Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of articles on the Indian football national team in connection to India@75. The writer has covered various aspects of the game, from captains to coaches, during the period between 1948-2022.
Balai Dey was only 10 months old when Jawaharlal Nehru famously announced that India had made a tryst with destiny long years ago and the time had come to redeem the pledge. His family were then living in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh.
Dey, now 76, cannot recall how his family spent the day on August 14, 1947, as citizens of the other new-born nation, Pakistan. But he does remember how he grew up in Khulna and Dhaka and went on to become one of the top footballers of the country.
Then, in 1965, his family moved to India. As a consequence, Dey achieved something which is truly unique: he is the only living footballer in the subcontinent who has represented both India and Pakistan in international football.
Before him, the traffic had gone the other way: Taj Mohammed who represented India in the 1948 Olympics and A Latif who turned out for the 1960 games went on to migrate to Pakistan and represent the national team on the other side of the border.
A unique switch
Dey, who now lives in Liluah near Kolkata, recounted his story in a recent interview to Scroll.in. As a goalkeeper, he was found to be so talented that he was inducted in the Pakistan national team even before he received his school leaving certificate. He was sent for the tour of China and as Dey did a wonderful job under the bar, he was picked up again when a strong Soviet Union side visited Pakistan to play matches in Karachi, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Dhaka and other major cities. By the time Dey was 18, he was one of Pakistan’s leading footballers and a valuable member of the mighty Dhaka Mohammedan Sporting.
“But things changed dramatically after this,” recalled Dey in his gentle and amiable voice. “Half of my family was already living in India. In January 1965, I crossed over to India through Petrapole border and life changed thereafter. We decided to stay in India and never again returned to Dhaka or Khulna except for occasional visits.”
While shifting to India after elders in his family decided to, Dey was afraid his career as a footballer would come to an end. On the contrary, it only flourished after he settled in Kolkata. Offers came pouring from the city’s top clubs and Dey had the distinction of donning the jersey of both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
It didn’t end there. In the 1969-’70 season, Dey was in such dazzling form that he was inducted in the Indian team for the Merdeka tournament. Then coach, Jarnail Singh, was so impressed with him that Dey was his first choice goalkeeper in all the matches.
“I am thankful to God for what I received in life,” Dey said. “I did come over to India, but at the back of the mind I had felt I let down Pakistan, especially my motherland, which is now Bangladesh. But once Bangladesh was born, something happened that left me immensely satisfied.”
“In 1972, I was in East Bengal and went to play exhibition matches in Bangladesh. Luckily, I knew Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rehman from my childhood days because of my family connections. When the East Bengal team paid a visit to the great man, he told me that initially people were upset that I left Pakistan to move to India. But everybody was happy after I achieved so much in India. ‘We are now proud of you,’ he said. I couldn’t control my tears when Bangabandhu said these words.”
Monu Bagan legend
Having retired from a PSU, Dey now has a contended life with his children well-settled. But things didn’t look too rosy when he crossed over from Pakistan in 1965.
“I had no job then. The South Eastern Railways, which had a star-studded side called BNR, contacted me and offered me a job if I agreed to play for them. I was ready for it, but they never could manage my international transfer clearance. I was completely stranded. As I was getting totally frustrated, Jyotish Guha, then the top official of East Bengal, contacted me.
“Mr Guha said he was not in a position to offer me a job, but he would get my international clearance done if I played for East Bengal. I agreed and joined East Bengal. He was a great man, he even got my brother a job,” said Dey.
But Balai Dey’s best seasons were for Mohun Bagan, something he admits all the time. “My best year was 1969. I was in Mohun Bagan and won the ‘double’ in Kolkata – the league and the IFA Shield. In the Shield final, we beat East Bengal 3-1 and my goalkeeping earned lots of praise. I was called for national duty then,” he said proudly.
Dey was in great demand on the circuit. During the national camp in Mumbai, he had to rush to Nowgong, Assam (now Nagaon) in a few hours’ notice after receiving an SOS from the Bengal team management. “I was in the camp, but was told to go to Nowgong immediately as Bengal needed me badly for the Santosh Trophy. I took a flight, reached Assam and played. In the final, we defeated Services 6-1,” he recalled.
Asked how he spent the Independence Day during his playing days, Dey said he had similar experiences in both Pakistan and India. “When I was in Dhaka, I used to take part in Independence Day tournaments on August 14. When I crossed over, my routine remained the same – to play in tournaments organised to celebrate Independence Day, of course on August 15,” he said.
When in Dhaka, Dey used to play for Dhaka Mohammedan Sporting, one of the finest sides in then East Pakistan. It provided him the opportunity to rub shoulders with the best in Pakistan. According to Dey, Pakistan, during his time, had some wonderful footballers, who were admired even in places like China and Russia.
“In the Pakistan national team, we had players like midfielder Gafoor and defender Turab Ali, who were exceptionally talented. Pity the current generation is not aware of them. When I came over to India, I was most impressed by players like Chuni Goswami and Syed Nayeemuddin. I haven’t seen another skillful player like Chuni-da,” said Dey.
Now, looking back at his career, Dey said he has no regret.
“Whether in Pakistan or India, I received all the support I needed as a footballer. I was just out of school when I got selected for the Pakistan national team. The team’s permanent goalkeeper was Latif, then an established name in Pakistan football. But he always encouraged me and I got into the starting eleven quite regularly,” said Dey.
“After coming to India, when I joined East Bengal, their first-choice goalkeeper was Peter Thangaraj. Naturally, I didn’t receive too many opportunities to play. So, I shifted to Mohun Bagan and became a star there. Till today, everyone in Mohun Bagan respects me, recently they conferred me with the Lifetime Achievement award. How many sportspersons in this country can boast of playing for two nations? Everyday I thank God for giving me so much. He has given me more than I deserve.”