cosmos and Brazilian club Santos.

Fortunately, the ‘Calcuttan’ disappointment towards an aging Pelè, who was worried about an unsafe Eden Gardens pitch, was perhaps consigned to the past, with only the overall hype around the match remembered in Gol Maal (1979). His next visit to the city was in 2015 at the Netaji Indoor Stadium, where the fanfare remained high.

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