“When you faced him inside the box, you couldn’t do a thing. You felt as if you were mesmerised and he would beat you with the simplest of shots….” said Peter Thangraj, about his teammate Neville D’Souza.
A true student of the game, Neville D’Souza contribution to Indian Football have made him nothing short of a legend. A fan favourite, for his free flowing attacking style, the striker from Maharashtra was adept at Football as well as Hockey. He achieved the unique status of being a double national, in other words he represented the country in Football as well as Hockey but his true love remained the one where he achieved star status.
Born on the 1st of January 1932, he kickstarted his club football career with the Goan Sports Club and moved on to play for the Tata’s, Caltex (Hindustan Petroleum now) and the Bombay state team. This was the time where he made his transition to one of the stars of the Indian game. He helped his teams to win regular titles like the Rovers cup and Beighton tournament. During the football off-season, he would be summoned by the national Hockey team to perform.
Married to Lyra and blessed with 3 children, he retired in 1963 and took up coaching as a profession and joined the AIFF selection panel. On the 16th March 1980, at the age of 47 tragedy struck as he died of brain hemorrhage. India lost one if it’s best sportsperson that helped Indian Football to some standing.
His death kind of erased him from the history books and he remained only in the hearts of the die-hard football fans. The lack of documentation about his life made him only a part of the folklore. His greatness was brought back to the public eye in a very unusual way. The game show “Kaun Banega Crorepati” in one if it’s early editions had asked a participant, “who was the only Indian to score a hat-trick in Olympic football?”. The options that were given were, Neville D’Souza, PK Banerjee, Salian Manna and Sabhir Ali. The participant refused to answer this question that would have earned him 1 crore. It was at that moment that the host, Amitabh Bachan, decided to refresh everyone’s memory. He went on to tell the crowd present and the television viewers about the exploits of Neville Stephen.
Goa, was the first state to recognize his efforts. After his death, Neville’s achievements were celebrated by the Goan people on the Independence day of 1990. It took more than 25 years for the Maharashtra government to posthumously award the best footballer of a generation. On the occasion Lyra, Neville’s wife, said, “better late than never”. This is the prime example of the apathy shown by the government towards our national icons.
“His weapon was guile, placing the ball in such a way that goalkeepers had not a chance…” recalls SS Narayan, the goalkeeper, who was in middle of the sticks for India at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Team India played 3 games in that tournament but only secured one win.
In their opening fixture, they beat Australia, the host country, 4-2. Neville scored 3 goals in that game and ensured that India qualified for the semi-final. That day, he became the first Asian to score a hattrick in the Olympics. In the semi-final India was drubbed 4-1 by Yugoslavia and in the third-fourth play of, Bulgaria blanked us 3-0.
In that very competition’ scored 4 goals in 3 matches. He was declared as the joint top scorer of the tournament as India missed out on their first and only legitimate chance, till now, of securing a medal in global football.
India’s 4-2 victory over Australia was impressive. To put it into perspective, the last time that two teams had met for a competitive game, the Aussies had sent India back to school with an impressive 10-0 victory(One of the heaviest losses ever for India). The Australian called for a replay after the 1956 Olympic loss at home and India obliged. India beat Aussies 2-1 in the consecutive game all through Neville’s two goals.
The man. The myth. Our legend.
A humble personality and genius while playing added to the charm of Neville D’Souza. His playing career may have been short, but there is no doubt that he is one of the best footballers ever to grace the pitch for India. A man of the soil, it is time that we celebrate his contribution to Indian Football.