When Pelé Conquered India’s Soccer Capital

Why you should care

The iconic sportsman was the talisman India hoped would change its soccer fortunes. 

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The route from Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) airport to The Grand, the city’s most luxurious hotel at the time, had been kept secret. A 25,000-strong police battalion was ready to prevent riots. The city was no stranger to celebrities — it had hosted Queen Elizabeth II and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. But when the Air India flight landed, months of preparation gave way to chaos. Airport staff who were expected to help maintain order instead rushed to the tarmac to catch a glimpse of the city’s latest guest. Pelé had arrived.

It was Sept. 25, 1977, and the Brazilian soccer player — to many the greatest the sport has known — was a week away from retirement. A member of the New York Cosmos, Pelé was in Kolkata to play the penultimate match of his career against Mohun Bagan, an iconic Indian club.

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Pelé during an interview on Sept. 10, 1977, in New York City.

Source Santi Visalli/Getty Images

Over the course of a single day, Pelé excited, disappointed and then thrilled an audience of 59,390 at the city’s Eden Gardens stadium, and millions more who followed his visit in newspapers and on the radio.

Mohun Bagan, which had paid the Cosmos $5,000 — a giant sum for an Indian club at the time — to play an exhibition match, had been struggling in recent campaigns against its city rival, East Bengal. Pelé’s visit, the club reasoned, would rejuvenate its fans and reputation, says Souvik Naha, editor with the research journal Soccer and Society. The visit cemented a love for Pelé — and Brazil — in the world’s second-most populous country, and particularly in Kolkata, India’s soccer capital.

Pelé’s trip, many hoped, would give the sport fresh momentum in India.

Kausik Bandyopadhyay, sports historian

But it was critical for Indian soccer too, although the visit’s long-term impact remains a subject of intense debate. An Asian soccer giant in the 1950s and ’60s, India had slipped dramatically by the ’70s. “Pelé’s trip, many hoped, would give the sport fresh momentum in India,” says Kausik Bandyopadhyay, a sports historian at West Bengal State University.

By the time Pelé landed in Kolkata, the player’s appeal across geographies was long established. In 1969, when Pelé had traveled to Lagos to play an exhibition match, Nigeria’s military and separatist Biafran rebels agreed to a 48-hour cease-fire. In India and Kolkata too, Pelé’s successes in the 1960s had turned him into a larger-than-life icon. Author Jayanta Dutta’s 1972 book, Ami Pelé Bolchi [This Is Pelé Speaking], the sportsman’s first biography in Bengali, portrayed him as an epitome of how soccer ought to be played. Pelé’s readiness to mingle with fans and the poor became part of Kolkata’s folklore in a pretelevision era.

When Pelé’s visit was announced, the city finally had a date with the man himself — and a craze Kolkata hadn’t seen before enveloped the former capital of British India.

The state government set up an 18-member team under its public works minister to prepare for the trip. Tickets to the game were the most sought-after possession in the city. Each national and state legislator was awarded two tickets. The King of Bhutan wrote to the Bengal chief minister, requesting tickets. A 70-year-old man, Sudhir Kumar Ghosh, gifted his son-in-law a ticket to earn his gratitude, according to newspaper clippings that Naha dug up during his research about the visit. And college student Ranu Roy refused to part with her ticket when her older brother, Subir De, tried to bribe her with a television set — a rare commodity in India in those days.

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Soccer star Pelé in action during World Cup competition.

Source Art Rickerby/Getty Images

The Cosmos landed in Kolkata at the end of a tiring tour. Before a packed crowd, the Cosmos took the lead in the 17th minute on a goal by Brazilian Carlos Alberto Torres. Mohun Bagan drew level almost immediately and took a lead by halftime, only for the Cosmos to equalize with a 75th-minute penalty kick. The match ended 2-2. Pelé, 36, had been a shell of the player who had helped Brazil win three World Cups. “For many, Pelé’s performance was a disappointment,” says Naha.

But Pelé quickly won back a chunk of the city’s soccer supporters by suggesting at a press briefing that Mohun Bagan had played better than the Cosmos and should have won. For the Indian club looking to recover the love of its fans, Pelé’s visit and his comments were a godsend. “Mohun Bagan wanted to show they were capable of doing something no other Indian club could do,” says Bandyopadhyay.

Pelé stayed only a day in Kolkata. He flew out with the Cosmos, and six days later, played his final match, against his former club, Santos. Back in Kolkata, he left a mixed legacy. His visit had limited impact on Indian soccer’s fortunes. Despite multiple revival attempts in the 1980s and more recently, India remains a perennial underperformer. The Faroe Islands (population 49,000) are ranked higher than India. But the visit left a deep imprint on Indian popular culture.

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Brazilian football legend Pelé, left, arrives at Taj Bengal hotel in Kolkata, India, on Oct. 11, 2015 for a three-day tour.

Source Hindustan Times/Getty Images

“Earlier, there was very little sporting literature [in India],” says Naha. “After Pelé’s visit, people started writing fiction and poetry on football [soccer].” Bollywood doffed its hat too. In the classic 1979 comedy film Golmaal, the entrepreneur protagonist tests a job applicant by asking him if he saw the “Black Pearl” — Pelé’s nickname in India — play Mohun Bagan.

And when the soccer World Cup starts in Russia in June, Brazil’s flag will once again flutter in alleys and outside many homes across Kolkata, competing with Argentina’s banner, also popular in the city. The passion of Pelé’s 1977 visit will come alive yet again.

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