1988 – A Love Story

Gooooooooooooooooaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaal”, broke out the whole stadium in frenzy as spectators witnessed a spectacular shot into the net. The crowd went berserk.

I, a young boy of 7 with a national flag in hand, was right there at the Focin gallery to witness this international match. However, I couldn’t decide what awed me more — the beauty of the game or that the underdogs, my home team, had scored a goal.

The year was 1988, the town Siliguri, and the stage Nehru Gold Cup.

Sitting right in the chicken’s neck of India, almost 600 km up north from Kolkata, Siliguri was a forgotten and forsaken town in the foothills of the eastern Sivalik range of the Himalayas in the West Bengal, India. Abundant in natural beauty, it had a mixed populace of Nepalese and Bengalis, both of whom had inherited a rich culture of sports from their colonial past. Kolkata was considered the football capital of India and the last fortress of football fanaticism; Siliguri followed in its footsteps like an awestruck fan.

Though Siliguri never really made it to national news and even newspapers came to this sleepy town two-three days late sometimes, one thing it boasted of was a passion for sports. Little wonder then that there were large green playgrounds all over the town. Little children like me spent most of our childhood in these sprawling grounds, mostly playing football.  The other popular game was table tennis.

We lived in a railway quarter back then as my father worked in the North East Frontier Railways. Ours was one of the three houses with electricity and the only house with a television. So we had to accommodate a huge crowd every Sunday morning, when iconic TV serials used to be aired.

In such meagre times, my uncle from Kolkata came in with the big news. Siliguri was going to host a football tournament – an international one at that, in two years. I vaguely recall my uncle’s elated face (he was born and brought up in the town before leaving for Kolkata for work) as he told us there would be six international teams including India playing here. He said he had come to begin the hospitality arrangements for the footballers. A government-run hotel nearby was to be renovated into a 3-star facility to accommodate the players. Work started pretty soon.

Tilak Maidan – a huge ground in the heart of the town was the chosen venue. The whole town was a work in progress. The famous two-lane Hill Cart Road was turned into a magnificent four- lane bifurcated, well-illuminated. Hotels of all sizes began popping up everywhere. My school got a fresh round of paint and my father’s office which was just beside the ground got new shiny gates.

Within a year Siliguri was transformed into this swanky new town, all set to welcome its international guests. The venue, now ready, was christened Kanchenjungha Stadium, after the famous peak. It was a square-shaped ground, with a huge shiny gate and a capacity to hold 40,000 spectators. This meant that one side of the gallery would always be far away from the action. The lush green field on the one hand and the beauty of the Kanchenjungha peak that was visible from the top tiers of the gallery were incentives enough for anyone to be there at the scene of action.
The venue done, hospitality arrangements on track, it was time to reveal the names of the teams participating in the Nehru Gold Cup. We got to know Hungary, Soviet Union or the USSR, China, Poland, Bulgaria and, of course, India were to play. But then we heard Poland would not be able to make it. The tournament was postponed by a few days and the schedule altered to suit the Polish team and then they agreed to join the tournament. Most of the countries sent their Olympic teams barring China. China sent a B team full of under-21 players from the country. USSR looked the strongest with a star-studded line up headed by the golden-haired Alexei Mikhailichenko who was a crowd favourite.

The group stage would be round robin leagues among 6 teams – each team playing other teams once. Then depending on the points and goal difference (in case of equal points) there would be two finalists to take a shot at the trophy.

The Tournament

I don’t remember much about the opening ceremony. The ground was full. I was at the pavilion side gallery called the Focin gate, right below the commentary box and beside the path leading to the footballers’ dressing room. My uncle being one of the officials in the organising committee of the tournament had got passes for all the matches. I could not resist tagging along with him, considering I got to meet the footballers at the Mainak Lodge where they stayed, ate good food and even got a car ride back home! The inaugural match was between Bulgaria and Soviet Union which the Soviets won 0-1 with ease.

Football fever was in the air and for miles away from the ground one could hear the roar of the crowd.

The tickets were cheap, so not a single seat was empty in any of the matches. All teams got their share of support and crazy slogans from the crowd (which I am sure they didn’t understand) and there was a general feeling of goodness all around. The local newspaper for the first time in their publishing history was printing live images instead of those taken from TV.

The first match for the home team next day was a terrible let-down. India lost to China B 2-0. The Indians were in trouble throughout the match and hardly looked like they belonged to the stage. The Chinese played professionally and scored two easy goals.

I still remember the game between Hungary and USSR the most. It was a fantastic contest between two east European countries. I didn’t understand much of strategy then, but surely I had never seen anything as electrifying or speedy on a football field. The game was replete with attacks and counter-attacks, dominated by the Soviets. Though the Hungarians counter-attacked well, they finally lost by a goal to the Russians. The scorecard hardly reflected the thriller of a match that it was.

Another memorable match was the one India played against Hungary. As far as I can remember, Hungary scored their first goal and looked pretty relaxed. India counter-attacked and after a few minutes of attacking, the left winger Tarun Dey scored a fantastic goal with a header. The whole stadium was delirious. The first goal by India in the tournament and it came from a local boy (well a boy from the same state, alright). The joy was short lived though, because Hungary soon showed India who’s the boss by scoring one more in the first and two in the second half to win the bout 4-1. That goal is probably one of the most celebrated football moments etched in my memory even after 23 long years.

India’s best achievement in the tournament wasn’t that though. The team played Poland on 28th January 1988 – a red letter day in my memory. It was a prolific game of football where for the first time India wasn’t afraid to attack even though the opponent was a European team. The league stage was almost over, so probably the national coach Syed Nayeemuddin wanted to break out of his traditional defensive approach. It was an evenly fought match where India scored first and was leading by one goal to nil. It was an amazing half hour when we were in the front. Poland equalized later on and the match ended 1-1. I

As the tournament progressed, it became quite evident that USSR was the indomitable superpower in the tournament. Apart from China & India all the four European teams were top notch teams, especially USSR, who went on to beat Brazil to win the Olympic gold in 1988. Poland was the second strongest team in the tournament who arrived late but soon went up the league table by beating Bulgaria, Hungary and China. Hungary got the better of Bulgaria and China.

USSR had beaten all the teams. Even Poland wasn’t much of a competition to USSR. Despite altering the schedule for the Polish team, they had to play back to back games. USSR beat them easily 2-0.

Poland went to the final along with USSR. The stadium was packed to full capacity. And there were zillions of fans outside with Soviet, Polish and even Indian flags. It almost had a festive flavour to it.

Though I don’t recall much about the final, I remember the Soviets winning the trophy.

That Handshake

The last but one match in the group stage was the India vs. USSR match which USSR won easily by 4-0. There was a special reason why I remember that day. My uncle took me to the players’ hotel after the match to meet some of the players. Since there wasn’t as much security in those days, it was easy to ask for autographs.

After almost an hour or so, my uncle got permission from the USSR manager and the captain to visit his suite on the first floor. We pressed the bell and there he was standing, right in front of me – Alexei Mikhailichenko – the blonde-haired captain of USSR. It was like a dream come true. He was a very handsome, tall and amicable person. He asked my name and helped me with his autograph on a tiny autograph book I carried. His was the only entry there, as I had never seen any sportsman in my life, forget getting so close and talking to him. He even asked me my favourite footballer’s name. I wasn’t much of an English speaker back then, but my uncle helped translate the question.
I knew only one Russian footballer’s name which I spurted out spontaneously, “Lev Yashin”. That brought a smile to his face and he gave a pat on my head.

The tournament left definite marks on the town as well as the town’s psyche. It remained clean and gorgeous for a few more years. Numerous football coaching centres sprouted like mushrooms everywhere. Every locality had its own football coach. I too joined one of them the following summer and started playing in the nursery league as a goalkeeper. The Lev Yashin dream looked all set to come true. That was until I broke my arm while saving a free kick which put an end to my short football career.

Come the next Olympics, half the people of the town (if not more) were shouting for Alexei’s USSR against the otherwise favourite Romario’s Brazil. I, of course, was one of them.

Siliguri had made a mark on the world football arena. The tournament provided an adrenalin shot into the arms of a bleak obscure border town.  Soon a major domestic tournament was held.at the same venue – the Airlines Gold Cup – where all the major clubs from the country took part. Later there were numerous international club matches and domestic matches held in the town – including matches for Asian Cup Winners’ Cup, IFA Shield etc.

But like all other places in India, football gradually lost its sheen in Siliguri.

Kanchenjungha Stadium still stands, albeit sans the same glory. And, at the heart of the ground, like a naked wound, there now lies a muddy cricket pitch.

A few of the biggest names in the tournament –

1. Alexei Mikhailichenko (USSR/Ukraine) – also known as Oleksei Oleksandrovych Mykhaylychenko; played for USSR & Ukraine national teams ; Club career – Dynamo Kiev, Sampdoria, Rangers ; Achievements – Olympic Gold Medal -1988, European Cup Winners’ Cup -1986, Serie A – 1990, Silver Medal at Euro88, Managed – Ukraine U-21, Ukraine Senior team, Dynamo Kiev ; Retired in 1997.

2. Marek Lesniak (Poland) – played for Poland national team ; Club career – Bayer Leverkusen(1988-92), a host of Polish clubs.

3. Yuri Savichev (USSR) – played for USSR national team ; Club career – FC Torpedo Moscow(1984-90), Olympiacos (90-92) etc.

4. Valdas Ivanauskas(USSR) –  played for USSR & Lithuania national teams ; Club career – CSKA Moscow (1985-86), Lokomotiv Moscow, Hamburger SV etc.

5. Aleksandr Borodyuk(USSR) –  played for USSR national team in Italia 1990, Russian national team in 1994 US World Cup. Club career – Dynamo Moscow, Schalke 04, SC Freiburg, Lokomotiv Moscow etc. Achievement(s) – has become the assistant manager of Russian senior team, working as an assistant to Dick Advokaat since 2010.

6. Andrzej Rudy(Poland) – played for Poland national team ; Club career – FC Koln, AFC Ajax,  etc.

7. Georgi Georgiev (Bulgaria) – played for Bulgaria national team in 1994 World Cup (reached semi-final).


Ankan Paul supports Arsenal and East Bengal (in India). Ardently follows EPL & I-league and dreams of shouting for India in a FIFA world cup match. Apart from football, he likes hiking, photography and movies.