Ashoke Chatterjee (right), who skippered Mohun Bagan in the 1960s, scored more than 150 goals in domestic football and 10 for the Indian football team in 30 appearances (Pic: Mohun Bagan archives).
Ashoke Chatterjee had never featured in the sports pages of daily newspapers over the past 40 years. Or, maybe even more. He was never among those innumerable “experts”, who regularly appeared on television and spoke eloquently on Indian soccer.
Nobody bothered to ask for his opinion when India struggled to score against lowly Bangladesh or Afghanistan in the recent World Cup qualifiers.
Chatterjee’s brief moment in the limelight came when he passed away in Kolkata last Saturday. One was pleasantly surprised to find he had scored 10 goals in his 30 appearances for India across various meets in the 60s. A prolific scorer in domestic football, he justified his selection.
If national coach Igor Stimac’s words are to be believed, Indian team’s biggest problem currently is a lack of goalscorers. With Sunil Chhetri being less prolific these days and Jeje Lalpekhlua still nursing an injury, there are not many who can regularly find the net.
Also Read | Metal Over Mettle: Indian Wrestling Story From Asian Championships
Well, this is not exactly a recent phenomenon. Scoring goals had always been an issue with India. They often missed sitters. Who can forget what happened when India played their first official international match at the 1948 Olympics?
Reports said India impressed in a 1-2 loss to France in London. They also said India’s two legendary footballers, Sailen Manna and Mahavir Prasad, missed two penalties!
And yet, there were some Indian footballers who scored frequently in international football, even if only for a short period of time. And like Chatterjee, they are now mostly a bunch of forgotten names in the game.
Not many can remember Puran Bahadur Thapa, the striker from Indian Army. In the 1950s, he was considered a terror to rival defenders. In the 1954 Quadrangular tournament final in Kolkata, Puran Bahadur traumatized the Pakistan defence with a superb hat-trick.
Under the current circumstances (and the government), Puran Bahadur would have ended up receiving every available sporting award in the country. After all, he scored a hat-trick against Pakistan! His chances of becoming the brand ambassador of some prestigious corporate house couldn’t have been ruled out too.
Things were different those days. He didn’t last long in the national team. Some allege his differences with the coach was the reason for his omissions. Others say it was a sporting decision. He did not fit into the squad.
Whatever it was, the exclusion of strikers Puran Bahadur and Moloy Lahiri, both officers in the Army, remains a mystery. Till date. Sadly, Puran Bahadur Thapa is a forgotten man in Indian football.
He is not the lone member of this club. All three of Chhetri’s hat-tricks in international football are well-documented and talked about. And deservingly so. But does the name Marto Gracias ring a bell in the mind? Perhaps not. Not even in his home state, Goa, or in Mumbai where he played for many, many years.
At the 1967 Merdeka, India trounced Hong Kong 4-0 with Gracias scoring a hat-trick. He, too, never received his dues. Having travelled to Mumbai to play for Western Railways, Gracias later moved to Tata.
Old timers in Mumbai still recall how the Tata forward line consisting of Gracias, Ernesto Goes and Tony Martin would create havoc in rival goalmouths in the Harwood League. Still, Gracias’s name would never figure in discussions about Indian strikers.
Nothing could be more tragic than what happened to another Mumbai based forward, Amar Bahadur. 50 years ago, India won their last Asian Games football medal. In the bronze medal play-off against Japan at the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games, Amar Bahadur tapped in the only goal of the tie after Shyam Thapa and Ajaib Singh played passes to reach inside the rival box.
An Indian news agency covering the match reported the scorer’s name wrongly. Amar Bahadur did not even receive a mention in the newspapers. It was only after his death in 2017 that a few articles cared to mention him as one who was denied by the media a perfectly legitimate goal.
Amar Bahadur did score the goal but the hard work was done by Shyam Thapa and Ajaib. Highly skillful, Thapa was the glamour boy of Indian football in the 1970s. He is currently the chairman of All India Football Federation’s (AIFF’s) high-powered technical committee.
But what about Ajaib Singh? Playing his maiden international tournament, the Punjab midfielder proved a sensation at the 1970 Asian Games. Coach GM Basha was so impressed that he put him in the starting XI in the bronze medal tie. He did not disappoint the coach.
In 1981, Ajaib, a BSF employee, returned to his village in Punjab for a short holiday. He had his dinner and retired to bed. He passed away in his sleep. It took months for the local newspapers to run the story. There was hardly any mention in the national media.
Also Read | The Australian Hockey Secret
In football, defenders and midfielders have a common complaint. It is always about how they do all the hard work and strikers hog the limelight.
To seek solace, they can have a look at Chatterjee’s plight. With close to 150 goals in domestic football, that too for two top teams in the country, he never received any post-retirement attention. AIFF president Praful Patel said: “His contribution to Indian football will never be forgotten.”
Chatterjee would certainly have found it hard to believe!
Read more sports stories from Newsclick