SS Narayan or ‘Babu’ Narayan as he is famously known is regarded as one of the stalwarts of the Indian football squad that made its name at international stage during the mid-1950s. Born on November 12, 1934, Babu is a legendary goalkeeper who, along with his coach then - Syed Abdul Rahim Saab, is said to have played a massive part in what is now known as the ‘Golden Era’ of Indian Football. Babu Narayan’s story is nothing but a fairy-tale, let’s look back at the story of, probably, the greatest goalkeeper that India has ever produced.
Love for Basketball:
Babu Narayan was a student of Khalsa college in Bombay and during the time with his college, he represented the Maharashtra State in 1954 and became a member of the Bombay senior team. His love for playing sports always got him charged up and prompted sudden eagerness as he devoted the mornings playing basketball and evenings football. According to the man himself, basketball helped him a lot in becoming a better goalkeeper. When I interviewed him, he said, “I think basketball made me a better player. Positioning, collecting the ball and jumping made me more aware of my position, handling and overall agility.”
Caltex India Limited:
As football was a growing sport in India, the American company, Caltex India Limited was looking to form a competitive team in Bombay (Mumbai presently) and thus, Caltex were bringing in players from all across the nation in 1955; one of them the legendary Neville D’Souza. A player named - SS Narayan - typically unheard, was picked on the basis of his performances during his time with the Junior (college and school) teams. He was also picked because the club owned by the American owners lacked a goalkeeper and needed someone to step in. It was nothing but a chance for the then 20-year old and he grabbed this opportunity both his hands.
SS made his debut for Caltex in the Rovers Cup and was applauded for his debut performance against Kemari Union (KU) from Pakistan. Even though he was only 20, his ability to position himself, organize his wall, come out to collect crosses, also, handling and shot stopping skills were considered exceptional as his influence on the team was worthy in leading his side to the semi-finals of the tournament.As described by Babu Narayan himself, “Kemari Union was practically Pakistan’s National Team” and as he says, “Pakistan had a very good national team then.” The Rovers Cup tie between Caltex and KU was an epic game which was played over three games as the first two games ended in draws and failed to produce results. The third game saw Caltex beat KU to enter the quarter-finals of the tournament. Next up, their opponents were the strong Bangalore Muslims, who had been the finalists in 1953.
Babu Narayan’s Caltex beat the Bangalore based side in a single game and marched on to the semi-finals carrying the underdog flag. Their semi-final outing was rather considered an uphill climb as they lined up against the mighty Mohun Bagan which composed to mainly Indian internationals including the great Sailen Manna, probably the greatest striker who has ever played for India and also, the only Asian Footballer ever to be named among the 10 best Captains in the world by the English FA in 1953.
The tie against Mohun Bagan was another epic encounter as it lasted for three games with the first two ending in draws, only for Caltex to lose the third by conceding a goal in the final two minutes of the game.
This tournament did no harm to Babu’s reputation as the goalkeeper received a call from the football club to be a part of the Durand Cup played in Delhi in December 1955. Although Caltex again didn’t win any honours, SS Narayan’s excellent performance throughout the tournament was noticed and acknowledged. This made way for the youngster getting picked in the Bombay team for the National Championship in Trivandrum.
His performance in the tournament was a standout and saw Bombay reach the finals of the tournament where they lost to Hyderabad due to a last minute goal. The youngster got substantial recognition as the national selectors thought that they had seen enough to take him to Australia as a part of the travelling Indian Olympic Football team. So, within an year, the boy who had never played for a professional club until his graduation time, at a tender footballing age of 21 had reached the promise land by making it to the pinnacle of Indian football, The Indian National Team! Babu was living a dream.
Tata’s Football Club:
After a fascinating Olympic experience, Narayan returned to Caltex and played a couple of seasons with club before moving on to Tata’s in 1958. The move to Tata’s was not due to the difference in the playing standard of the two clubs but due to a choice that Babu considered as a ‘safe’, as in those days, the rumours of the clubs owned by American owners shutting down were drastic.
The legendary goalkeeper played for Tata’s for 13 years before announcing his retirement from club football. In his time with the club, Babu Narayan won five Bombay league titles; the first of which – unbeaten! As Babu was the goal-keeper, he was majorly credited for the performances. They repeated this feat in 1961 as not even one team, once again, was found good enough to defeat the Tata’s football team. Babu’s goalkeeping was always the centre of attraction.
Tata’s did not have a coach and Babu Narayan often acted like one to the junior team, teaching the younger kids, his immediate juniors and the players looking for a break in the first team.
Babu’s retirement came as a shock to many as it was one that was completely unexpected. Along with his football, Babu was also working and doing his job properly was one criteria to which he couldn’t succumb. As Babu states himself, “I got a promotion in my job and they asked me – job or football? And I couldn’t leave my job. Thus, I had to retire from football. Nowadays, cricketers get a day’s leave for playing sports; back then, this was not the case.”
Indian National Team:
Babu Narayan Played for Indian National Team for about nine years. He made his International debut in the 1956 summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia and performed exceptionally well to help India reach the semi-finals of the Olympics. India became the first Asian country to achieve this feat. After reaching the quarter finals, Team India lead by Samar Banerjee defeated the hosts, Australia 4-2 but then crashed out of the tournament 4-1 losing to a very strong Yugoslavian team, which had beaten a good United States outfit 9-1 earlier in the tournament. In the semi-finals, Babu Narayan made some fantastic saves but couldn’t stop his country from getting hammered.
Even though he switched clubs, his performances on the national and international stage had made him an automatic pick for the Asian games of 1958 in Tokyo. His inspirational performances led India to another fourth position. He was again in goal when the national team was attributed to the runners’ up position at the Merdeka Cup 1959 in Malaysia.
Babu was again picked for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Italy. These games were a major disappointment as India finished last in their group with only one point. SS Narayan was left out of the team for the 1962 Asian Games where India beat South Korea 2–1 in the finals to the tournament. Babu Narayan made a return to the Indian squad again, establishing himself as India’s number 1, but failed to make a serious impact as India failed to qualify for the 1964 Olympics in Rome, losing out to Iran in the final group game.
Babu Narayan stated the reason for the loss as Rahim Saab’s death due to cancer. He said, “Rahim was the greatest manager ever. He coached the Indian national team for over 12 years and thus, he knew every single player in and out, and made it a point to come regularly for the national championships to see the developments of individual players. We played almost the same team for four years and that was the key to getting great results.”
“Our preparation was going on for the Rome Olympics when a month before, he passed away after losing his battle against cancer. The new coach who came in started to implement a new formation which didn’t work out at all because we were used to playing Rahim Saab’s way.”
Babu worked with Tata’s for 43 years and so, never got a chance to go into professional coaching. However, he managed to do his bit to promote football in India. Since he is associated to Bipin Memorial Football Association, which provides free coaching to students, for over 20 Years, he has coached the best crop of youngsters coming through. He would take his fun out by training the kids and even Steven Dias is one of his students.
Man of the Match Selector:
For the I-League matches played at the Cooperage Stadium, Mumbai, Babu Narayan was chosen as the ‘Man of the Match Selector’ his primary job being to select the best player of that particular I-League match. He did the job because he loved the beautiful game and wanted to stay attached to the sport. Moreover, he had a chance to the current crop of Indian youngsters. In order to reach Cooperage, the man whom they love so dearly in Mumbai, would travel 45 minutes by local train from Thane to Churchgate.
Where is he now?
Babu Narayan is the current Vice-President of the Mumbai District Football Association. When he is not working, you will find him either at the Cooperage stadium during an I-League match, at football events where people often call him as a chief guest or relaxing in his house after a historic career that has affected the Indian football history in so many ways. Babu Narayan has gone down in the books as probably the best goalkeeper that India has ever produced.
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