Champions Never Die
On December 5, 2004, it was around 8 p.m. when I returned from my evening classes. My mother was standing with my aunt on the first floor as I entered the house with some friends. This day has always been a sad day for us, as one of my uncles died of appendicitis at the same age as I’m now (22). But what I heard from my mother was something beyond what I could imagine, even in my nightmares. She said, “Your father told me to tell you that Brazilian player Júnior is no more.”
Soumyadip Das recollects that ill-fated day nine years ago when India lost a talented Brazilian recruit on the football ground owing to poor medical facilities. Sadly, little has changed since!
I was shocked. I knew the final match of Federation Cup between Dempo Sports Club and Mohun Bagan at Sree Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru was due to be held that Sunday. I rushed to my room and switched on the television. The news channels were covering the untimely demise of Cristiano Sebastião de Lima Júnior along with video clips of the match. Dempo was already leading 1-0, thanks to a clinical finish from their Brazilian recruit in the first half. After scoring the first goal, he went to the camera and made the shape of a circle with his two hands to depict a goal, along with his striking partner Ranti Martins. Then the fatal accident happened in the 78th minute. The Brazilian was moving towards the goal to receive a long lofted ball from a Dempo player, Lazarus Fernandes. Mohun Bagan’s goalkeeper, Subrata Paul was rushing out of his goal to prevent him from scoring. The forward got the ball before the opponent and his touch of right foot sent the ball towards the open goal. But within seconds, Subrata collided with him. The goal was given and Dempo players went on to celebrate their victory. Suddenly, Ranti and R.C. Prakash noticed their teammate lying senseless on the ground. They tried pulling him up, in vain. They shouted for medical help, Ranti even tried mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and waved his jersey to air him. But alas, there was neither enough medical staff nor an ambulance at the ground! It took quite a while to call an ambulance and take him to Hosmat Hospital which was some distance away from the stadium.
The rest of the match continued without any more excitement. Dempo became the Fed Cup champions that year defeating Mohun Bagan 2-0, winning the trophy which Mohun Bagan held for 11 years till then. But the Dempo players were in no mood to celebrate. They were concerned about their teammate. Lazarus Fernandes and a few others wept like a child, so did coach Armando Colaço. Those watching the match at the stadium or on television feared the worst. A few minutes later, Brazilian player Cristiano Júnior was officially declared dead on arrival at the hospital.
My mood changed completely. I’d seen many horrible incidents on the football ground in the past, but never before heard of a player dying on the field, while playing. And in this case, it wasn’t just any player. He was a player everyone loved and was especially close to the hearts of many East Bengal fans like me. He won us our National League victory in the season before that. In 2003-04, East Bengal lifted the National League for the second consecutive time and overall third time. Júnior(No. 26) was the top scorer for East Bengal FC. He had an elite partnership with Indian ace Baichung Bhutia. Júnior scored 15 goals and became the top goal-scorer that season. We never managed to win the League after that. Dempo announced that they will discontinue Júnior’s #10 shirt.
But that cannot erase the memories of the tragedy at one of the premier tournaments of the country’s club football close to a decade back. The incident, sadly, has not served as an eye-opener to committees organising football matches. Till date, the medical facilities available in the ground are not up to the mark. Recently, D. Venkatesh of Bangalore Mars, died of a cardiac arrest at a match again in Bengaluru. This, despite that on May 31, 2012, the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) made it mandatory to have Automated External Defibrillators (AED) in all stadiums during high-profile games including those of the national teams.
Cristiano Sebastião de Lima Júnior was 25 years (born in 1980, Rio de Janeiro) old when he died of coronary artery anomalies on the football ground. The Brazilian was a true goal machine. He left East Bengal FC and joined the Goan club Dempo SC as the highest paid footballer in India at that time in September, 2004. There too he scored many goals, including a brace in the final match of his life. He was a God-gifted striker who scored till his last breath. In India, Junior is remembered every year by his clubs through memorial services. But a true mark of respect would be when similar incidents don’t recur on the Indian football pitch.