Hyderabad: He was the Bade Miyan of the hollowed Calcutta ‘maidan’. The name of Mohammed Habib stands out amid the galaxy of stars that twinkled on these grounds.
Known for his nimble footwork, the diminutive Hyderabadi was also referred as Indian Pele. His exploits with the ball for 17 long years (1966 to 1983) in the City of Joy brought him many laurels. The huge crowd, the pressure, and the fan following are still fresh in Habib’s memory. “It was the good old days. I loved the game and it was one of the best moments of my career,’’ said Habib, who is now afflicted with Parkinson’s disease.
Residing in Toli Chowki, Habib is a forgotten hero in Hyderabad. “No one knows me,’’ he said with a smile, a few years ago. In a marked contrast, he is a hero worshipped in Kolkata. Nevertheless, his contribution to Indian football is immense.
Now in his 70s, Habib’s famous number 10 jersey evoked nostalgic memories. As a multi-dimensional player, he was a sensation. Skillful and hard-working, Habib was excellent as a striker and a midfielder. As former Indian striker Shabbir Ali said Habib had the elegance, vision, passing, ball control, and technique. “He was a livewire on the ground. He had exceptional fighting qualities. That stood him apart from other players,’’ he said.
Habib said he enjoyed the game. “The roar in Eden Gardens was amazing. It was all about handling the pressure. I cherished challenges.’’
Victor Amalraj, the former Indian midfielder, said Habib had the ability to dodge past three or four players before scoring a goal. “He was an attacking midfielder keeping the forwards busy. He was also capable of playing upfront as he had the speed and dribbling skills. He was a lethal striker. He had a good header too as he leapt high to nod the ball in. He was a true professional. I was lucky to play alongside him and also captain him,’’ said Amalraj.
Habib was a hugely popular player and he commanded a huge market like his brother Akbar. He was considered a big catch with all the big three — East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting — angling for him.
Although his longest stint was with East Bengal, Habib’s memorable moments came for Mohun Bagan when the club played against the star-studded Pele-led Cosmos team in 1977. That particular match was a huge one for this Hyderabad striker as he struck a goal in the two-all drawn match. It earned plaudits from none other Pele. “I remember getting the ball in my zone. I turned and struck the ball in. There was a huge roar and a hug from Pele himself. That night after the match, he asked me why I’m not playing in European league as a professional. I said I’m a professional here.’’
Hailing from a family of footballers with all six brothers excelling in the game, Habib said it was proud to have so many players from one family. “Azam, Moinuddin, Fareed, Akbar, Jaffar and I all played big-time football.’’
Although he made a big mark in Calcutta, Habib also played for India with great distinction. He was a member of the Nayeemuddin-led Indian team that won the bronze medal in the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games. “I think I was fortunate to play in three Asian Games. Remember India had a glorious history. Today, the Indian football team is languishing. Other nations like South Korea, Japan, Iran, Iraq, China have marched ahead of others. They have made huge strides in world football while we are struggling in Asian football. The Indian football players cannot match the speed and stamina of some of the teams of the Asian countries,’’ said Habib, who later on shone as coach after quitting the game.
He was honoured with the Arjuna Award. Now, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, he is virtually confined to his house.
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