For me, Chuni Goswami will always be the most charismatic Indian footballer to have ever have played the game. He wasn’t only a genius on the football pitch; this fabulously talented athlete was gifted at any sport he played. Apart from wizardry on the football field, his cricketing calibre was well-known. His abilities at tennis were immaculate too; more time and effort could have won him a spot in India’s Davis Cup team. I had once seen him play hockey for Mohun Bagan alongside hockey legend Inamur Rahman. Chuni-da made it look like hockey was his primary sport. All this, and oh, how he stamped every field of sport with his immeasurable charisma and glamorous bearing!
I watched Chuni-da humiliate defenders during his long, trophy-laden and illustrious career. Football typically divides opinions, but when it came to naming just one Indian footballer, he was everyone’s favourite choice.
He started his career as a teenager at 16 with Mohun Bagan. During his time there he baffled opposing teams with his extraordinary dribbling and thrilled fans with amazing ball control and spectacular goals.
Chuni-da was slight of frame but had amazing balance and devastating speed; he would have defenders tackling thin air, then would embarrass them further by letting them catch up and then beating them for pace again.
Chuni-da retired from football very early, at 27, and took this tough decision with consummate ease. When asked why he retired so early, his reply was that “he who knows when to stop is the best orator”.
His achievements as captain of the Indian national football team is unparalleled. His team won gold at the 1962 Asian games and silver at the Asia and Merdeka Cup. He decided to focus on cricket later. Chuni-da started his cricketing career representing Bengal in the Ranji Trophy.
Chuni Goswami with Subhash Bhowmick.
I must narrate a story emblematic of Chuni-da’s greatness as a sportsman. In a Ranji match between Bengal and Bihar, the former were four wickets down for a mere 40-odd runs. Gopal Bose, Ambar Roy, Prokash Poddar and Shyamsundar Mitra were back in the pavilion. Out came Chuni-da to bat. The rest was history. I heard it from Daljit Singh, then wicketkeeper of Bihar and later a BCCI curator. Once the match ended, Daljit asked Gopal Bose and Subrata Guha over a bottle of beer: “Arrey is Chuni-da crazy? All through his innings he kept on murmuring to himself ‘Chuni you’re a tiger, you have to save the team, you cannot lose your wicket’!” Chuni-da’s scintillating century that day helped Bengal win. It was Chuni-da who had instilled the killer instinct as well as the need for physical fitness in Bengal cricket.
Such was Chuni-da’s athletic ability that Sir Garfield Sobers had mentioned his electrifying speed in his autobiography, describing a catch he had taken to dismiss Wesley Hall in the match between the visiting West Indies and a combined Central-East Zone team under Hanumant Singh in Indore in 1967. Chuni-da had sprinted 70 yards to take a diving, one-handed, spectacular catch. The mighty West Indies had suffered an innings defeat; Chuni-da had taken eight wickets in both innings with his medium pace. Years later, when a journalist told Chuni- da of what Sobers had written, he shrugged, then commented with that inimitable cheeky smile: “I think Gary didn’t have any idea of how great I am!”
Chuni-da last stepped on to a football pitch in 1994 on the request of Santosh Mohan Dev in Silchar for a charity match, where he helped me score a goal and scored a goal from my assist. I feel blessed to have been the person from whose pass he scored his final goal.
Chuni-da lifted the social status of footballers. As Tata Football Academy’s first director, he not only taught the nuances of the game but table manners and etiquette as well. This helped the boys grow as ambassadors of the country when they went abroad on tours.
There was solemnity after Chuni-da left us, but not the funereal kind. This wasn’t due to COVID-19 restrictions, but on Chuni-da’s express instructions. He didn’t want his last image to be one where he lay still, viewed by crowds. Chuni-da was his flamboyant self till the end. So long Chuni-da, rest in peace! India was blessed to have you!
(The author is a coach and a former footballer who represented India)