Hyderabad: The year was 1977. Mohun Bagan football club of Kolkata was preparing to take on the challenge of playing against the visiting New York Cosmos at the huge Eden Gardens stadium in Kolkata. On the eve of the match the Indian players were understandably nervous as the visiting team contained Pele who was regarded as the best footballer in history. Their team also featured other World Cup players.
As the coach P.K. Banerjee was explaining his plans to contain the rival strikers and instructing his players about how to deal with Pele, a diminutive young man spoke up.
“Sahab, who is this Pele? He is not God, is he? He is a human being. We will deal with him as we have dealt with all other players who have played against us,” said the man. Hearing those words, the Mohun Bagan players looked at their teammate who had spoken with such spirit. They realised the truth of what he was saying. Pele was just another human after all. Not to be unduly feared. Their hearts stopped fluttering and their confidence got a new lease of life.
The man who spoke those words was none other than Mohammed Habib. He was one of the most talented footballers to have come out of Hyderabad. The next day when the match was played, Habib showed everyone what he could do. Coach Banerjee had put a four pronged defence strategy to mark Pele. It was decided that Habib would be the first man to go for the tackle.
The coach relied heavily on Habib’s ability to read the game. And what a match he played that day!
Although the ground was muddy and watery after heavy rains, Habib showed his calibre. The coach later described his performance as a display of sheer class, instinct and experience. Not only did he check Pele he also darted in to score a goal for his team. Eventually the match ended 2-2.
Later Pele talked to the media, mentioned the name of Habib and hugged the Hyderabadi. “This fast moving player made things difficult for us. He played a great game,” said Pele about Habib. It was a big compliment indeed from the Brazilian maestro.
Habib was born in Hyderabad but his skills took him to the city of Kolkata which was considered the Mecca of Indian football even before he was 20 years of age. His displays for East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, caught the eye of the experts. With his brother Akbar he formed a deadly combination.
Habib could make the ball dance at his feet. He could control the midfield or push his teammates through with precise passes and when an opening came up he could also charge forward to score his own goals. He was the kind of player every coach would love to have on his side.
But sadly now the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease is eating away his memory cells. The sharp mind which could plan moves on the football field in a split second has now become so feeble that he is unable to remember things. His brother Akbar says that his condition differs from day to day. Some days he is a little better but on some days his abilities are badly affected. His memory and his brain function have been seriously affected by the disease.
Former footballer Victor Amalraj who is Habib’s close friend feels deeply disheartened at the player’s worsening health. “He was such a top class professional. We used to look up to him. I have learnt so many things from Habib Bhai,” says Amalraj. “During his playing days, fans in Kolkata gave him a God like status. He was mobbed wherever he went.”
“Habib Bhai who began with City College Old Boys in the 1960s went to play in Kolkata and took East Bengal to great heights,” recalls Amalraj who himself led all the “Big Three” teams of Kolkata namely East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting and even India. There were occasions when Amalraj played under the captaincy of Habib and also vice versa. Both of them had an unbreakable bond with each other.
“It is very sad to see him suffering so much now. He was a God gifted footballer and was much feared by his rivals when he was a young player. The legendary P.K. Banerjee rated him very highly,” says Amalraj. “Fortunately Habib has no financial difficulties in his advancing years. But now his plight is such that he is rarely able to communicate.”
“All of us who are his friends and former teammates wish that he recovers fully and speaks to us like he used to earlier. But this is a disease which is very difficult to treat and manage. It is all in the hands of the Almighty. May He have mercy on one of Hyderabad’s most famous footballers,” says Amalraj.
Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.