Taking a holy dip in Ganges every morning was a daily routine for the old lady in the 1960s. She would start from her south Kolkata residence at 4 am and catch the day’s first tram that would drop her near the Kalighat Temple.
Pushing 80, she would often find it difficult to get into crowded trams while returning home a couple of hours later. She, however, would simply approach the nearest stranger at the tram stop. “Please help me to board the next tram to Jodhpur Park. You know….I am Chuni Goswami’s grandma.”
On most days, a group of people would personally come to drop her home. So phenomenal was the popularity of Chuni Goswami then that fans were ready to do anything for him. He was Indian football’s first mega star, a true glamour boy and arguably the country’s finest forward in history.
On January 15, Goswami, the most successful Indian football captain ever, turned 82. Under his captaincy, India won the gold medal in 1962 Asian Games, finished runners-up in 1964 Asian Cup, and narrowly lost to what was then Burma in Merdeka football six months later.
In club football, he always played for Mohun Bagan. While in college, he captained Calcutta University in both football and cricket in the same year.
Starting his international career in 1957, Goswami was the biggest star of the national team despite the presence of stalwarts like Peter Thangaraj, Jarnail Singh, Tulsidas Balaram, PK Banerjee and others. Yet, he bid adieu to international football in 1964. He was only 27 then.
Not that Goswami’s sporting career was over with that decision. Already a Ranji Trophy player, he then concentrated on cricket. In 1966, he was one of the two bowlers (other being Test player Subroto Guha), who plotted the historic innings defeat of Gary Sobers’ West Indies by the combined Central and East Zone team under Hanumant Singh in Indore.
Goswami took eight wickets with his gentle medium in-swingers. There were demands for his inclusion in Test squad. It never happened though. In 1971-72 season, he was made the Bengal captain. He took the team to the Ranji Trophy final before losing against Bombay at the Brabourne Stadium.
But then, cricketer Chuni Goswami was no match to footballer Chuni Goswami. The Mohun Bagan star was a forward par excellence. Extremely graceful, his dribbling skills made him a living legend. His extraordinary passing ability, amazing ball control and quick body feints often left the defenders stunned.
To add to it was Goswami’s brilliant sense of position and capacity to unleash dazzling volleys from any spot in the penalty box. He was simply a delight to watch. Jarnail Singh once told this correspondent: “We were a bunch of very good footballers. Chuni was different. He was an artist.”
All through his life, Goswami remained a firm believer in skills. In both football and cricket. This correspondent once quizzed him about national team’s formation and strategy. He laughed. “Don’t waste your time on this. If you have the required skills, then everything will come through.
“Never forget that football is basically a game of skills. Finally, it makes all the difference,” he said.
In 1994, the US Davis Cup squad came to Delhi to take on India. They had then world number one Jim Courier in the team. A decent club-level tennis player in Kolkata’s South Club, Goswami travelled to Delhi to watch the tie. He was accompanied by his elder brother Manik Goswami, a former Mohun Bagan footballer and then secretary of Bengal tennis.
At DLTA, when someone suggested that the Indian team had a particular player, who always rose to great heights for the national team, Goswami smiled. “Spirit and national feelings can never match genuine skills,” he quipped. India lost 5-0.
Skills remained Goswami’s forte. It saved him in his debut Ranji match in 1963 between Bengal and Hyderabad at Eden Gardens. The infamous encounter turned out to be a “bloody battle” as West Indian Roy Gilchrist, then playing for Hyderabad, threw down bouncers and beamers with a vengeance.
Bengal skipper Pankaj Roy, who scored centuries in both innings, once had to run towards the leg umpire to avoid an intended beamer from Gilchrist. Coming at number six, an unperturbed Goswami used correct technique to frustrate Gilchrist. His 41 runs helped Bengal take the first innings lead.
His finest moment, however, had come on September 4, 1962, when he led India to the gold medal in Jakarta Asian Games. Close to a hundred thousand spectators backed South Korea and heaped abuses on Indians. Yet, India won the epic battle 2-1, thanks to goals from PK Banerjee and Jarnail Singh. Goswami did not score in the final but was in awesome form throughout the meet.
The gold medal in Jakarta played a huge role in changing his status from a star to a mega star, perhaps the only Indian footballer to reach that level till date.
A handsome man, Goswami hobnobbed with the glamour world as well. His friends and admirers those days included Dilip Kumar, Pran, Uttam Kumar, SD Burman, Hemant Kumar, and General JN Chaudhuri.
“His touch, speed, intelligence and peripheral vision made him a darling of the crowd,” said former India striker and coach Subhas Bhowmick. “He was God’s gift to football.”
The postal department has issued a stamp in Chuni Goswami’s honour on his 82nd birthday. But not everybody is on the same page.
In an interview a couple of months ago, Goswami criticised All India Football Federation (AIFF) for failing to protect I-League. He was unhappy mediocre foreigners were preferred over local footballers.
A furious AIFF functionary, in a private message, called him a “silly dinosaur”, and further noted “nobody cares what they say or think!”
Fortunately, such comments won’t make much difference. Fans will remain indebted to the octogenarian for what he achieved nearly six decades ago. Chuni Goswami is still a true gem of Indian football.