Manjit Singh was a tall and handsome man, who always attracted attention because of his happy-go-lucky attitude. He definitely had an appetite for all good things in life, but maintained a perfect health.
The former India football striker looked much younger than his 42 years when he hired a taxi to travel to Mahilpur from his village in Hoshiarpur on that fateful night of December 10, 1992.
He never reached his destination. The north Indian winter had already set in and the weather was foggy. Manjit was grievously injured when the driver of the car slammed against the gate of a residential building in full speed.
What happened thereafter is one of the most tragic incidents of Indian football. According to former India coach and footballer Sukhwinder Singh, who was also a close friend of Manjit, no one in the locality could initially recognize the 1970 Asian Games bronze medallist and one of the finest strikers of his time.
“The state of Punjab that time was experiencing lots of militant activities. There was too much confusion around. Manjit was left to bleed in the open in biting cold. He was taken to a hospital, where proper facilities were not available. He was then shifted to another hospital. Three days later, on December 13, Manjit succumbed to his injuries. It was a horrible experience for all of us,” recalled Sukhwinder.
On October 12 this year, the Indian football fraternity was saddened by the death of its former captain Carlton Chapman at the young age of 49. It has been the curse of Indian football to find some of its best names leaving this world at an age when they were just getting ready to pass on their rich experience to youngsters. Attacking midfielder Chapman is the recent addition to the long list of those unfortunate stars.
Chapman was not the only international-level footballer to be snatched away by fate at an early age this year. Defender Manitombi Singh, who was a member of the LG Cup-winning Indian team in 2002 in Vietnam, died on August 9 after a long illness.
Back to Manjit, he was definitely one of the finest to come out of Punjab in the 1970s. He and midfielder Ajaib Singh were star performers when India bagged the bronze medal in the 1970 Asian Games. Sadly, both Manjit and Ajaib died at a relatively young age. It was a huge blow for Punjab football.
Ajaib Singh had formed a deadly pair in the midfield with Keshokripal Singh while playing for BSF in the domestic circuit. Having been selected to play India for the first time in 1970, he and Karnataka’s Doraiswamy Nataraj proved to be a huge hit in the midfield with both the coaches – PK Banerjee and Gulam Mohammed Basha.
After his playing days over, Ajaib aspired to be a coach. But this time, he didn’t get the required time to prove himself. He was still in his early 40s, when he returned home one night from the camp he was posted. He was supposed to join back his unit the next day. It never happened. The tough but wily midfielder passed away in his sleep.
In the 1980s, the three footballers, who really stood out because of their immense skills and amazing peripheral vision on the pitch were from Bengal and Punjab. If Krishanu Dey and Sudip Chatterjee were the ones, who ruled the Maidan in Kolkata, Narender Gurung was Punjab’s fitting reply to the Mecca of Indian football.
It is an irony that none of these three didn’t live long to tell the next generation of their wonderful exploits on the ground. Krishanu, whose stunning hat-trick against Thailand in the 1986 Merdeka tournament in Malaysia is still remembered by those, who were lucky enough to watch the tie, died of multiple organ failure when he was only 41.
Many regard Krishanu as the finest passer of the ball to grace Indian football ever. Fans often called him the “Indian Maradona” and they installed a statue of him in Kolkata after he died
No less tragic was the death of Sudip Chatterjee, a long time captain of India in the 1980s that included the 1986 Asian Games and World Cup qualifiers. He was named the best player by the All India Football Federation the same year. A central midfielder par excellence, many regarded him one of the rare Indian footballers of international calibre. In 1994, he was named the Player of the Decade by the AIFF. Yet, his end was heartbreaking.
Once his playing days was over, Sudip turned to coaching. Twice he jointly coached Bengal to Santosh Trophy triumphs and just when Sudip looked set for a promising career, he was diagnosed with dementia. On September 20, 2006, he died of a cardiac arrest after a piece of guava choked in his respiratory track. He was 46.
Like it happens in many incidents of untimely deaths, several unanswered questions were raised on actual reasons behind Sudip’s death. That a senior soccer official and a reputed coach never visited his residence after Sudip passed away further infuriated his fans.
But then, Krishanu and Sudip were somewhat lucky that their end came in Kolkata, a city known to worship top footballers. A large number of footballers, former footballers, coaches, officials and fans gathered to pay their last respects to two of country’s finest footballers in the 1980s. But few were present when Gurung, 47, passed away at Dera Baba Nanak in Punjab on March 11, 2007.
Known for his sheer brilliance with the ball, Gurung rose to become a deputy commandant with BSF. On that day, he woke up in the morning and vomited blood a few times before losing consciousness. He was rushed to the hospital, where he reportedly died of a brain hemorrhage. The three biggest crowd-pullers of Indian football in the 1980s passed away in a span of four years.
In 2003, East Bengal created history by winning the Asean Cup, an international club level tournament in Indonesia. Young Kalia Kulothungan, popularly known as “Kulo”, was there to man the red and yellow brigade midfield. In 2018, he suffered a road accident in Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu to pass away at the age of 40.
Soccer circle in India was agog with rumours every time a well-known former footballer passed away at a relatively young age, especially within a few years after they stopped playing. Their habits and lifestyle have often been laballed as the prime reason behind their untimely demise. Top coaches and sports scientists have frequently spoken about the need for counselling and psychotherapy of star sportspersons once their playing careers are over. No such steps have been taken so far, not in Indian football at least.