At the Netaji Indoor Stadium, Kolkata, this correspondent had bumped into a 12-year-old kid who wanted to know if Pele was a better footballer than Eden Hazard. Don’t be surprised, for it was a perfectly legitimate question from a die-hard Chelsea fan. The boy represents a generation that revels in
English Premier League fanaticism. However, he has heard from his father that Pele is the ‘king’ of football and he wanted to see him in the flesh.
When Pele came here in 1977, he was still an active footballer, albeit in the autumn of his career. Satellite television was unheard of and international football and European leagues hadn’t made any inroads into our living rooms. Pele’s supremacy was unquestioned. Little wonder then that his arrival 38 years ago had created mass hysteria. More than 80,000 fans had turned up at Eden Gardens to watch him in action against Mohun Bagan.
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Between 1977 and 2015, Kolkata has hosted many great players, including Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi. So Pele’s arrival for the second time was expected to be a relatively low-key affair. He’s a 74- year old after all, who now occasionally needs a walking stick for support. But he’s Pele — still the most exalted footballer on the planet.
So there were close to 200 fans at the Kolkata airport on Sunday. Flashbulbs never stopped when he addressed the media the day after at a five-star south Kolkata hotel. And the crowd gave him a standing ovation at the Netaji stadium, where he had an interactive session with Indian cricketing icon Sourav Ganguly.
Even the latter looked a little overawed as he asked the Brazilian master about the magic of his genius. “You got to have a special gift. And when you reach the top, don’t ever think you’re the best,” Pele replied. He brought the house down, saying there can never be another Pele, for his mother and father have “closed the machine”.
Back in 1977, it was all about crazy love for the ‘giant’ of Brazil. Reverence was the key word this time around. It reflected the city’s football culture. Here, the modern-day stars are loudly cheered, while the past masters are respected.