Gifted, versatile and humble: Chuni Goswami's aura transcended generations effortlessly
Chuni Goswami's aura has transcended generations effortlessly. After all, there are not too many Indian athletes who have excelled in two diverse sport that attracted fans from different ends of the social spectrum back then.
The National Anthem rang out three times that night – twice in the Indian football team’s changing room – and then after the 2-1 victory over South Korea in the final of the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. It was legendary coach SA Rahim’s idea to motivate the team as he knew it was up against the doughty Koreans and the entire crowd.
The Anthem should have been played today as the country bid farewell to Chuni Goswami, the man who led the team on the field and set up the winning goal for Jarnail Singh with an astute pass in that gold medal match held in tense circumstances. Sadly, the nation-wide COVID-19 lockdown denied him that privilege of a memorable farewell.
It has been a terrible time for the world of entertainment. Actors Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, and Goswami, have left us in the span of two days. And just over five weeks ago, Indian football mourned PK Banerjee’s death.
Chuni Goswami’s potential as captain of the Calcutta University paved his way into the Mohun Bagan team as a teenager. It is well documented that the brainy inside forward was Indian team captain for four years from 1962. And that he played two Ranji Trophy finals, including one as captain, against Bombay in a 11-year first-class cricket career is a tribute to his versatility.
Though he claimed eight wickets for a Combined Central and East Zone team in inflicting an innings victory over the touring West Indians at Indore in December 1966, it was his football feats that endeared him to his fans. Subimal Chuni Goswami, to call him by his full name, was one-third of one of India’s best trio of forwards.
Many, who watched PK Banerjee, Tulasidas Balaram and Chuni Goswami employ their telepathic understanding to enhance their ball skills and ability to slip past stoic defenders, speak with utmost respect for the trio. By himself, he was said to be gifted with dribbling skills, balance and a ball sense that made rival teams sense danger each time he advanced towards their goal.
Commentator Novy Kapadia, a reputed Indian football historian, writes in 'Barefoot to Boots' of the time the then President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan recognised Goswami as a ‘permanent feature’ of the Durand Cup finals in New Delhi. And of the inside-left ignoring an invitation from Tottenham Hotspurs to train with their squad.
Yet, it is not just wistful nostalgia that makes us recall the exploits of Goswami.
Simply stated, his aura has transcended generations effortlessly. After all, there are not too many Indian athletes who have excelled in two diverse sport that attracted fans from different ends of the social spectrum back then. He straddled the two worlds, showcasing his talent and skill, with grace and dignity.
Of course, MJ Gopalan, C Ramaswami and SM Hadi represented India in two different disciplines but they were all pre-Independence performers. If any Indian came close to replicating what Denis Compton did in England as a Test cricketer, who also played for Arsenal, it was Goswami. He did in reverse, an India football captain who played for West Bengal in Ranji Trophy.
Nine years after he led India to the Cricket World Cup in 1983, Kapil Dev turned up for East Bengal as a substitute striker in an exhibition match against Mohun Bagan at the Salt Lake Stadium. But his on-field appearance in football boots was restricted to that. Goswami’s record was far from threatened.
Come to think of it, Goswami played in an era when media coverage of the Indian football team’s overseas engagements was limited to sketchy agency reports.
Without the benefit of having TV take him or the Indian team into many homes across the country, it is fascinating that he had a fan following that rivalled, if not surpassed, those of the leading athletes of the era.
My colleague Jaydeep Basu writes of him in 'Stories from Indian Football' as the only footballer in his heyday who could perhaps stop Calcutta traffic by merely stepping out on a road. That is something, considering that the Maidan boasted of a set of wonderfully gifted players across the big three, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting.
Gifted with height, Goswami had a towering and debonair presence. It is clear that he carried his aura with comfort and without vanity long after he retired from State Bank of India. It was an acknowledgement of his continued magic that encouraged him to pen his autobiography 'Khelte Khelte', in 1982, the year of the Asian Games in New Delhi.
His willingness to plough back into sport was highlighted best by his term as Director of the Tata Football Academy (TFA) in its formative years. To say the least, his keen eye for talent ensured that the TFA teams would field the country’s best young talent. It was no surprise that he was in the forefront of that grass-roots programme.
And his counsel continued to be sought after by the powers-that-be. Later, he served as an adviser to the Government of West Bengal’ Sports and Youth Services Department. If anything, he was the consummate professional in the amateur era and one who did not grudge the less talented their ability to negotiate good prices for themselves.
He embraced humility with as deft a touch as his feet had on the ball. He would try and blend in the gatherings, but his aura would fail him and his endearing smile made sure that he would be easily recognised. He treated his fans with immense respect, both in his playing days and later, aware that they had a huge role in his popularity.
If we have to pick one indelible trait of his, it is before he became an India star and captain. He was still developing as a player when East Bengal sought to lure him away from Mohun Bagan. A Fiat car was offered as the bait. Goswami, who had started training with Mohun Bagan before he turned 10, promptly declined that offer.
One of the biggest qualities of a true all-time great is his or her legacy to span generations and sport. By touching a chord even among those who have not watched him or her play sport, Goswami has ensured himself a permanent place in Indian sport’s Hall of Fame and in the hearts of India’s die-hard sports lovers.
They do not make any more like Chuni Goswami.
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