Chuni Goswami was a footballing legend, a first-class cricketer, a tennis and hockey player at local clubs. He was a sporting megastar who later went on to act in a Bengali film and even became a Sheriff of Kolkata.
Chuni da, as he was called, lived several people’s dreams in one single life.
Goswami, who died on Thursday, evidently was versatile in the truest sense of the word. What made him stand out was the ease with which he shuttled from one job to the other or, more specifically, one passion to another.
His love for sports though rose above everything else despite his notable talent in so many different walks of life.
The offer from Tottenham Hotspur
Goswami was a captain of both the cricket and football teams of his college. He was with Mohun Bagan club since the age of eight.
He focussed on developing his skills and felt success in sports was all about the amount of skill one possessed. Goswami’s qualities were such that he managed to create a soft spot for himself in the mind of Syed Abdul Rahim, the national team coach during the 1950s who was known for being a disciplinarian.
One day a member of the national team was punished by Rahim for reporting late for training. However, he excused Goswami for the same offense. When the other player pointed out that to him, Rahim said, “Play like him and I will let you join late too.”
His glowing talent was there for everyone to see and was the subject of great interest for other football clubs.
As mentioned in Novy Kapadia’s book Barefoot to Boots, East Bengal general secretary JC Guha was so impressed by Goswami that he offered to buy him a brand-new Fiat car that had hit the market in the 1960s. But the one-club man that he was, the former India skipper refused the offer and stayed with Mohun Bagan, his first love.
Goswami was so invested in playing sports that he had little clue what he was turning down when he rejected an offer for a trial from English club Tottenham Hotspur in 1960. The London side were one of the best teams in England at that moment and had won their first league and cup double a year later.
But for Goswami, staying away from Mohun Bagan and his family was non-negotiable. Later on, he admitted in an interview that he had little knowledge of English football at the time and didn’t know what he let go.
A sports tragic
Goswami may be remembered for his football and cricketing skills in a distinguished career but he also loved tennis and to the extent that he would often bunk office work to catch some action at the Calcutta South Club.
He worked as a manager at the State bank of India’s Chowranghee branch where his East Bengal counterpart Sukumar Samajpati was posted as an accountant.
During the summer of late 1970s when it was time for load-shedding, Goswami would quietly make a move to Calcutta South Club after lunch, leaving Samajpati at the mercy of hundreds of livid customers.
“Everything was dark and we would work with candles as there was no generator. The work was badly hampered. But he would swiftly go and catch up on tennis,” 80-year-old Samajpati was quoted as saying by PTI.
Having made his Bengal debut in the 1960 Santosh Trophy final under Goswami, Samajpati would usually stay quiet but one day he confronted him.
“‘Am I accountable to you?’ was Goswami’s stern reply,” Samajpati said.
“He would never miss his tennis. He was very fond of the sport and even won a club tournament for Mohun Bagan, partnering Indian tennis great Jaidip Mukerjea,” he added.
“I cannot remember the match details but we won against our respective brothers Manik Goswami and Chirodip Mukerjea (who is now overseas),” Mukerjea said while revealing he was good friends with Goswami.
The one-club man
The versatile sportsman may have been the greatest football player in India, perhaps also in Asia at the time, but he was never paid for doing what he does best. During his 14-year stint with Mohun Bagan he was never paid. Even when the club offered him a sum later on in his career, he refused.
“We got a banana and piece of toast after practice at Mohun Bagan and that was enough,” he used to say.
In 1964, Goswami ended his international football career to focus on his other passion: cricket. Although he continued to play for Mohun Bagan till 1968, he shifted his focus mainly to cricket, captaining the Bengal team to the Ranji Trophy final in 1972.
However, the greatest moment in his cricketing career came in 1967 when he was part of the combined East and Central zone team that took on Gary Sobers-led West Indies. Goswami took eight wickets in the match as the Indian side won by an innings and 44 runs.
During that match, Goswami back-pedaled 25 yards to take a catch that earned plaudits from Sobers, who termed it as exceptional from a cricketer from sub-continent.
“Sobers didn’t know I was an international footballer. Back-pedalling 25 yards is no big deal,” Goswami would jokingly tell friends.
Sharp at 60
Although after his retirement from cricket, he was never involved in sports. But his love for the game was intact.
As cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle revealed, he got a chance to play alongside Goswami in a 5-a-side game ahead of a triangular series match in Kolkata in 1998. A veteran of 60 years at the time, Goswami’s sharpness on the football field was still the same, recalled Bhogle.
I pass to you and you pass it back to me, he says. It seems simple. A few minutes into the game comes the pass, perfectly between two of the opposition and a metre and a bit ahead of me. I know what to do but the legs have a different idea. I don’t get to where the ball is. He throws his head back. How do I tell him he is Chuni Goswami and I am just me.
Some time later, same story. Defence on the wrong foot, ball in front of me, my legs dead, he throws his head back. He is almost 60, remember.
Later he tells me, “That was two sure goals”. “Yes sir, but in your mind”, I tell him. Those were exquisite passes. If the legs had been willing, if the pass had been returned.....I would have talked about those two goals for the next 23 years!— Harsha Bhogle on Chuni Goswami
A winner of an Asian Games gold medal, Goswami never took even a 5-a-side game lightly. He was indeed a sports tragic until the very end. In 2018, he was vocal against the All India Football Federation’s treatment of the I-League clubs and voiced his opinion against teams playing average foreigners over local players.
One and only megastar in Indian football
Many consider Goswami, the first and the only megastar in Indian football. Always well-dressed, the footballer turned cricketer had a charm about himself. During his cricket days, crowds at the Brabourne stadium used to be waiting for Goswami’s ball juggles during the break. Even during a break between a game, he managed to enthrall the audience.
When Goswami announced his retirement from international football in 1965 in Mumbai, two fans came up to him with a hope to convince him to change his decision. The two people were Bollywood stars, Dilip Kumar and Pran. The former being a huge star himself was struck with the stardom of Goswami, such was his popularity at the time.
Back in Kolkata, Goswami was a revered figure especially in the 1960s when he was at the peak of his powers. His grandmother who used to go to the Kalighat Temple early in the morning, found it hard to return once the crowd increased. At that time all she used to do is tell any stranger at the Tram station that she was the grandmother of Chuni Goswami and she would get a lift back home.
The respect for Chuni Da knew no bounds.
His death at the age of 82 on Thursday is certain to leave a huge void in Indian sport. He was in a league of his own and will always be celebrated for being one of India’s greatest.
(With PTI inputs)