Maidan Masters – Sudip Chatterjee
Sudip Chatterjee was one of the longest serving and successful captains of the Indian national football team. He also had a glittering domestic career. Kaushik Saha talks about Sudip’s brilliant career in this third installment of Maidan Masters
After Krishanu Dey and Bikash Panji in the last two editions, Sudip Chatterjee was a natural choice for two simple reasons—he was one of their mentors and he was a fellow warrior who brought laurels to the club, state, and country. Born on 5th February, 1959 at Shibpur in Howrah, he made his debut in 1981 as centre back for Howrah Sahajatri Club, a second division club of the Calcutta Football League in 1981. He represented them for a season. Former India international Arun Ghosh spotted his talent in 1982 and made him sign for Bengal Nagpur Railways (BNR)—a first division club. While playing for BNR, he was selected to represent India for the 1981 Merdeka Cup , 1982 Asian Games and Nehru Cup as a right back. He was a key member of the Bengal team that won the 1982 Santosh Trophy.
During an era when East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Mohammedan Sporting ruled Bengal and Indian football, Sudip was one of the rare Bengal-based footballers selected to represent India before playing for any of these clubs. The build up to the Asian Games was controversial as several players left to play for their clubs instead of attending the national camp, but Sudip and other youngsters were coaxed to stay on. The tournament saw India play high-quality football, including a memorable 2-2 draw with China. The national team went to the quarter-finals as group winners. Sudip was brought on as a susbtitute for Compton Dutta in the quarter final vs. Saudi Arabia, but it was his mistake that allowed Saudi to score the winning goal.
Soon after the Asian Games, Sudip transferred to Mohun Bagan. After two average seasons in which Mohun Bagan didnt taste much success, Sudip moved to East Bengal in 1984, where coach Amal Dutta shifted him to Central Midfield. This proved to be a turning point in his career, and he formed a formidable partnership with Bikash Panji, Sudip Das, and Sunirmal Chakravarty. Sudip was appointed the national captain in 1985 and he led India to the gold at the SAF Games. He also captained India in the 1985 (and 1988) Nehru Cups and the 1986 Merdeka Cup, Asian Games, and Pre-Olympic qualifiers. His leadership and footballing skills earned him the AIFF “Player of the Year” title in 1986.
The captaincy issue at the 1986 Asian games became a bone of contention between Sudip and Prasanta Banerjee, who felt that depsite being the senior he was overlooked due to internal politics. Prasanta spared no opportunity to criticize Sudip’s leadership and footballing skills, even publicly blaming him for the 1982 defeat. However, in a later interview after becoming a member of the Parlaiment, Prasanta admitted his mistake and called Sudip one of the best midfielders to have ever played for India.
Sudip had two average years between 1986 and 1987, when he was dropped from the Indian and Bengal teams and had disappointing seasons at East Bengal. Amal Dutta ensured his return to Mohun Bagan in 1988 at a high fee of Rs. 2,00,000 (an amount for an out-of-form footballer, which raised many an eyebrow). He worked closely with Sudip, helping him regain his form. In 1989, Sudip led Mohun Bagan to a good season where they won the IFA Shield, Durand Cup, Sikkim Gold Cup, and All Airlines Gold Cup. He also led Bengal to another Santosh trophy—a hard-fought victory over the Babu Mani-led Kerala team. In 1988, he was back as India’s captain for the Asia Cup, and in the 1989 SAF Games, India finished 3rd. In 1990, Syed Nayeemuddion coaxed Sudip to return to East Bengal and he was part of the team that won the triple crown of IFA Shield, Durand Cup and Rovers Cup. However, by this time, an ageing Sudip was fast losing ground to youngsters like Shankar Sadhu and Debashis Sarkar, and rarely played the full duration of matches. Sudip did come back for one last Mohun Bagan stint in 1992, winning the Calcutta Football League, but it was evident that he had lost a lot of pace and stamina. Sudip hung up his boots after leading India for one last time in the 1992 Asia Cup. AIFF honored with him the “Player of the Decade” title in 1994. Sudip was also named in the “Best Indian XI of the 1980s” by a magazine and Krishanu Dey named him the “captain of a dream squad of the 1980s”
Sudip could not be kept away from football. He returned as Bengal’s coach on foe-turned-friend Prasanta Banerjee’s advice and coached them to a hattrick of Santosh Trophy titles between 1996 to 1998—the last of which ended in a 5-0 demolition of Goa in the final led by Bhaichung Bhutia. He briefly coached Mohammedan Sporting in 1997 but failing health ensured that he had to leave the sport that he had loved and played his entire life. Diagnosed with dementia (said to be due to a head injury he sustained in his playing days), he hardly interacted with anyone. In 2006, he choked on a guava and died, leaving the Bengal and India football fraternity in shock. He was only 47. Sudip Chatterjee was honored posthumously by East Bengal in a “Sports Day” organized by the club on 13th August 2014.
What made Sudip such a great footballer?
Sudip made a switch from being a defender to a midfielder, and, according to veteran coach Amal Dutta, this requires high footballing skills. According to former goalkeeper Sumit Mukherjee, Sudip was the first choice to take goal kicks because of his power. Sisir Ghosh (who often claimed it was Sudip who was responsible for bringing out the best in him) said Sudip was a great leader and made the team feel like one family. Brothers Pradeep and Prasanta Banerjee have both said a combination of powerful football and sublime skills made Sudip a delight to play with. This, coupled with his willpower to compete and his ability to work hard both at practice and in the gymnasium made him capable to vie with the best in Asia.
In conclusion it can be said that as a player, a coach, and a leader, Sudip was very successful. It is a matter of deep regret for Bengal and Indian football that he passed away so young.