Tilak Memorial Football Club is a relatively small soccer institution in Bengaluru with hardly any fan following. Yet, on their match days, an old man could often be spotted on the sidelines. Leaning on his crutches, he would keenly follow the progress of the young boys.
“My right leg had been amputated a few years back. There are problems in the other leg too. But I stay associated with this club,” he says nonchalantly.
Looking at him, few can imagine that the one-legged 78-year-old was one of India’s finest goalkeepers in the 60s and 70s. Kuppuswami Sampath was not replaced even once in six matches India played in a span of 10 days and went on to win the 1970 Asian Games bronze medal.
But for his stunning body-throw at the farthest corner of the far-post that denied Japan’s legendary forward Kunishige Kamamoto a near-guaranteed strike in dying minutes, India would have never won the third place match.
Incidentally, it was the last time India could stand on the podium in a full-fledged Asian meet.
Well, Sampath, like most of his other teammates, is not exactly a sought-after man these days. Lots of top-flight matches are played in Bengaluru currently. He never receives an invitation to watch a match.
It doesn’t matter, really. What this remarkable bunch of 20 footballers achieved 50 years ago in Bangkok remains part of India’s soccer history.
Led by Syed Nayeemuddin, the squad was a combination of young and experienced footballers, who jelled amazingly under coaches Gulam Mohammed Basha and Pradeep Kumar Banerjee, popularly known as PK.
Bangkok was clearly a reluctant host in 1970. The city had to stage the Asian Games second time in a row after Islamabad backed out. The Games were shortened to 10 days. Athletes stayed in hotels as there was no Games Village.
India were pitted to play hosts Thailand in the opener. It was drizzling before the match. The pitch was slippery and 50,000 spectators rooted for the home side. By the 21st minute, India were down by two goals.
Senior officials of the Indian contingent present at the stadium were clearly upset. A few of them made no attempt to hide their feeling. But after half an hour, the Indians turned things around.
An extremely talented forward line was India’s main strength. True, Inder Singh could not make it to Bangkok because of injury. But they had Subhas Bhowmick, Shyam Thapa, Mohammed Habib, Amar Bahadur, Magan Singh, Manjit Singh and Sukalyan Ghosh Dastidar. Unlike today, they all were prolific goal-scorers in their own right.
The night against hosts Thailand, however, belonged to Subhas Bhowmick. He was in splendid form. Alone he scored twice to make it 2-2. With little more luck India could have won the match.
“I blame myself for that,” says Bhowmick, now 71, with a laugh. ”After scoring twice, I missed a golden opportunity to score a hat-trick. It was an easy chance, I tried to make it look spectacular and paid for it.”
Having gained immense confidence from the opener, India grew in strength. In the second match the very next day, India brushed aside South Vietnam’s challenge 2-0 with late goals from Habib and Magan Singh. With three points, India topped the group to move to quarter-final league.
India were in full cry in the three-team Group A opener against Indonesia. The forward line was on song, especially Habib and Bhowmick. Mysore midfielder Doraiswamy Nataraj, Magan Singh and Shyam Thapa struck once each in a span of nine minutes to destroy Indonesia 3-0.
By now India had become hot favourites. Fifa president Sir Stanley Rous was present in Bangkok. He predicted an India-Japan final.
Sir Stanley’s forecast went wrong. There was a definite slide in Indian performance. They lost to Japan by a solitary goal in group league. In semi-finals, Burma tamed India 2-0 and South Korea beat Japan 2-1.
The drama began thereafter. Beating Japan for third place was too much to ask. Only two years ago in Mexico Olympics, Japan had won the bronze, the first Asian side to win an Olympic football medal.
Moreover, Japan had highly experienced striker Kamamoto, only Asian to find a place in Pele’s list of 40 best footballers then. Having recovered from jaundice, he already had three goals against his name in Bangkok.
On the other hand, not everything was hunky-dory in Indian defence. Cracks were clearly visible. And when stopper Chandreshwar Prasad was found unfit, the confidence in Indian camp was shaken.
Yet, on December 19, young defender Sudhir Karmakar wrote a glorious chapter in Indian football. Originally a right-back, the 20-year-old East Bengal footballer volunteered to play stopper-back along with Nayeemuddin.
Karmakar played the match of his life. He completely bottled up Kamamoto. In dying minutes, when Kamamoto finally found the gap to deliver a powerful header, Sampath was there to foil the Japanese star.
In PK’s words: “We sealed the game in the first half when Amar Bahadur gave the final touch to a brilliant Ajaib Singh-Shyam Thapa combined move.” India won the bronze medal for the last time in Asian Games till date.
Once the match went 1-0 in India’s way, the Fifa boss described Karmakar as “Asia’s best defender.”
The 1970 Asian Games squad was one of India’s finest ever but many of them have been forgotten. It was a truly Pan-India side with gifted footballers from Bengal, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Punjab and Rajasthan.
Many of them are no more. Manjit Singh was killed in a road accident. Ajaib was in his early forties when he died in sleep. Not many in sporting fraternity was aware when Bandya Kakade, Nirmal (Jhunu) Sengupta, Nataraj, Amar Bahadur, Sukalyan Ghosh Dasitdar passed away.
Many of them came from different backgrounds. Stopper Kalyan Saha is the owner of one of Kolkata’s biggest saree shops. Reserve custodian Bandya, a lifelong bachelor, once sold cigarettes and snacks at Mumbai’s Cooperage but went on to become a legend in Harwood League.
Few know that tall and handsome midfielder Jerry Bassi, who played for Mahindra and Mafatlal, was actually the first footballer from Sikkim to represent India.
Bhowmick, a reputed coach in later years and known for his swagger, simply shrugs it off.
“Why bother? I know how brilliant my teammates were. The schedule was killing. Six matches in 10 days was too much. We were bit unlucky also. Had Inder Singh been there, we would have returned home with the gold medal,” he says.