NEW DELHI: Football legend Pele’s death in Sao Paulo on December 29 sent the sports world into mourning. The 82-year-old Brazilian legend died of cancer. Half the world away, in Kolkata, ShyamThapa could not stop crying – for he had a special bonding with the legend.
The 72-year-old MohunBagan player had scored against Pele’s Cosmos team on a balmy September afternoon in Kolkata in 1977. The special goal not only earned him a warm hug from the Brazilian, but a valuable piece of advice which he treasures till this date.
Speaking exclusively to Blitz India, Thapa shared that back in 1977, he was thrilled and overcome with emotions when he had heard the news that he would be playing against Pele. “The moment I came to know that Cosmos Club would be coming to Kolkata to play against MohunBagan, I lost my sleep. I could not wait to see the great man in flesh and blood,” he says. Interestingly, Pele was 38 then but still in his prime form. The news of Pele’s visit came with another problem for Thapa.
His friends from Darjeeling, Kolkata and Siliguri started pressing him for passes to watch the world’s greatest match. “I was flooded with requests from my friends who wanted me to arrange passes for them…Back in those days, there were not many passes and I could not arrange those for many of my friends who remained upset with me for a long time after the match,” says Thapa, who was only 27 then.
The famous Eden Gardens was the venue of the match. A crowd of 90,000 plus was there; and those who failed to get seats, climbed rooftops of nearby buildings and even trees to watch the great men in action.
Once the match started, it was Cosmos who drew first blood when Carlos Alberto scored. Barely five minutes later, ShyamThapa scripted history by scoring a goal for India and levelling the count. “I will never forget that goal for the rest of my life as I had evaded the tackle of Carlos, who was one of the best defenders of that time. Even today, I relive that moment which sent the crowd into raptures,” recollects Thapa.
The match ended but the real drama ensued later in the evening when the members of both the teams interacted with each other at a party at Hotel Grand. As Thapa made his way to shake hands with Pele, the latter seemed quite ‘upset’ at first and refused to shake hands with the Indian who had scored against Cosmos.
“Few moments later, Pele came to me and hugged me. He told me that I had a bright future. I could barely believe those words then,” says Thapa. “Thereafter, Pele asked me which Jersey number I was wearing. I told him it was number 22 and he told me to never change it and that it would bring me great luck. Till my retirement, I never changed that jersey number and I managed to score many goals with that. Even my car number, telephone number, house number all end with 22. That’s the respect I have for Pele,” reminisces Thapa.