Tulsidas Balaram, one of the greatest footballers ever to play for India, passed away on February 16, ending the most glorious chapter of Indian football. Balaram was the last surviving member of the ‘Golden Trinity’ of football: the other two, Chuni Goswami and P.K. Banerjee, having passed away in 2020. Balaram breathed his last in a Kolkata hospital after a prolonged illness. He was 86.
One of the key members of the squad that created history by winning gold at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, Balaram was a pioneer in the technical aspect of the game. He was arguably the first ‘complete’ football player that India ever had. He was a sublime dribbler, deadly shooter, playmaker, and architect of attacks, and, when necessary, had no hesitation in racing back to bolster the defence.
In a professional career that lasted less than 10 years, Balaram won most of the major trophies in Indian football. While playing for India, he won the Asian Games gold (1962) and was runners-up in the Merdeka Cup (1959), and had scored 10 goals in 36 matches. He also won four Santosh Trophies: for Hyderabad in 1956 and for Bengal in 1958, 1959, and 1962. He was the captain of the Bengal squad that won the 1962 Santosh Trophy.
But it was while playing for the Kolkata giant East Bengal that Balaram’s legend in Indian football was cemented. During his stint at East Bengal between 1957 and 1962, Balaram won the DCM Trophy (1957, 1960), the IFA Shield (1958, 1961), Durand Cup (1960), Calcutta Football League (1961), Rovers Cup (1962), and the H.K. Mookherjee shield (1957, 1961).
Kalyan Chaubey, president of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), said in a condolence message: “He was a blessed child of the football god. I am sure Balaram-da has returned to him, leaving us mourning for one of the most gifted players in Indian football history. He truly was from a golden generation of Indian football. He was one of the best we had ever seen. My thoughts go out to his family.”
As a mark of respect for Balaram, the AIFF has announced a three-day mourning period. The federation will fly its flag at half-mast during this period and a one-minute silence will be observed before the start of all competitive matches in India.
Born on October 4, 1936, in Ammuguda village near Secunderabad, Balaram grew up in abject poverty. Years later he would recall how his mother would insist that he focus on his education and get a government job; but Balaram’s heart lay in playing football. He recalled once how he had lied to his mother and took Rs.2 from her in order to pay a cobbler to fix a pair of old rejected boots he had procured from a police constable. “I told my mother I needed the money for textbooks. She didn’t hesitate,” Balaram remembered in a later interview.
It was while playing at local tournaments in Secunderabad that 19-year-old Balaram was spotted by Syed Abdul Rahim, the legendary coach of the Indian national side (1950-1963). Rahim saab, as he was popularly referred to, immediately picked Balaram for the Hyderabad team for the 1956 Santosh Trophy, and the same year Balaram was selected to play for India at the Melbourne Olympics. That year, India became the first team in Asia to reach the semi-final stage in the Olympics.
East Bengal icon
In 1957 he joined East Bengal and in the five years that he remained there, not only did he score 104 goals and win innumerable accolades for the Red and Gold Brigade, he also established himself as one of the immortal icons of the club.
In 1961, as the captain of East Bengal, he steered the club to victory both at CFL and the IFA Shield. Kushal Chakraborty, football expert and unofficial historian of East Bengal, told Frontline: “Balaram was arguably the greatest ball player of India after Ahmed Khan. The late great Surajit Sengupta (East Bengal legend and former skipper) once told me that it was after seeing Balaram play that he had made up his mind to become a football player. In fact, Chuni Goswami had also acknowledged in private circles that he felt Balaram was the greatest among them. So, we can understand what a truly great player he was.”
Soon after returning victorious from Jakarta in 1962, while at his peak, Balaram abruptly left East Bengal and practically quit playing top-level football. The story goes that he gone to visit his ailing mother in Secunderabad immediately upon landing in Kolkata from Jakarta, without informing the club. The authorities expressed their displeasure by fining him. Balaram left the club and there was nothing East Bengal could say or do to make him change his mind. He was hurt by the club’s behaviour and did not forgive them right until the end. According to a report, he even recently rejected East Bengal’s offer to help him out financially when he had to undergo an operation.
Although he played for the Bengal Nagpur Railway (BNR) team for a short while, Balaram’s absence was felt acutely at the game’s top level. In 1963, his weak lungs finally forced him to hang up his boots. He was only 27.
A quiet-living man of tremendous integrity, Balaram shunned the limelight and preferred to live a quiet of life of relative obscurity. But his legend and his legacy never faded.