If you were a sports aficionado growing up in 1960s Kolkata, you would have heard of the legendary Chuni Goswami. Among the most outstanding players to don the national jersey during the golden era of Indian football, Goswami was an artist on the pitch, dazzling opponents with his immaculate skill.
Aside from leading the Indian team to a gold medal in the 1962 Asian Games, he would also go on to have a second career in professional cricket, playing 46 domestic matches in the Ranji Trophy and nearly making it into the national side.
Born on 15 January 1938, in the Kishoreganj district of undivided Bengal (now Bangladesh), Subimal (Chuni) Goswami began his professional career with local giants Mohan Bagan FC in 1954 as a junior player. In college, he captained the Calcutta University teams in both football and cricket.
In his team debut for the club, he scored a goal in a 3-0 win against Eastern Railways. Just a year later, he was selected to play for the national team, filled with stalwarts like P K Banerjee, Jarnail Singh, Peter Thangaraj and Tulsidas Balaram. He would go on to represent India in 50 international matches.
Playing the striker’s position, Goswami was known for his excellent dribbling skills, ball control, passing vision and balance in possession, marked by quick body feints that left defenders searching for clues. In addition to his talents, he possessed an uncanny awareness of his position on the pitch and a thunderous shot to back it up.
All this talent was on display when he led the Indian national team to victory in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games. In the semi-final against erstwhile South Vietnam, he scored two goals and helped India proceed to the finals.
With 1,00,000 spectators in attendance for the finals versus South Korea, the Indian team received a hostile reception. However, the team wasn’t deterred, and they went on to win 2-1 with Goswami assisting P K Banerjee for the first goal before Jarnail Singh wrapped up the tie with India’s second.
Goswami’s performance during the 1962 Asian Games turned him into a national sensation and a superstar who would soon hobnob with celebrities like Dilip Kumar, S D Burman and General J N Chaudhuri.
In fact, some reports suggest that First Division English Club Tottenham Hotspur even offered him a trial, which he declined.
“His touch, speed, intelligence and peripheral vision made him a darling of the crowd,” said former India striker and coach Subhas Bhowmick, speaking to journalist Jaydeep Basu. “He was God’s gift to football.”
In the same year, he was judged the best striker in the continent. Two years later, he led his side to a runner-up finish in the Asian Cup. However, he retired from the game in 1964 just when he was entering his prime years.
“During his stay with the Club, he captained the club in 5 seasons from 1960 to 1964. Goswami holds the distinction of leading his side Mohun Bagan to three successive Durand Cup triumphs and four successive Kolkata League wins. He holds the distinction of playing for a single club, Mohun Bagan, throughout his club career despite numerous offers from other clubs including one,” says the club website.
However, by the time he retired from football, Goswami had already become a Ranji Trophy player for his native Bengal side. A medium-pace bowler and decent batsman, his achievements on the cricket pitch were notable. In his domestic career, the Bengal all-rounder scored a notable 1,592 runs at an average of 28.42, which included one century and seven half-centuries. As a bowler, he took 47 wickets at a respectable average of 28.08 and economy rate of 2.32.
Aside from leading Bengal to the Ranji Trophy final in the 1971-72 season before losing to Bombay, his other notable achievement was defeating the West Indies on tour in 1966 while playing for the combined Central and East Zone teams during a tour game in Indore.
Taking eight wickets, he played a stellar role in dishing out an innings defeat to the West Indies led by the legendary Gary Sobers. There were many calls for his inclusion into the Indian national team, but unfortunately for Goswami, it never happened.
Having said that, his sporting career didn’t go unnoticed, with him receiving the Arjuna Award in 1963, and eventually, the Padma Shri in 1983. Meanwhile, the postal department recently issued a stamp in his honour on his 82nd birthday.
Following his retirement from professional sports, Goswami has maintained close ties with the game of football, while also picking up lawn tennis and hockey along the way. His career was marked by an appreciation and emphasis on high skill, whether it was cricket or football.
He once said, “Spirit and national feelings can never match genuine skills.” In Chuni Goswami, India has a legend whose career epitomised high skill.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)