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When I met Pelé

It was September of 1977. This forty-five-year-old memory is as fresh in my mind as if it happened last month. Indeed, do I remember what
Pelé footballer
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Pele joins us.

When your childhood hero crosses the bridge to the other side, you look up and see a new bright star in the eastern sky at night. The memories of growing up rush in, drenching you to the core. You have no power to resist but give in to the reminiscing of the good ole days. A time travel in a capsule to those days you left behind long ago in a far-off land. You thought so. Although those days of yesteryears have not given up on you. They cling on to you with every passing year. 

Growing up in the ’70s was a pleasure, even in Calcutta. Life was simple. We had fewer things and more people around us to enjoy and have fun with. We never thought of building memories or having quality time. We just had it. 

I remember we had an incredible deluxe combo turntable console and a radio with bulbs. It was a beautiful piece of furniture made of root wood adorning our living room. It was Phillips made in the late ’60s. 

Philips Console Radio Recordplayer from 1960s
Philips Console Radio Record player from 1960s

I still have with me the black EP vinyl record of the film ‘Jay Jayanti’ soundtrack in a thin 7-inch square sleeve. This album cover has pictures of our legendary Bengali actors Uttam Kumar, Aparna Sen, and the five kids. The movie was the Bengali adaptation of our all-time favorite film, the ‘Sound of Music’ featuring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. 

Jayajanti Album Cover Collage
Jayajanti Album Cover Collage

In our analog world, we could not access movies outside the theaters. We could not even dream that far. We had those vinyl records to play and dance away to the music, all within the four walls of our living room alone. The elders thought what a perfect song for general knowledge for the kids. “কে প্রথম চাঁদে গেছে?” (Who is the first man on the moon?)- this single song from the film ‘Jay Jayanti’ introduced us to the many legends. Who’s the first man on the moon, to the most incredible artist Leonardo da Vinci. It raised our curiosity about our leaders, writers, musicians, and legendary players. Somewhere in the middle of the song, it said, “সব চেয়ে নাম করা ফুটবলে, কেপেলে, ব্রাজিলের পেলেপেলে পেলে পেলে চৌখস খেলোয়ার ক্রিকেটে কে ? সোবার্স গারফিল্ড সোবার্স“, (“Who is the most famous player in football — Pele, Brazil’s Pele — Pele, Pele, Pele, in cricket? Sobers Garfield Sobers! La la la la… “) we hummed along and tapped our feet to the irresistible tune and voice of Sandhya Mukherjee that filled our room and our hearts and that we carried it all along with us. We had filled the house with sounds of joy. Unfiltered happiness abounded, memories lingering to date.

And thus, Pelé came into our lives. All of our lives. We didn’t see him play, yet we knew all his moves. We knew this Brazilian Black Pearl was the reigning king of Football. He can create magic with his feet. 

And the love story began. 

Pelé will play at the Eden Gardens.

Veni, Vidi, Vici. Pelé came, saw, and conquered the hearts of millions in Calcutta. It was September of 1977. This forty-five-year-old memory is as fresh in my mind as if it happened last month. Indeed, do I remember what happened last month in this cluttered age? Probably not, yet the memory of seeing the greatest of all time forty-five years ago is etched in gold in my heart, in many hearts of our time. 

Pele with Upen Tarafdar
Pele with journalist Upen Tarafdar, at Grand Hotel

The hype was building once Mohun Bagan Athletic Club announced they would invite the New York Cosmos club to play in Calcutta. Pelé would play in an exhibition-friendly match against Mohun Bagan. I cannot remember the occasion Mohun Bagan was commemorated for such an initiative. I can only recall that Pelé was coming to town. Christmas was early for all the Calcuttans that year. The only buzz that kept the city alive.

Pelé comes to Calcutta.

It was still our old Calcutta, not Kolkata. The Football crazy, stubborn East Bengal club fans set aside their rivalry with Mohun Bagan. The game was on. It was Pelé versus Calcutta. My omni and uber enthusiast uncle, ‘Kaku,’ said he would take us to the airport to see the touchdown of the giant on our soil. Having gained some privilege, we managed a red-lettered Press card to stick to the window screen of our Black Ambassador car. All amped up and gloated, we reached the old Dum Dum Airport. With special passes, we managed to get inside. The crowd was growing outside by the second. The plane landed, and we could see it from the terrace. Yes, there was a terrace at the airport. The Air India flight landed, and we could hear our heartbeats loud and clear. One by one, players descended and boarded the bus that carried them to the gate. Amidst the continuous camera flashes, the players were greeted with a rose and garland. As we shared his excitement, my uncle pointed out and told us who was who. Pointing to his wife, he said, “a Rose with a rose.” with a glitter in his eyes. Rose was Pelé’s wife. She was beautiful, tall, and dark. 

Pelé with his then wife Rose.
Pelé with his wife Rose

We then followed the bus in our car carrying all the players as a part of a big entourage. The bus drove slowly through the VIP road, the crowd cheering and jubilant thronging all along the route, cutting across the city’s heart through Central Avenue to the Grand hotel. The night remained young that night, drinking the elixir name Pelé. Millions were out to greet their trailblazing hero, whom they had heard and worshipped for years. They now had the opportunity of a lifetime to see their “God” in person. And yes, there was only one Grand hotel to host our eminent guests. 

Cosmos was an American Soccer club from New York. Henry Kissinger had brought Pelé to the US to make soccer popular in the country. American soccer was not on the world soccer map and is yet to be. That’s a story for a different day, and we could care less. We just wanted Pelé. The first and the last word of our passion and zest. The king of Football took center stage from the moment he descended on the city. 

The game is on.

September 24, 1977, when Pele and his New York Cosmos club set foot on our sacred Eden Gardens, it was pouring in all sense. The city was soaked in monsoon rain, and 80,000 euphoric fans poured into the stadium, cheering every move of this 36-year-old magician, Pelé. And millions flocked around the idiot box. 

Cosmos vs Mohun Bagan 1977
Cosmos vs Mohun Bagan 1977

Our house was overcrowded would be an understatement. In those days, television was owned by a family but belonged to the entire neighborhood. Anyone and everyone were entitled to viewing. Sometimes the family members had to be lucky to get a coveted seat in the room. When Pelé is playing, it is a public affair. We all had to manage and squeeze in front of that black and white Weston tv set. The room felt bigger to accommodate all who wanted to witness the historic moment. It rained, the field was muddy and slippery, and then Mohun Bagan players guarded him all along and did not let him play his game. Later, even the fans criticized the Mohun Bagan players for not allowing the maestro to show his skills.

Cosmos was mediocre compared to other South American and European teams. Goutam Sarkar, Shyam Thapa, and duo brothers Akbar and Habib donned the Mohun Bagan battalion. Cosmos scored a goal in the first few minutes of the game. I don’t remember who, but it was not Pelé who scored that goal. Then Shyam Thapa scored and made it equal. If memory doesn’t fail, Habib or Akbar scored in the second half, and the score stood at 2-1 for some time. Just before the long final whistle, Cosmos scored again, and so it ended with 2 all on the board. Pradeep Kumar Banerjee, fondly known as PK, was at the helm of Mohun Bagan. He was an extraordinary player on the Indian team, known as the goal machine. He led the Indian team in the Olympics. 

Match ticket Cosmos vs Mohun Bagan
Match ticket, Cosmos vs Mohun Bagan.

The magic of those ninety minutes lingered for a long time and still does. 

 After the game, mass hysteria peaked. It spread and engulfed the city. Every home, every corner, was in a frenzy celebration mood. We equalized against the one and only Black Pearl of the soccer world. Pelé reigned, and we did too. It was our big victory. Even today, as I recollect, the memory of seeing the Black pearl on our ground against our players is priceless. Even the staunchest East Bengal fan cheered for the Mohun Bagan for the first and the last time that day on September 24, 1977. 

Long live the nostalgia.

Yesterday, Pelé died at the ripe age of 82, accomplishing all the feats. Still, it is a sad day for the game world. The soccer world is mourning. He was the most outstanding player and an extraordinary human being who was fearless in raising his voice against racism, injustice, and inequality. He was an advocate for the education of the poor and all. 

Pele on Bengali Anandamela magazine cover
Pele on the cover of ‘Anandamela’ a Bengali magazine

 And it is a personal loss for me. I lost another chunk of my childhood. Those days of black and white tv and the pure bliss of holding Anandamela, Khelar Khobor, Sportsweek, and Sportsworld, and making the game of one ball and 22 pairs of feet daily rituals of life from the other side of the field. 

Picture courtesies:
Upen Tarafdar : Tumpa Roy
Anandamela Picture: Pallab Ray  of Kolkata Kathokota 
Match ticket: Joydeep Kundu, Kolkata Kathokota
Other pics: Internet

Mousumi was raised in Kolkata but now call New York her home. She pursued her PhD from Indiana University Bloomington and currently works as a Marketing & Consumer Data and Design Analytics professional. She is Co-founder and Director at MDRK Partners. She loves to read, cook, take photos on her phone and travel.

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