On 4th October this year, in a small flat in Uttarpara (outskirts of Kolkata), a physically fit but cynical old man woke up to celebrate his 76th birthday.
A bachelor, he stays alone, has no immediate family and so his birthday was like most other days in his life, solitary and repetitive. He read the newspapers, went for a walk, did some free hand exercises, supervised the cooking of his meals, watched TV and chatted with his neighbours.
Time and tide awaits no man and memories fade with each passing year. But Indian football fans, especially East Bengal’s supporters should never forget the 4th October, birthday of this old man in Uttarpara.
On this day, arguably the greatest Indian forward of all time, the legendary but now tormented, cynical and angry old man of Indian football, Tulsidas Balaraman, popularly known as Balaram was born. At his peak, from 1956—62, he was not only India’s but one of Asia’s finest forwards.
He was born in a small village Ammuguda, in Bolarum in Secunderabad and learnt his football in nearby playfields. It is often said that if Balaram had a more nutritious diet in his formative years, and if his career had not been halted due to a diagnosis of pleurisy in 1963, he would have been spoken of in the same breath as Park Ji Seung, Shinji Kagawa, Hidetoshi Nakata and such Asian greats who have plied their trade in the English Premier League and other noted European leagues.
Balaram defied his father’s wishes to constantly play football in his adolescence. But he was born in a family of humble origins, and as Balaram often recalled, that even after intensive practice there were days when he went to sleep hungry in the night.
In his youth, he idolized the crafty inside forward Sussay (Jr.) of Hyderabad City Police, but in terms of achievement, surpassed his childhood hero. Balaram was born in a region which produced many talented players. Internationals inside forward B. Narayan and striker D. Kannan also emerged from this area at the same time.
Like many Indian sportspersons, he was discovered more by accident than design. Legendary coach S.A Rahim saw him play in a local tournament and realized he had immense potential.
Rahim invited the precocious 18-year-old Balaram to attend trials for the Santosh trophy, held that year at Ernakulam. Balaram was hesitant as he lacked the finance to travel daily from Secunderabad to Hyderabad. The late Rahim, an astute psychologist, sensed financial difficulties. So he gave Balaram the sum of one rupee and 25 paise daily to hire a bicycle and attend the trials.
That is how an Indian football legend was born.
Figures do not do justice to Balaram’s genius and charisma. Overall, he was capped just 26 times and scored 8 goals for India. Yet, he is considered one of all time greats. Why? Because of his ability on the field.
His ball control and pace was exceptional, distribution impeccable and his capacity for unexpected invention phenomenal. Above all, he had the knack of scoring crucial goals.
Those who saw him at his prime remain lifelong admirers. He also played for the country in the golden period of Indian football – 1956-62, when India finished fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, won the 1962 Asian Games gold medal and were unbeaten runners up in the 1959 Merdeka tournament.
He first played for India on 4th December 1956 in the Melbourne Olympics semi finals against Yugoslavia and for the next six years, was always first choice in any Indian team.
He started his club career with City College Old Boys Hyderabad in 1955 and shifted to East Bengal in 1957. For five years, he was like a demi God for East Bengal’s legions of supporters, who loved him for his commitment.
The loyalty he inspired is unsurpassed. As a token of gratitude, some fans would take turns to accompany him when he went for the national camps and wash his clothes and run daily errands for him.
Balaram opted to stay on in Kolkata after retirement and has limited contact not only with family members back home, but also the Indian football fraternity.
He has reasons to be angry. One of the all time great players, he has been treated shabbily by football authorities. His contemporaries Chuni Goswami and P.K. Banerjee were granted the coveted Padma Shri award in 1983 and 1990 respectively. But Balaram has not only been ignored, but treated shabbily.
He is deeply hurt that in 1989, when he was recommended for the Padma Shri award and the police verification done, some petty All India Football Federation (AIFF) officials prevented him from getting the award. In 1970, he was made a national selector but many of his recommendations were ignored, so he resigned in a huff.
Later, he became coach of the Calcutta Mayor’s team and trained young players. Internationals like Sangram Mukherjee, Mehtab Hossein and Chandan Das were initially trained by Balaram. When the team was invited to play some matches in Germany, there was deliberate delay in getting Balaram’s visa cleared and the team went without him.
Disgruntled at such step-motherly treatment, Balaram lives a withdrawn life, rarely gives interviews (except about SA Rahim, the coach who discovered and nurtured him), and is quite bitter with life.
A perfectionist, he has always been outspoken. In the 1959 Merdeka tournament final, P.K. Banerjee was dropped from the playing eleven due to lack of form. On the eve of the final, it was Balaram who went to Rahim’s room and pleaded for P.K’s. inclusion in the team. Creditably, Rahim did not consider this as insubordination. On the plane journey back to India, he lauded Balaram for showing exemplary team spirit.
East Bengal is trying to make amends. They have recommended Balaram’s name for the coveted Padma Shri award this year. It is hoped that the youthful sports Union Sports minister Jitendra Singh will react favourably and help Balaram get the award which was long overdue. It will also help him get over the bitterness and be apt compensation for the injustices he has suffered.
Overall, he scored 104 Goals for the Club and won the Golden Boot of the Calcutta League with 23 goals in 1961. In the same year, he was voted the Footballer of the Year by the Veterans Club.
In the calendar year 1959, he was the highest scorer in the country with 39 goals. As captain, he won the Double of Calcutta Football League and IFA Shield (Joint) in 1961. He helped East Bengal win the Calcutta league in 1961 after a lapse of nine years by scoring an incredible goal.
Balaram outfoxed Mohun Bagan’s tenacious stopper back Jarnail Singh, slid into the penalty box from the left side and scored with the out step of his right boot from an almost zero degree angle.
In 1963, he switched over to BNR to obtain job security. He won the IFA Shield (1963) and Rovers Cup (1964) with them and scored 13 goals for this side. Then on medical advice, he had to quit playing.
Balaram’s finest hour in international matches was against Hungary in the opening group match of the 1960 Rome Olympics. The Olympic football tournament was not for professional players but Hungary was then a communist nation and so included several World Cup stars in their Olympic squad.
The 1960 Hungarian Olympic team had stars like right winger Ferenc Bene and striker Florian Albert in their team. It was almost the same team that beat England, which included legends like Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Jimmy Greaves, 2-1 in a group match at the 1962 Chile World Cup.
Yet, in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Balaram tormented the Hungarian defence with his incredible speed and ball control. Following a Chuni Goswami pass, he scored a memorable goal with a flick. In the closing minutes of the match, the desperate Hungarians were tugging at his shirt or body checking him to break his flow.
He excelled in both the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games. In Jakarta ’62, he scored in India’s victories against both Thailand and Japan. Four years earlier, he excelled in the quarter final match with Hong Kong which went to extra time, with the score line 2-2. Balaram was at his brilliant best in extra time, assisting two goals and scoring once as India ran out 5-2 victors. He played on with a bandage despite getting injured.
Praise from colleagues and fellow professionals is the ultimate tribute and Balaram’s genius is acknowledged by many. His former international team-mate and football legend, Chuni Goswami once wrote that “Balaram’s football sense was his biggest asset. His shooting and ball control was art of the very highest class. The man himself was quiet and reserved but his contribution to the team was incredible.”
Former international defender Arun Ghosh described Balaram as a man who had two eyes on the back of his head – so good was his ball distribution. He was also the heart of any team he played for, directing every attacking move.
Legendary, hard tackling defender Jarnail Singh regarded Balaram as the toughest opponent he ever played against. According to Jarnail, he was the only forward who remained undeterred despite being subjected to tough tackles.
Renowned coach Subash Bhowmick has often said that Balaram was like Thierry Henry, with his ability to fall back, retrieve the ball and attack at full speed.
Ex-Olympian and FIFA referee SS Hakeem said that “Balaram was one of the greatest Indian forwards of all time.” Another contemporary P.K. Banerjee once said that, “Balaram’s improvisation, industriousness and ability to hit curling shots were second to none”.
Chuni Goswami had more flair in his play, but Balaram had more variety and versatility. Balaram could play in any position, on the left flank, as inside forward and attacking midfielder.
In the 1956 Santosh trophy final, he played the first drawn match in the final against Bombay as outside left. But in the replay, coach Rahim shuffled his forward line Balaram came in as inside right and scored twice in the first quarter of the match as Hyderabad won the title 4-1.
In that final, he was a precocious 18 year-old teenager, but those watching at Ernakulam knew a genius had arrived. His speed, ball sense and distribution were immaculate.
Within the first quarter of an hour, Hyderabad launched a blitzkrieg, scored four goals and closed out the match. With D. Kannan playing as a withdrawn centre forward, Balaram functioned as a distributor and goal scorer.
Both Chuni and Balaram could walk into any dream all-time great Indian forward line. The dream forward line would be P.K. Banerjee, T. Balaram, Chuni Goswami and Ahmed Khan.
P.K. Banerjee has often said that he, Chuni and Balaram had telepathic understanding whenever they played. This was best illustrated in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games final, which India won beating South Korea 2-1.
This illustrious trio combined to score the first goal. Balaram won possession in midfield and released Goswami with a perfect through. Goswami threaded the ball to PK, who finished with a flourish.