Long before the Indian Super League, there was an Iranian boy who mesmerized Kolkata

The ISL is bringing many foreign players to India.
The ISL is bringing many foreign players to India.
Image: AP Photo/Anupam Nath
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Robert Pires retired to his desk after dinner and intently studied the map of India, noting the two thousand odd kilometres between Howrah and Goa, and the vast expanse of India between them. On his wall hung photographs of the invincible Arsenal team of 2003-04, as he pondered the ironies of fate, that had tossed him from one end of India to the other.

This is possibly true in some parallel universe. In ours though, I would bet that Robert Pires knows no more about Howrah than you or I do about Mongolian horse farming practices. Yet Pires, along with seven other “Marquee” (read: mature) players are the big draw in the newly formed Hero Indian Super League (ISL) that opened on Sunday. Luis Garica, David James, Alessandro Del Piero and Freddie Ljungberg are some of the names you can see on the team lists from Kolkata, Delhi, Goa and Mumbai franchises.

The ISL has adopted the key ingredients from the playbook of the successful Indian Premier League cricket tournament. The city-based franchises owned by celebrities from the world of cricket and Bollywood feature a limited number of international players and vie for audience loyalty and attractive prize money. The ISL, understandably, wants to capitalise on the rising popularity of Football in the country.

The ISL is the version 2.0 launched by the AIFF (All India Football Federation), after plans for a Bengal Premier League by the IFA (the misleadingly named Indian Football Association, which is actually West Bengal’s football association) went nowhere. It was in this version that Pires would have graced a team from Howrah, and Crespo would be playing for Barasat, in a far more local tournament. Only those hailing from this part of the world can truly appreciate the incongruity of that scenario—it would be the equivalent of Brian Lara turning out for the Matunga Eleven. The ISL (version 2.0) has clearly had more success with both funding and organisation. IMG and Reliance are both behind the venture. Although there have been many postponements and apprehension about the tournament’s viability, the first match, played on Sunday, highlighted the tournament’s potential, with three superb goals and much better all round action than what viewers get to watch in domestic tournaments. Social media was abuzz with talk about the match and its goals. So perhaps the modern format club football will take root in India, after all!

Once upon a time in Kolkata

But let me take you back a few years—before the ISL or the ill-fated Bengal Premier League. In fact, turn your clocks back to before the I-League (the premier club tournament in India) and it’s predecessor, the National Football League. All the way to the Kolkata Maidan in 1979, and to the Calcutta Football League (as it is still known).

Long before the formation of the English Premier League and televised global football, when the best talent on display in a football mad city was the combined skill of Surajit Sengupta, Prasun Bannerjee, Bidesh Bose et al, there arrived a young man called Majid Bishkar. He had represented Iran in the 1978 World Cup but was at the time studying in Aligarh. He was signed by East Bengal Football Club. Kolkata made him one of its own, and gave him a new name—Majid Baskar. And in return, in a meteoric couple of years, he completely redefined the game for an entire generation of football fans.

There had been foreigners on the maidan before and would be later. Chima Okerie, Emeka Ezugo, John Devine, and Bishkar’s compatriot and contemporary, Jamshed Nasiri, to name a few. But Majid Bishkar set our hearts on fire. He was a superior being—faster and more physically tuned—a cheetah amongst stray cats. And a lethal goalscorer. In our hyper-connected world today, we are used to being entertained in all corners of the globe by the talents and achievements of Ronaldo and Messi. But Bishkar’s impact on his immediate audience was probably more dramatic, simply because of the discontinuity it created with anything else to that point. He created and scored goals where none seemed possible, from angles and distances which were beyond the geometric possibility of football on the maidan. And in those days, before the Internet and Wikipedia, his back-story was a combination of myth and legend. “He’s actually from Iraq” or “He’s also in the Iranian olympic team for sprinting” and many other such fictitious tales abounded. What was true is that he elevated football fans, particularly fans of East Bengal club, to gushingly giddy levels.

The story did not end well for the man from Khorramshahr as he fell victim to narcotics addiction and returned to Iran, and to obscurity, after a few moderately successful seasons with Mohammedan Sporting. But his 62 goals in 71 games for East Bengal makes him easily the most fondly recalled foreign footballer to have played in India. By the yardstick of the total number of cups of evening tea consumed whilst discussing his latest goal, he may even be ahead of Pele and Maradona.

The Hero ISL may finally achieve what a pantheon of tournaments have not managed—create a generation of Indian professional footballers who are able to compete internationally. At the very least, it will feed the fervour of fans wishing to see their favourite footballers in the flesh—what if they’re well past their primes. But Pires and co will have to strive hard to deliver the electric impact of Majid Baskar, who 35 years on, still has a fan page on Facebook.