Maidan Masters | Krishanu Dey
In this series on the “Maidan Masters”, Kaushik Saha looks at footballers who lit up the Kolkata Maidan in the 80s and 90s. Krishanu Dey, often given the epithet of the “Indian Maradona”, is the first in the series.
Krishanu Dey has often been called the Maradona of India. Now, the epithet of being the Maradona of a country is bestowed upon the footballer considered to be the best in business in that region / club / nation. In a country that has produced the likes of Shibdas Bhaduri, Gostha Pal, Sailen Manna, Chuni Goswami, Shyam Thapa, IM Vijayan, and Baichung Bhutia, the fact that Krishanu, a diminutive attacking midfielder from Kolkata,has been bestowed with the title may raise a few eyebrows. But those who have been lucky to see him at his peak will wholeheartedly agree with the title.
Krishanu, born on Valentine’s Day in 1962, was a maverick who was discovered by Sadhan Ghosh ,a scout with Prabhat Sangha—his para (neighborhood) club. It was Sadhan Ghosh who convinced Krishanu to give up cricket (he was a promising wicket keeper in what is considered to be the go-to sport in the country) and concentrate on football. He debuted for a low profile team, the Calcutta Police team, when he was just 17, and quickly moved to a much more celebrated one (of those days)—the Calcutta Port Trust. After helping CPT finish well in Kolkata Football League for two seasons, he moved to Mohun Bagan in 1982, which was followed by a move to the former’s arch rival, East Bengal, in 1985. He helped his employee,Railways, reach the final of Santosh Trophy—a state- and service-based annual football tournament in India—twice in this period.
The period when he played for East Bengal was when he attained his peak, gaining a kind of popularity that bordered on hysteria. He won all there was to win with club—one Federation Cup, three IFA shields, three Durand Cups, five Calcutta Leagues, one Rovers Cup, and three All Airlines Gold Cups. 1990 was East Bengal’s season to remember, with the team winning the “Triple crown” of IFA Shield, Durand Cup, and Rovers Cup, as well as the Calcutta League and All Airlines Gold Cup.
This was also the time when the famous bromance of the Kolkata Maidans was taking shape. Bikash Panji, who played alongside Krishanu for over a decade, was his best friend both on and off the field. The two men were drastically different in appearance, but shared similarities and understood each other like no one could.Panji was a tall man with a beard, while Krishanu was short, stocky, mustachioed, and clean shaven.Bikash was the sundance kid to Krishnu’s Butch Cassidy, and understood exactly where Krishanu would land the ball. East Bengal’s golden year of 1990 saw both players play some sublime football. They were complemented by perhaps the best foreigner to have played in India—Chima Okorie.
During this time, Krishanu was also making his mark in the national colours. In the 1986 Merdeca Cup (one of the most prestigious tournaments held in any ASEAN country those days), Krishanu scored a hat trick against Thailand, and then scored a brace against South Korea as India beat the would-be world cuppers 4-3.
The arrival of hard taskmaster Syed Naimuddin as the coach of East Bengal in 1990 transformed Krishanu as a footballer. From a wiry footballer depending primarily on dribbling, accurate passing, and great game sense, Krishanu turned a muscular player and became less prone to injuries, thanks to the hours Nayeem spent on working on him. Krishanu had a controversial transfer to Mohun Bagan in 1992 when Mohun Bagan officials hid him in a secret hideout to prevent him being lured by the East Bengal officials. East Bengal supporters, in hundreds, lay siege to his house to prevent him from going to Mohun Bagan. In 1994, for a brief period, he played for East Bengal, but a court injunction made him play for his employer, Food Corporation of India. He ended his football career with FCI in 1997 after a neck injury sustained in a collision with Chima.
Krishanu led the national side for a brief period, leading the team in the 1992 Asian Cup and the 1993 SAFF Cup, the latter of which was won by India.
Krishanu coached the East Bengal U-19 team for a brief period in the early 2000s, besides helping the Indian Football Association organize several coaching camps in and around Kolkata. Krishnu died young of a pulmonary disorder in 2003, aged only 40. The All India Football Federation named their U-19 league after him.
What made Krishanu such a phenomenon?
In the mid 80s, when the greats of football in Bengal had retired or were rapidly ageing (Prasoon Banerjee, Sukumar Samajpati, Surajit Sengupta, Subhash Bhowmick, Shyam Thapa, and foreigners like Majid Baskar and Jamshed Nassiri), Bengal was losing its grip on the national scene to states like Manipur and Goa. The win in 1983 cricket World Cup and emergence of the television, where the average Bengali saw world class football in the comfort of their homes, meant that crowds and the subsequent madness in the Maidan was steadily decreasing. It is at this time that Krishanu emerged as a saviour of the game. He, along with Bikash Panji, Shishir Ghosh, Sudeep Chatterjee, Bhaskar Ganguly, and Satyajit Chatterjee brought the “middle class Bengali footballer” back to the foreground again. Additionally, he possessed superb skills—one of the best in Asia at that time. Despite a slight frame, he could take on the big bodied Africans who had started to dominate the scene—Emeka Ezeugo, Chima Okorie, Bernard Operanozie, Chibuzor, etc.
In other words, Krishanu brought back the sense of pride in the target audience—Bengali football fans, especially middle- and lower-class men. By helping Bengal win Santosh Trophy and by helping India do well internationally, Krishanu became a matter of pride for Bengali sports fans. Sports reporters like Manas Chakrabarty, Rupak Saha, and Moti Nandy, who covered Krishanu and Bengali football at the time, spoke and wrote of how the arch rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan went the extra mile to have Krishanu in their ranks, how team scouts would not mind sweeping the floor at his house to please his mother, and how team bosses would hire detectives to spy on his movements. Syed Nayeemuddin—who laid great stress on Krishanu becoming a stronger footballer to the extent that he even fixed his diet—however, has a different take. Nayeem sir, as he was fondly called by Krishanu, feels that the player also developed a strong tackle later on in his career and could snatch the ball from opponent defenders quite easily. Plus, his small frame meant he had a low center of gravity, adding to his ball control skills.
In the words of his coaches—the most prominent of them being PK Banerjee—Krishanu had a keen game sense. He knew he did not have a great physique, so he rarely went charging into the rival side. He did not have a great header either. Rather, he concentrated on honing his dribbling skills and off-the-ball movements, much like what Xavi Hernandes did for Barcelona. Krishanu’s stamina meant that he could dribble the ball all the way from midfield to the opponent’s box. According to Chima Okorie, he had a great through pass, and set up many of Chima’s goals by immaculate passing or drawing markers towards himself and freeing up the strikers. Bikash Panji and Krishanu’s equations on and off the field meant they understood each other’s movements perfectly, and often drew opponent defenders to oneself before quickly passing the ball to the other.
What also enhances Krishanu’s reputation and legend is the fact that till date, there is not a single Benagli footballer who has been able to successfully take on his mantle. Many have been compared to him—Sanjay Majhi, Dipendu Biswas, and Subhashish Roy Chowdhury being the most prominent among them. However, none of them have matched his achievements or skill in the field.Forget being India’s best, there is a hardly a Bengali who is the best in the Maidans of Kolkata currently. Now, every major club, including the two Kolkata biggies, have to get players from the North Eastern states, who dominate the Indian football scene. So, Krishanu invokes a high degree of nostalgia from the average Bengali football fan. However, his contemporaries have pointed out that a certain Manas Sarkar, who is playing for East Bengal this season, might go on to become the next Krishanu. We wish him all the best, because, Krishanu himself, had he lived longer, would have definitely discovered or manufactured a few gems to carry forward his legacy by now.