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Recognition still evades the unsung heroes

The Roger Milla celebration, prancing around the corner post after slotting the ball in, is still vivid in our memories. Many emulated his dance. Or the Bebeto jig, cradling his arms to announce the birth of his son, sent the football audience into raptures.

Even goalkeepers, in hockey and football, get to display their emotions under the bar. But how does a defender or a midfielder make his presence known? Is a team sport only about scorers and savers?

When it comes to recognition, especially in terms of awards, in a team game, picking an individual becomes a task most hazardous. “I don’t think so. There can be exceptions but not a rule. In hockey and football we have had awards for midfielders and defenders. It is not always about the scorers and the savers,” says former India captain Zafar Iqbal.

A prolific marksman himself, Zafar is remembered for his scoring prowess. But hardly mention is made of some defenders and midfielders who would have assisted in the team’s success. Players such as Surjit Singh and Pargat Singh became popular because they defended well and scored well from penalty corners. Someone like Dilip Tirkey earned plaudits because of his endurance on the field and longevity in the team.

But hockey turned its back on some performers in the midfield and defence. Players like Aslam Sher Khan, Anil Aldrin, Jugraj Singh, Shakeel Ahmed, Arjun Halappa, Sabu Varkey defended and sometimes scored, but awards and status eluded them.

Some got it excruciatingly late. R. S. Bhola, Olympic hockey gold medallist in 1956 and a fine scorer, was conferred the Arjuna Award only in 2000. Ace athlete Milkha Singh too was picked for the honour more than three decades after his retirement but he turned down the award. He was unhappy for being clubbed with persons who he thought were “nowhere” near the level that he had attained.

Football too unkind

Football has not been any different with some stalwarts being denied what they deserved. Even the longevity factor did not work in their favour. A great like Bhaskar Ganguly, a lord inside the penalty area and one of the greatest goalkeepers India has seen, was never considered for any award. Neither was Manoranjan Bhattacharya, a rock like figure in the defence and known to bottle up the best of strikers with his canny anticipation. Sudip Chatterjee and Krishanu Dey, neither of them privileged to figure in the list of forwards, remained unsung. The only recognition for them came from their colleagues in the team, the ones who gained from their assists during key contests.

Football did honour legends like Jarnail Singh and Peter Thangaraj and stars like Syed Naeemuddin and Yusuf Khan, but one of the finest midfielders of modern era, Parminder Singh, was kept waiting despite some sterling shows over a period of time. Even Sudhir Karmakar, hailed as the best defender in Asia in 1970 when India won the Asian Games bronze, was given the Arjuna Award only in 1981. Better late than never in Karmakar’s case but then goal-scorers and savers have clearly enjoyed a distinct advantage when evaluation for awards is made.

How do you judge individual brilliance in a team game? “There are ways to judge an individual in a team game. Over a period of time a player gets noticed for his consistency. Scoring and celebrating may look glamorous to the crowd but the team knows the value of a save made,” says Zafar. The fact, however, remains that a Messi is a bigger celebrity than a Xavi or Iniesta, his colleagues at Barcelona. He scores goals. They only assist.

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