'Pele was true King, God for us' - Bhaiuchung Bhutia
Pele, the legendary Brazilian football all-time great, has passed away after suffering from cancer for over a year. Meanwhile, Bhaichung Bhutia has hailed him as the true King and God of football.
Emotional tributes poured in from all quarters in memory of legendary Pele, with Indian football icon Bhaichun Bhutia remembering the 'black pearl' as the "true king" of the game, while for legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar there won't be another like him. One of the greatest of all time and the only footballer to have won three World Cups, Pele died at 82 after a prolonged battle with colon cancer. Bhutia had the opportunity to interview Pele during his last visit to India in 2018.
"I had an opportunity to interview him for a summit talk in Delhi. He was such a wonderful, down-to-earth person. He spoke to me for close to 40 minutes. The conversation was more on football, his life, and Indian football. He had a great sense of humour. I asked him about his India trip, but he needed help remembering where and in which city he played and the outcome. Because of the age, alright," Bhutia recalled in an interaction with PTI.
"He was a true king and God for us. He was such a humble, soft person. It's a big, big loss for football and the fraternity. He is one of the greatest players cum administrators we had. He was such a great role model on and off the field. He inspired millions and millions," added Bhutia.
That was his last visit to India, three years after he was felicitated in Kolkata and then attended the Subroto Cup Inter-School final in the capital. "First time, he was fit, but on the second time, he came in a wheelchair," Bhutia added. Tendulkar also remembered the legacy of Pele.
"A great loss to not just football but to the whole world of sports. There will never be another! Your legacy will live on forever. Rest in Peace, Pele!" Tendulkar wrote on his Twitter handle. The football-mad city of Kolkata watched Pele in action in 1977 when he played against Mohun Bagan in an exhibition match which happened to be his penultimate outing.
Football fever had reached a crescendo as Pele was given a hero's welcome at the airport, and about 90,000 crowd-packed Eden Gardens to watch his magical flair. Former India forward Shyam Thapa, who scored the opening goal in that match, was devastated at the news. "I'm completely devastated. I am so lucky to have played with him. I cannot forget that evening at Eden Gardens. He had a charisma about him," Thapa said.
Before that eventful match on September 24, 1977, Thapa, an East Bengal loyalist, grabbed the headlines to become the highest-paid footballer after he was signed by arch-rivals Mohun Bagan for a record fee. And his only reason for joining Mohun Bagan was Pele. "Pele was the only reason I left my favourite club East Bengal teary-eyed," Thapa said.
"Dhiren-da (Mohun Bagan general secretary Dhiren Dey) gave me a record offer then -- Rs 50,000 -- to join Mohun Bagan, saying that he's bringing Pele's New York Cosmos to play an exhibition match here. I repaid the faith by scoring the first goal. And, at the evening felicitation ceremony, Pele refused to shake hands while my name was called. 'You're my enemy. You scored the goal against us,' Pele told me in a lighter vein. He distinctly remembered my jersey number 22. Later, he pulled me and hugged me and said you 'played well, keep it up'," recalled Thapa.
Thapa's former teammate Pradip Chowdhury also recalled that match: "It was raining for three days, and it left Eden Gardens slushy. But, with 90,000 fans packing the stadium to the hilt, the match began. Football passion had reached a never before high." The Mohun Bagan players were left nervous, and the legendary PK Banerjee, the team's coach, gave them a mantra, he recalled.
"We all were very nervous. PK da told us: 'don't panic, play for pride. You are here representing the country. This match will remain etched in history, and everyone will keep talking about this match. His first sight left all of us awe-struck. Everyone has to go one day. I will pray for his eternal peace," Chowdhury said.
"A lot has been said about the match, but the reception he got at the airport was unprecedented. No head of state or any dignitary was bestowed with such a reception. Passion had reached a zenith," Gautam Sarkar, former India footballer, said. Another former national player Dipendu Biswas said: "He is the biggest star in sports, a true Mahasamrat (king) of football. There is no footballer who he does not influence. Recently we saw giant posters of him, wishing him 'get well soon' in the galleries of the Qatar World Cup. It's the end of an era."
India goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu said: "He's an icon - not just of our sport, but of our world - has gone. Rest easy, King Pele, and thank you for all you've done for our game." India defender Sandesh Jhingan also mourned the loss and tweeted: "A legend has left. An era has ended. But his legacy will forever remain. I will always be grateful for having the chance to be connected in a very small way with the Pele Foundation. May his soul rest well."
Tributes also poured in from cricket World Cup-winning star India all-rounder Yuvraj Singh and former coach Ravi Shastri among others. "Thank you for everything, #Legend. You will be missed forever. A three-time world-cup-winning footballer and a timeless beauty on the field. You were the reason millions started playing the game. Rest in peace, the #GOAT #Pele," Yuvraj tweeted. On the other hand, Shastri tweeted, "Irreplaceable loss to the sporting world. The heartbeat of football. A magician who mesmerised and inspired generations."
(With inputs from PTI)