Today we celebrate the 124th birth anniversary of one of the most legendary and decorated football players in India’s history- Gostha Pal. Pal was the first footballer to be honoured with the Padma Shri in 1962 and the first to have a postage stamp in his honour. Here is his amazing story.
Gostha Pal, nicknamed the ‘The Chinese Wall’ (Chiner Pracheer) by his fans, was born in modern-day Bangladesh in 1896 and began his football career with the Kumartuli Club in 1907 when he was just 11 years old.
But things really took a turn on a rainy day in 1911, when he was playing a practice game in Calcutta’s Kumartuli Park. According to football lore, he was spotted there by Kalicharan Mitra, also known as Kali Mittir, one of only two Indian members in the governing body of the Indian Football Association at the time. Mittir was influential and well-connected in the Indian football scene, and the first to identify Pal’s unique defence techniques.
With the help of Kalicharan Mitra and another official known as Major Sailen Bose, Pal joined the Mohun Bagan club in 1913.
Interestingly, Pal’s debut match in 1913 against Dalhousie FC players was not a crowd-pleaser. The club’s fans were highly critical of the new player. But Pal managed to silence his doubters with an excellent performance in his second match against Team Black Watch, the reigning champions of the Calcutta Football League in 1912 and 1913.
Though Mohun Bagan club was not able to win many trophies that year, Pal’s performances gained a lot of popularity anyway. He also bagged his ‘Chinese Wall’ (or ‘Wall of China’) nickname at the time. His skills as a defender, coupled with his broad physical appearance and bravery (he played unbooted against teams with their boots very much laced on) seem to have reminded fans of the Great Wall of China.
In 1915, Pal played in the club’s first-ever division match against the Calcutta Football Club. The team would finally finish fourth in the Calcutta Football League. This was then followed by a runners-up position the very next year.
By 1921, Pal was the captain of the club. Pal was able to lead the team into the finals of the India Football Association Shield Trophy and finished as runners-up to Calcutta FC.
In 1923, Mohun Bagan became the first Indian team to reach the prestigious Rovers Cup final held in Mumbai – which gained him national recognition. The match, attended by thousands of spectators, saw Mohun Bagan beaten by the all-white Durham Light Infantry. But it is testimony to the skill of Pal and the players of Mohun Bagan, that no Indian team would win the Cup, or even come close to Mohun Bagan’s position until 1937.
By 1924, he was selected as the captain of the National Football Team and became the first captain to lead the team in an overseas tour in Sri Lanka in 1933.
He continued his captaincy for the club until 1926 and soon retired from his football career in 1935. and Mohun Bagan also became the first club in Indian history to be invited to play in the Durand Cup. They reached the semi-finals in that Cup.
So much for the bare facts. What about Pal the man? We spoke to Gostha Pal’s youngest son, Sukumar Pal, 75, currently residing in Nagpur, who shared some of his fondest memories of his father.
“What a lot of people don’t know about him is that just before he retired from football, there was one particular match that the Mohun Bagan team had against the Calcutta FC, an all English team. The referee had made several biased decisions towards the English team. So as a sign of protest, my father led the entire team to lie down on the field and refused to participate in the game. This incident was an iconic moment in Indian football,” Sukumar Pal explains.
That was in 1936. And the protest would end Pal’s career, who retired soon after.
“I did not have a chance to see him play because I was the youngest among the seven of us. But I always remember my father as a silent person. He never scolded us but made sure that we were all raised well and always stood up for what’s right,” Sukumar Pal adds.
Pal died on April 9, 1976. By this time he was already India’s most honoured footballer, thanks to his Padma Shri in 1962.
But his legacy continued. Pal is also the only footballer to have a statue of him erected opposite Eden Garden, Kolkata. That happened in 1984. He also has a street named after him. He got a postage stamp in 1998. And in 2004, he became the fourth player to receive the Mohun Bagan Ratna posthumously – an award given to the club’s legends.
“Even today, when I step into public offices or attend gatherings in Kolkata, the moment people realise that I’m Gostha Pal’s son, there’s a lot of respect and admiration that comes my way. Although there aren’t any tournaments under his name, he is still considered to be a legend in Kolkata,” says Sukumar Paul.
A legend indeed.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)