Former India captain died Tuesday aged 74, represented country in 35 international matches, scored 11 goals
New Delhi: He didn’t have a bicycle kick like Shyam Thapa nor could he pulverise opposition with the bulldozer-like masculinity of Subhash Bhowmick.
He was also not in possession of an aesthetically pleasing left foot, like Prasun Banerjee had, yet there wasn’t a bigger crowd-puller than Mohammed Habib who ruled the hearts of Indian football fans from 1970 to 1980.
The former India captain, who died on Tuesday aged 74, represented the country in 35 international matches and scored 11 goals, but it is his exploits for Mohun Bagan and East Bengal that became a part of Indian football’s folklore.
The Hyderabadi was part of the Indian football team that won the Asian Games bronze in Bangkok and was perhaps the second most revered No. 10 in the country after the late Chuni Goswami.
The land of nizams gifted Indian football some of its greatest names from coach SA Hakim to Yusuf Khan and former India captain Syed Nayeemuddin but no one could tug the strings of a Kolkata football lover’s heart like ‘Bade Miyaan’ (Master of House) did when the sport was a craze in the ‘City of Joy’.
He was the leader of any team without the arm-band, as he didn’t need any designation to be heard. His body of work spread across the Ambedkar Stadium, Cooperage, Nehru Stadium and many more such grounds.
An inside forward, who operated from the deep, his immaculate receiving and ability to have that poacher’s instinct made him a true blue No. 10 for the red and gold as well green and maroons.
Through the 1980s, Habib played for East Bengal and Mohun Bagan with aplomb.
If he gave East Bengal three Durand Cups and multiple Rovers Cup during that phase, Bagan won triple crown in 1977, when he switched allegiance, and also earned Pele’s praise for his goal against New York Cosmos at the Eden Gardens, which resembled a pool of mud.
He is the only player till date to score three goals in the Durand Cup final for a winning team.
“I played mostly against bade miyaan but if he was inside the box, I would be determined to go in for one-on-one tussle with him. I succeeded in a number of games, and he would say, ‘shaabash beta. Aur accha karna hai’.
“What stood out for bade miyaan was his determination,” Bhaskar Ganguly, the captain of the national team that played the Asian Games quarter-final in 1982, recollected.
A devout Muslim, who prayed five times a day, Habib’s life was all about discipline. He would stay in Mohun Bagan and East Bengal mess during his days in Kolkata and any junior staying in the club facility and returning to his room after 7 pm, would be admonished in the choicest of language.
“Habib da could never tolerate insincerity even during training sessions,” the late Bhowmick would recall during his time as East Bengal coach.
There is an incident from a Santosh Trophy match against Punjab, where Bengal were down 0-3, which has now become a myth.
After Bengal conceded the third goal and goalie Tarun Basu (former India keeper), was collecting the ball from the net, Habib looked at Bhowmick and said “Mother ****, you people should kill yourselves if Bengal lose today.” Bengal won that match after scoring three goals in the next 20 minutes.
Habib loved Bengal and Kolkata and was part of the 1969, 1971, 1972, and 1975 Santosh Trophy winning team. Not to forget five Durand Cup, seven Rovers Cup, 10 Calcutta League titles. He also won the Federation Cup twice.
However, the level of popularity that Habib enjoyed could only be gauged by one story that former IPL governing council member Subir Ganguly, also a former East Bengal official and ardent club devotee, remembered.
“It was in mid 1970s and Habib was the biggest catch during that time. Now Mohun Bagan club had already sent him an advance cheque before he left for a season end break and went back to Hyderabad. Those were amateur days when money was there but no formal paperwork. If you switched clubs, you took advance and it was purely faith based,” Ganguly recollected.
“Now Habib da was given a post-dated cheque of Central Bank of India. Somehow, our club officials came to know. There was one IFA (state body) representative who was also an East Bengal functionary. He knew that Habib would sign for Bagan. He quickly took a newspaper cutting and went to Hyderabad.
“What was there in that news clip? Well, one of the Central Bank branches had caught fire and that news was published. He showed it to Habib and told, you can never encash that cheque.
“Mohun Bagan had sent train tickets to come and complete the signing formality but a confused Habib was told that he should get down at Burdwan station and East Bengal officials would take him straight for signing,” Ganguly laughed.
In his later years, he coached Tata Football Academy cadets including Alok Das, Rennedy Singh, Dipendu Biswas and current All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Kalyan Chaubey.
He was a fighter but not a strategist and hence wasn’t very successful as senior level coach of Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting.
There was one incident when he coached Mohmmedan Sporting which is still etched in memory.
One has heard about Habib’s famous temper but got a whiff when he scolded a young player named Wazir Ali.
“Waziiiirrrrr Gaadheeee”, he shouted and the one scribbling notes from a distance wanted to disappear. Habib had that aura.
Rest in Peace No. 10.