Hyderabad: He was dimunitive in physique but big-hearted in temparament. On the football fields he was fleet-footed, quick thinking and a bundle of energy. Hyderabad-born Mohammad Habib was one of the most feared strikers on the Kolkata maidans in the seventies and eighties. He played for 18 long years at the Mecca of Indian football. One of the prolific scorers in the reputed Kolkata league, this Hyderabadi played for Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. Apart from his exploits in the Kolkata league, he represented India in three Asian Games and was a member of the Indian team that won the bronze in 1970 Bangkok Games. Sixty-six-year old Habib is best remembered for his sublime skills during the Mohun Bagan-New York Cosmos match at Kolkata when the legendary Pele turned up for the US team.
Pele was very impressed with Habib’s footwork and had nice words for the city footballer. “It was a brilliant game of football where Mohun Bagan put up a spirited fight against the US team in front of over 80,000 crowd at Eden Gardens . I felt very happy when Pele came and appreciated my game,’’ recalled Habib, adding, “That night after the match, Pele asked me why am I not playing in European league as a professional. I said I’m a professional here.’’
Remembering his long stint at Calcutta (now Kolkata), Habib said he went there at the age of 17. “Football is a religion in Calcutta. They are football fanatics and it needs a lot of guts to play in front of a huge and knowledgeable crowd. The players were treated as Gods. The crowd always appreciated good football. Sadly, that intensity is missing in that city now,’’ said Habib in an interview on Sunday.
Habib was in fact very popular in Kolkata. “I was mobbed by fans and even now if I land in that city, the people come and kiss my hands. But sadly (with a smile on his face), I am a stranger in my own city. Even people in my own street at Towli Chowk, do not recognize me.’’
The lithe striker, who became midfielder in the last stages of his career, said the popularity of the game has come down even in Kolkata. “It is because of popularity of European football. People are more interested in Ronaldo, Messi, Rooney and others. Of course, I don’t find fault as they are brilliant and world class players. The game has to be revived in our country. We were in the top four in Asia till the 80s but thereafter there is a steady decline of the game. I still feel if India has to make a mark in international football, the revival should start from Kolkata only. The football giants like Mohan Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting should contribute it in a big way.’’
Habib said he was lucky to born when football was a hugely popular game in the city. “Hyderabad had the best footballers of the country. I was born in a family of footballers and that inspired me to take to football. Those days, Hyderabad was thriving with Olympians. I heard so many stories of these Olympians. This influenced my career. The city contributed many footballers to Kolkata league. Andhra Pradesh Police even dominated the all India tournaments. The Rahim League was very popular.’’
Dwelling about the game’s popularity in the country till the eighties, Habib said India was a strong football nation. “We had glorious history. I think we had the team to win a gold medal in the Bangkok Asian Games in 1970. But in the end we ended up winning a bronze thanks to a few tactical mistakes made by the coaches. And today, the Indian football team is languishing in the world rankings. It is sad. Other nations like South Korea, Japan, Iran, Iraq, China have marched ahead. 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.’’