23 Jun 2024  |   07:14am IST

Maidaan: Of blood sweat, tears and football

Maidaan: Of blood sweat, tears and football

The heart is an organ we don’t understand. It beats in strange parts and in weird ways in the Maidaan of life. It plays a sport that we only feel. It plays games, it wins and it loses. But above all, the right beating heart makes humans do the impossible. It beats as one in a football team of 11 and a squad of a few more.

Maidaan, the just-released movie, is the true story of a passionate master Syed Abdul Rahim. The coach of the Indian football team who battled cancer and it’s even greater debilitating variety - the petty politics of pettier football administrators, and got India an Asian Games Gold medal in 1962.

As Indians travel to Europe and cheer for teams across Europe in the ongoing Euro Cup with Goans rightly showing their love for their Portuguese heroes, Maidaan tells us the story of what one coach Syed Abdul Rahim, could do - convert a bunch of barefoot but battered football warriors to a fourth position in the Rome Olympics followed by a Gold in the Asian Games in Jakarta in 1962.

And it has a Goan connection with local boy Saiwyn Quadros, who wrote the screenplay, based here. A lad from the land of football, he would know a thing or two about both the passion and the heartbreak that the game serves.

Since then, Indian football has never gone that far. With technology, funds and exposure injected profusely into a system that has filled its investors’ cups with wealth, but has left the larder of trophies and player recognition dry.

Maidaan is a tribute to the blood (yes blood) sweat and tears shed by coach Rahim. But it is also a brutal shaming of a system that first rejects and then watches as a spectator and Rahim fights both the system and India’s biggest football opponents like South Korea, Thailand and Australia.

Rahim was from Hyderabad, while Indian football’s management was ruled by Bengal. When he started rebuilding his team after it reached its nadir post the 10-1 defeat to Yugoslavia in Helsinki, he started hunting for talent in the slums of Hyderabad, in the maidans of Mumbai and in the playing fields of Kolkata.

He walked, took trains, tongas and buses to travel as far and wide to unearth raw diamonds that became precious gems like Tulsidas Balaram from Secunderabad, Peter Thangaraj from Hyderabad and P K Banerjee and Chuni Goswami from Calcutta were just some of them.

He didn’t just see their feet. He looked a little higher. A lot higher and deeper. He looked at their hearts and started into their souls. And in the process, he also found his son, Syed Hakim, and his love for football.

When Rahim, true to the spirit of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘ekla cholo re’ started making champions out of these boys, who made India a champion side, politics kicked in. A crooked journalist and some stooges of the Indian football establishment got Rahim out after he got India to 4th position in the Melbourne Olympics. They ignored his grit and threw him out. They read, “India failed to get a medal.”

But what Rahim revelled in was this. In one game in Melbourne, a player from the Australian team disrespected Neville D’Souza and made him tie his shoes. Neville went on to score a hat-trick and the Indian team won the match 7-1.  The fans of other countries chanted: “Well-played India”. The Indian football administration chanted: “Rahim failed”, and threw Rahim out.

The chain-smoking Rahim was diagnosed with cancer and chose to spend his time as he rode into the sunset, at home with his family.

The decision proved disastrous because it wasn’t his cancer that was weakening his body. It was the consistent fall of Indian football, post his exit that was weakening his spirit. His wife then told him to get back and fulfil his dream of making India win a medal.

Rahim bravely went to Calcutta and pleaded with the new management to give him his job back. And he did manage. But just before the team was leaving for the Jakarta Asian Games in 1962,  he got word that the football contingent would not be sent since the country had low foreign exchange. Rahim left his team in Calcutta and rushed to Delhi to meet Finance Minister Morarji Desai and told him if the government reduced the number of officials in the contingent and allowed him to take a smaller squad, he would come back with a medal.

And yes he did this whole, constantly, coughing and throwing up blood.

And then Jakarta happened. Rahim led a team of weaker-beaten warriors to the games, leaving about 6 players behind, including his son, who was in the football squad.

As his physical condition worsened, his boys didn’t give up.

Peter Thangaraj, the goalkeeper, broke his foot in the first game and Pradyut Barman, who replaced him, played like a tiger. Thangaraj came back for the finals against South Korea and hurt himself, but played on with a broken leg, saving everything as India won the game and the Gold medal.

There were many heroes, but the biggest, was the team.

As coach Rahim said in one scene: “Jo team hum yahan banane jaa rahe hain woh tumhari yah meri team nahi, desh ki team ha  (This is team is not yours, nor mine, it is our country’s team.)

As his boys, gold medal winners ran to him after the finals, Rahim kept on coughing blood, a fight he was losing. But that was a very small fight.

In one scene, he gently covers a spot of blood on his crisp white shirt, just before the final game, with his jacket. That gesture was he telling cancer, “Please wait, my team and my country needs me. Let me win this one and I shall see you.”

Maidaan is a lesson for those who run this country’s sport. A lesson in bravery, simplicity, humanity and above all, a lesson in being one and not just a sum of many parts.

If the spirit of Rahim and the lessons he taught were preserved, India would have had many more Asian Golds and Olympic medals.


Idhar Udhar