The King has reached but this being a Sunday, he rested. Days short of his 75th birthday, Pele’s public appearances in Kolkata 38 years after he came as a New York Cosmos player will begin only on Monday.
The oldest among the bevy of football legends to come to Kolkata, the Black Pearl still staved off jetlag to stand up on the footboard of his car and wave to the people waiting to see him at the arrival terminal this morning. Pele stayed less than 30 minutes at the airport. Most of that was spent at the VIP lounge after a long-haul flight. A passenger cart got the man with three World Cup titles to the exit. At 8.48 am, he left in a tight security ring amid cheers from around 200 people. Wearing a grey shirt and a black blazer, Pele didn’t stop smiling and even gave a few autographs before being whisked away to his hotel.
Exiting the airport, the legend said, “Loved the city, loved the people,” referring to his first visit in 1977.
Pele had then come for a friendly against Mohun Bagan which ended 2-2. This time, Pele is on a three-day visit that will include watching the Indian Super League match between champions Atletico de Kolkata and Kerala Blasters on Tuesday. Should time and tiredness permit, Pele might even make a pit stop at Eden Gardens which was packed for that match on September 24, 1977.
Dipak Ghosh was among the spectators that day and coincidentally was at the airport on Sunday as well to see off his son who was going to Milan. “You have got to be one of the luckiest persons to see God twice. To our generation, he is nothing less than that,” said Ghosh, who is also a Mohun Bagan member. For coffee shop employee Sourav Bhowmick, this was a chance not to be missed. “I changed my afternoon shift to morning so that I could see him from close,” said Bhowmick who said he wanted to shut shop for a few minutes to see Pele. “Rules don’t allow me to do that,” he said.
Spotted in front of the arrival gate was a Mohun Bagan flag and one of Brazil but the crowd wasn’t anywhere as big as the one that braved the December chill to fetch up at the airport by the bus loads when Diego Maradona called on Kolkata in 2008. But before assuming Kolkata’s Diego’s domain, it is important to consider that the Argentine’s trip had the backing of the then Left Front government, possibly down to crowd mobilization.
Though it was state minister Firhad Hakim who handheld Pele to his black SUV and there are reports of him visiting Durga Puja patronised by one or more Trinamool ministers, this is a more private visit.
At the hotel, Pele was met by Indian football legend Chuni Goswami. “Pele told me (Lionel) Messi is close to him and (Diego) Maradona,” said Goswami.
From Monday till he leaves New Delhi, the man who has inspired no less than five top professional footballers to be named after him, will be asked such questions many more times. Possibly even by Sourav Ganguly.