Football lovers in Kolkata could never forget 24 September 1977; the day when the King of Football, Pele, played for Cosmos Club against city giant Mohun Bagan.
Pele was in his final year as a professional footballer when the tour of Cosmos Club to ‘Calcutta’ came about. The Football-crazy city had still then only heard and read about the tales of heroics of the Football great. So, when the news spread that Pele would be visiting the city for an exhibition match against Mohun Bagan, ‘Calcutta’ could not keep its calm.
“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 wrote about the incident in his book, Barefoot to Boots.
Pele arrived in ‘Calcutta’ around midnight on 22 September to play the penultimate match of his career. As he landed, all hell broke loose. There were cries of “Long live Pele!” all through the air. Pele stepped out of the plane with his familiar ‘V’ salute, but quickly went back inside after seeing the huge crowd. At this, a roar came up “Pele is leaving! Pele is leaving!”
The King remained inside the aircraft till the police dispersed the crowd. Then he, and the rest of the team, that included stars like Brazil’s World Cup-winning team member Carlos Alberto Torres and Italian player Giorgio Chinaglia were whisked into a bus to take them to the hotel.
Over the next two days, Pele virtually remained “trapped in this fortress of love”, only turning up at the reception hosted by the US embassy.
On the day of the match, around 80,000 people turned up to watch Pele in action at the Eden Gardens. But as the overnight rain made the ground slippery, Pele did not agree to play the full 90-minute. Novy Kapadia wrote, “Pele almost refused to play because of the slippery conditions…Police officials implored Pele, saying the crowd would get violent and lynch the Mohun Bagan officials if he did not play. The great Brazilian finally relented, but was cautious throughout the match.”
Mohun Bagan took a surprise lead of 2-0 in the 33rd minute of the match. However, New York Cosmos equalised 2-2 to force a draw. Pele was mostly off-colour in his 30-minute playtime and took some unsuccessful shots at the goal. As the match ended, the crowd was sheer disappointed for not seeing Pele score a goal and clapped in unison for the spirited Mohun Bagan team.
At the felicitation ceremony after the match, Pele heaped praise on Mohun Bagan for playing beautifully throughout. But he reserved his best words for midfielder Gautam Sarkar, who took up the role of marking Pele on that day.
“Sporting a wry smile he told me, ‘So, you are that number 14 who did not allow me to move…’ I was left awe-struck,” Sarkar once said to PTI.
When Pele left ‘Calcutta’, the hysteria evaporated and the crowd thinned. The newspaper headlines like “It is clear that Pele has grown old”, or “The King’s Depressing Departure,” came out after the match day. But people who witnessed the wizard play, still remember it as a moment of a lifetime to get a glimpse of the three-time World Champion.