Bengaluru home to great football heroes

Since 1948, when SA Basheer played at the London Olympics, the city has produced some of India’s most distinguished players.

Arumainayagam (L), seen here with Brazillian football legend Pele (R) in September of 1977.
Highlights: 
Six of the historic 1948 barefoot squad in the London Olympics were from this city. 
In all, 12 Olympians have emerged in football from Bengaluru.
The city has regularly produced international stars.

In other human trades, decline comes with old age, but a soccer player can be old at thirty.

Muscles tire early: “That guy couldn’t score if the field were on a slope.”

“Him? Not even if they tied the keeper’s hands.”

Or before thirty if the ball knocks him out, or bad luck tears a muscle, or a kick breaks a bone and it can’t be fixed. 

And one rotten day the player discovers he has bet his life on a single card and his money is gone and so is his fame. 

Fame, that fleeting lady, did not even leave him a Dear John letter

- An excerpt from Eduardo Galeano’s ‘Soccer in Sun and Shadows.’

Since 1948, when SA Basheer played at the London Olympics, the city has produced some of India’s most distinguished players.

Arumainayagam aka Baby Taxi

Memories, recorded in old sepia photographs, surround the small coffee table around us.  The old man’s smile widens as he points to one.

“There were only a few yards between us but it felt like an eternity. My friend asked me to hurry up. We made our way through the sea of people. We gifted him some sarees for his wife and asked him to pose for a photograph. And that’s how I got this picture with Pele,” says Arumainayagam, one of Bengaluru’s football heroes.

Arumainayagam (L), seen here with Brazillian football legend Pele in September of 1977.
Arumainayagam (L), seen here with Brazillian football legend Pele (R) in September of 1977. 

My attention now wanders to the other photos. There is one with Raj Kumar, the actor, another with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and yet another with Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India's first vice president. He points to the last one.

Arumainayagam receiving the Durand cup from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India's first vice president and second president.

Arumainayagam receiving the Durand cup from Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, India's first vice president and second president. 

“Mohun Bagan had just won the Durand Cup back to back, three years in a row, and he was there again for the prize distribution ceremony, at the third oldest football competition in the world.  ‘Arumainayagam, is that you?’ he asked. I couldn’t believe it. He remembered my name,” he says.

Arumainayagam in blazer and tie on extreme right. The photo was taken at a party with Cosmos Team players from the USA when they played with Mohun Bagan team at Calcutta in 1977. Mr Pele also played the match and joined the party later. Mr Muthuraman, film actor third from the left is also seen. Match was played on 24th September 1977 at Eden Garden, Calcutta. The result was 2-2.
Arumainayagam in blazer and tie on the extreme right. The photo was taken at a party with Cosmos Team players from the USA when they played with Mohun Bagan team at Calcutta in 1977. Mr Pele also played the match and joined the party later. Mr Muthuraman, film actor third from the left is also seen. The match was played on 24th September 1977 at Eden Garden, Calcutta. The result was 2-2. 

Arumainayagam, aka Baby Taxi---a nickname given to him due to his small size but incredible speed---is one of Bengaluru’s most accomplished footballers.

Arumainayagam being honoured in Calcutta by Mamata Banerjee for his career in India's oldest and most successful club, Mohun Bagan.
Arumainayagam being honoured in Calcutta by Mamata Banerjee for his career in India's oldest and most successful club, Mohun Bagan.

Arumainayagam is seen here with actor Raj Kumar and his family.
Arumainayagam is seen here with actor Raj Kumar and his family.

A recent picture of local footballer Arumainayagam (78).
A recent picture of local footballer Arumainayagam (78).

Having played for India’s most accomplished and oldest football club Mohun Bagan for eight years and represented India during the golden era of football in the 1960s, Baby Taxi, now 78, is grateful for his fortunes. But not everyone is as lucky as Arumainayagam.

Mohan Kumar, hero now guard

Take Mohan Kumar. If you stroll across Mount Carmel College, chances are you will see him, albeit in a new kit.

With no field, opponents, no referee, no fans, no goalposts and no ball, he stands around as a security guard.

Unfazed by the ravages of time, he says: ‘I don’t look at [my job] as something beneath my dignity. It’s still a job and I enjoy it.’

Yes, it is the same Mohan Kumar, the same mighty defender of ITI who reached the Stafford Cup final in 1980 and represented India at international tournaments in Malaysia, Afghanistan and South Korea in the mid-1970s.

A year after articles in local paper wrote about Mohan, he says not much has changed in his life but he did get some recognition. 

"I was invited for a local football tournament as a chief guest and about a month ago I got offers to coach football academies in Kerala and Goa but I declined. I am 68 years old and I can't leave my family. I am happy working in the college and my salary is sufficient. I would like to coach football in the city but I'm not getting any offers like that."
 

Mohan Kumar (68), a footballer who played for India internationally and is now working as a security guard at Mount Carmel College (PU), seen here wearing the kit of his former team, ITI.
Mohan Kumar (68), a footballer who played for India internationally and is now working as a security guard at Mount Carmel College (PU), seen here wearing the kit of his former team, ITI. 

S A Basheer, who started it in 1948

One of the oldest Olympians from the city, SA Basheer, was part of the 1948 London Olympic squad and the next Olympics in Helsinki. He may have been the inspiration for the footballing culture in the area.
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S A Basheer, a footballer from Gowthampura area near Halsuru in Bengaluru who represented India at the 1948 Olympics in London and the 1952 Olympics in Helskini seen here in an undated photo.
S A Basheer, a footballer from Gowthampura area near Halsuru in Bengaluru who represented India at the 1948 Olympics in London and the 1952 Olympics in Helskini seen here in an undated photo. 

Arumainayagam remembers standing at the sidelines of the Gowthampura field at the age of 10 to watch the seniors play. He remembers glancing at Basheer’s silverware on display and cites it as inspiration.

Today, walking around the streets of Gowthampura, you may stumble on a pink house with the five Olympic ring symbols carved on it. But inside, the surviving family of Basheer, Abdul Saleem, his adopted son and Akhila Begum, Basheer’s widow, bemoan his forgotten legacy.

“My father died of a heart attack in 1987, when I was an upcoming footballer in Class 10. I played football for Reserve Bank of India and Karnataka State police during 1989-1991 and was promised a permanent job but did not get in through sports quota as the SC/ST quota had filled up the available positions; I came under the general category. As I was the only breadwinner, I quit football and moved to Saudi Arabia for work in 1994,” explains Salim, who has just travelled back for Eid with his family.

“We aren’t starving but the truth is that we got nothing. No pension, no tribute, no remembrance. Basheer baba was the light and joy of this neighbourhood and commanded immense respect from everyone,” says Saleem.
 

S A Basheer's son, Abdul Saleem.
S A Basheer's son, Abdul Saleem. 

Basheer was called to play for clubs in Goa and Kolkata but remained in Bengaluru.

“He coached at the local maidan and HAL for free, even after retirement. My grandfather played for Bengaluru Mars Club but we got nothing from there either. I still pay for a membership because I want our family to remain attached to it,” said a teary-eyed Salim.

City has produced 12 Olympians in football

Six of the historic 1948 barefoot squad in the London Olympics were from this city.  In all, 12 Olympians have emerged in football from Bengaluru.

The city has regularly produced international stars. During the 1970s, football was nurtured by public sector industries like CIL, ITI, HAL and LRDE (Electronics and Radar Development Establishment).

They recruited and promoted talent and also provided job security.

With the advent of information and technology companies, the former glory of native and local footballers has largely been forgotten. A new breed of fans has emerged with the founding of the Bengaluru Football Club in 2013.

Glory of Gowthamapura,‘mini Brazil’ in Bengaluru

Three and half billion people, or half the planet’s population, is expected to tune in to watch the ongoing World Cup.

No doubt, many fans will throng the city’s pubs to catch the screenings. But at least a hundred of them, aware of Bengaluru’s old and new heroes, live in an area near Halasuru called Gowthampura.

Gowthampura Pele statue being decorated for the ongoing Fifa World Cup in Russia.
Gowthampura Pele statue being decorated for the ongoing Fifa World Cup in Russia. 

Also known as Bengaluru’s mini Brazil, Gowthampura’s original name is Gun Troops. As you walk past the 515 Army Base Workshop and the Harris Barrick Officers' Colony, it’s easy to spot the connection.

“In Gowthampura, every womb has a footballer inside it. Our area has produced hundreds of footballers that have competed at various levels of the game,” says Prashant Kalinga, 20, training with the BFC.

Gowthampura's football ground.
Gowthampura's football ground. 

Children with unique mohawk haircuts, grown men going about their day in football kits are some obvious signs as you enter the area.  But a Pele statue, selected, funded and installed by a committee of retired sports people and unveiled in the presence of India’s footballing legends Bhaichung Bhutia and I M Vijayan in 2001, is the biggest telltale sign.  

A recent addition to the Pele statue, which stands alongside statues of Mother Teresa and B R Ambedkar, is a cenotaph dedicated to the memory of local football hero D Venkatesh, who collapsed and died on the field in 2012.

The area was referred to as ‘mini-Brazil’ even before the statue was installed.  

Pele, the man with a thousand songs behind him, a man whose fandom once caused a temporary truce between Nigeria and Biafra, seems like a natural hero here.  He had hailed from a far-off village and gone on to conquer the world of football.

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Bengaluru home to great football heroes

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