OTHERS

Recalling Neville's extraordinary exploits in Olympic football

INDIA'S AWARENESS about the late Neville D'Souza's exploits on the Olympic football arena has grown, courtesy television. However, there is no doubt that the striker's contribution to Indian football is much more than a sensational hat-trick of goals scored against Australia in the 1956 Melbourne Games.

``Whenever I think about Indian football, his name comes to my mind,'' recalls Olympian S. S. Narayan, India's goalkeeper at Melbourne when Neville went on a rampage against the hapless Aussies in the first round. ``After we won, I remember the Australians calling our victory a `fluke' and demanding a re- match at Sydney after the Games ended. They were so stunned at the Olympic loss despite the home advantage that they were adamant about playing us again. We won the re-match with Neville scoring twice.''

The 1956 Melbourne Games performance can be considered the high- point of Indian football, with the national squad coached by S. A. Rahim coming close to clinching a bronze medal. After mauling the hosts in the Olympics opener, Neville's next target was Yugoslavia in the semi-finals, where after putting India a goal up, Narayan remembers how the striker beat two defenders and deceived the onrushing custodian before lobbing the ball goalwards, only to see it bounce onto the horizontal bar and out of play. ``It would have been an audacious goal, but the post came in Neville's way,'' says the Indian goalkeeper. Yugoslavia won to make the final. India's subsequent loss to Bulgaria in the match to decide the third spot meant Rahim's men had to be satisfied with the fourth position, our best performance in Olympic football history to date. From that high in 1956 when a bronze was in our sights, now participation in the Olympics Games football event is a cause for celebration. For the current generation of football fans used to seeing India struggle against even Asian sides in pre-Olympic qualifiers, Neville D'Souza's hat-trick has been pushed so far back in public memory that remembering the feat is taken as an achievement.

``Television was not around when Neville was playing for India at the Olympics and nor were video recordings possible, so people have no way of knowing how good he was in the goalmouth,'' observed his brother Dereyk de Souza, former international and national coach, who played alongside one of India's most sensational strikers from 1960-62. ``I am happy that at least now a quiz programme on television has made people aware that in the past Indian football possessed forwards of Neville's calibre with an Olympic hat-trick against his name.''

Dereyk treasures every moment spent with Neville on the football field, especially the three seasons playing together for Caltex club and Maharashtra. ``Neville's greatest quality was his humility. He hated to talk about his own achievements, however extraordinary. Even the Melbourne Games hat-trick did not come up in our football discussions,'' observes the former India coach, who recollects his brother and inspiration talking about the experience of attending an Olympic Games. ``He would talk about Melbourne as something I should experience. See the march-past, the Indians walking in with turbans and the Olympic atmosphere. He would goad me to aim for an Olympic place. I knew this was going to be my role model.''

India's sole player to enter the Olympic hat-trick club became a goal-scoring phenomenon because of natural game sense and a footballing brain. ``He was a natural in the true sense of the term, blessed with the speed, skills and stamina. And used the inside of the head more often than the outside,'' points out Deryck. ``A major share of the credit for making us hungry for goals goes to our parents. My mother would promise us ten rupees per goal per match. In the evening, both Neville and I would be demanding sixty rupees from her after scoring three goals each.''

Narayan attempts to explain what made Neville so special in football at every level. ``His control was so good that once the ball was in possession, Neville was the absolute master. When on the move, his ability to dribble, cutting is the right word, was exceptional to the point that the ball would always be between his legs,'' observes the former India goalkeeper who also points out that when confronted with tough tackles, even at the international level, Neville had the positional sense and the knack of staying clear of such players and be there to receive the pass.

``He did not use power to score goals, rather his weapon was guile, placing the ball in such a way that goalkeepers had no chance,'' recalls Narayan, happy to relive memories of his former teammate who gave Indian football so much joy. As a surprised nation re-discovers the identity of a genius from the golden past, wife Lyra D'Souza's mind goes into the rewind mode. ``Neville would not have played at the Olympics but for coach Rahim's faith in him. There was a move by a regional lobby to keep him out, but it was only because of the coach's insistence that he was on the squad to Melbourne,'' she says.

Coach's Rahim's confidence paid off and Neville went on to grab a place for himself in India's football history. ``He played for India and became famous for scoring so many goals. Neville was a favourite with the fans, you should have been in Goa when he was at his peak to know what I am talking about,'' says Lyra, one of his lifetime fans. ``I thought he had done enough to be considered for national honours like the Arjuna award then. I don't know why he was overlooked, maybe because he was so unassuming. However, the football fans then held him in high esteem, showering on him all their love and respect. I am proud of him.''

NANDAKUMAR MARAR

Mumbai

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