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When Pele played in Kolkata

His not-so-grand showing on the field led many in the crowd to say that the organisers were pulling a fast one by fielding a local folk theatre star who was faking the role of the legendary footballer

Shyamal Majumdar 

Shyamal Majumdar

Puja has come three months early in The Goddess will come only in the last week of September as scheduled, but the gods with golden boots have already arrived in the city. Kolkata’s strange fits of passion with football are evident all over – whether it’s Kumartuli in north or Hiland Park in the southern part of the city.

You can see lifesize clay idols of some of the marquee names of world football and a giant replica of the Cup. Countless “lanes” or “pandals” have come up in the “paras” (loosely translated as small colonies), making it obvious that continues to play the game with its heart – reason why some of the marquee names in world football have chosen to visit only this city when they came to India. The list is long – Lionel Messi, Diego Maradona, Lothar Matthäus, Diego Forlan, Oliver Kahn, Roger Milla, Enzo Fransescoli and Lev Yashin.

But the “heart” of the residents of the city can sometimes be difficult to handle. I remember when had come to the city in 1977 to play an exhibition match. No one cared to know that the soccer god, who would play against as a part of Cosmos Football Club, was already towards the end of his career and that he had already retired from international football by then. The only thing that mattered was that after September 28, 1977, football fans will be divided into two groups forever - those who watched him play, and those who didn't.

No one had given any chance in hell, but the club kept India’s head high when it held Cosmos to a 2-2 draw. But played for just half an hour and had three shots at the goal, two of which were way off target. That opened the floodgates.

Just after the match, a section of the crowd started booing, wanting to know how could come up with such a lacklustre performance, with many wanting to figure out whether the organisers were pulling a fast one on them. Many believed the man they saw on the field wasn’t the “original” Pele. And baseless rumours started floating around that the original had called off his trip to Kolkata at the last moment and the organisers, fearing backlash from the crowd, brought in Shanti Gopal, a famous Bengali 'jatra’ (folk theatre) actor to portray the legendary footballer.

Shanti Gopal, popularly known as “jatra samrat” was famous for playing the roles of historical figures like Hitler, Lenin and Marx. “Shanti Gopal is a great actor and wears his make-up well. He must be the one portraying Pele today,” somebody in the crowd shouted.

It may seem outlandish, but that’s what happens when you play the game with too much “heart” – it’s just that the heart should be in the right place and shouldn’t be consumed with so much passion. But that’s what the City of Joy is all about!

First Published: Tue, June 17 2014. 10:43 IST