From Hyderabad there are only two football players who have had the honour of playing against the legendary Pele of Brazil. Although Hyderabad had produced several famous players in the history of Indian football, only two of them, namely the brothers Mohammed Habib and Mohammed Akbar, got the chance to play against the great man. That opportunity came when the New York Cosmos team, which included Pele as well as several other international stars, was touring Asia and decided to play a match at the Eden Gardens ground in Kolkata against Mohun Bagan club in 1977.
Mohun Bagan Athletic Club which is one of the oldest clubs in Asia was founded in 1889 in Kolkata and has had a glorious history. In 1977, the then President of Mohun Bagan, the famous Dr. Dhiren Dey, contacted his counterpart in Cosmos club and fixed up a date for the New York club to play against his own club at the huge Eden Gardens stadium in Kolkata on September 24.
Amidst massive fanfare and publicity, the foreign team arrived two days early in football mad Calcutta (as Kolkata was then called). But even as the team arrived, nature began sending out ominous signals. A steady downpour began which refused to ease up. Despite that, lakhs of people lined the streets to welcome the soccer superstars as their motorcade made its way from the airport to their hotel. About 90,000 tickets were sold out in advance and the sponsors and advertisers came flocking to be part of this great show on Indian soil.
Mohammed Akbar recently shared with siasat.com his memories of that historic occasion. “It continued to rain for two whole days and the ground’s condition at the stadium became appalling. There was almost ankle deep water and mud. The foreign players who included Pele, former Brazil captain Carlos Alberto and Italian superstar Georgio Chinaglia took one look at the ground and said that they will not play in such conditions. The players explained that if they get injured on such a ground, the insurance company will not pay the costs,” said Akbar.
“Then our Dhiren Dey sahab went rushing to their hotel and literally fell at the feet of Pele. He told Pele and the others that tickets had been sold out. Advertisers and sponsors had paid money which had already been spent on hoardings and media advertisements. The imagination of the public had been whipped into frenzy by the press. Now if the match does not take place, the fans of Calcutta will lynch me. They will burn down the stadium and my house and business. Please at least enter the ground. Let the people see the great Pele on the field of Calcutta, begged Dhiren Dey sahab,” said Akbar.
“After a lot of persuasion Pele realised the predicament of the organisers and very reluctantly agreed to enter the field and perhaps play at half speed. We the Indian players, especially those who had played in Calcutta, had no difficulty. So the match began with our Mohun Bagan team going into an all out attack against a half hearted and hesitant Cosmos team,” said Akbar.
“After a while our Shyam Thapa scored a goal and we took the lead. Then they equalized by scoring a goal even though they were playing at half speed. After Habib bhai scored the second goal for Mohun Bagan, their coach must have rebuked them soundly. They began playing much better. We began to feel the pressure. They scored their second goal to make the score 2-2 but then decided that they will be satisfied with a draw. They did not want to take more risks on the muddy ground. So the match ended in a draw at 2-2,” said Akbar.
“After the match ended, Pele praised Habib bhai and a few other Indian players in front of the media. We felt so encouraged to hear his words. That the greatest legend of football had hailed our efforts made us feel heroic. He said that in brains and execution, Indians are second to none. It is only in physique that Indian players are slightly behind. I felt very sad the day Pele passed away. He was not only a great footballer but also a thorough gentleman,” said Akbar.