Goalkeeper to game-changer, Football Paradise charts the remarkable journey of Henry Menezes – One of Indian football’s finest Renaissance men.
Chapter One: The First Man
Henry Menezes drew his first breath on 30th April, 1964, in Mumbai; four years and 6950 kilometres away from Albert Camus, who drew his last. To say the French philosopher, scholar and author had little in common with our protagonist would be inaccurate. For starters, they occupied a position which provokes an almost unceasing existential unease and or cool – the role of the goalkeeper. Both unflappable thinkers – Albert Camus was in a state of perpetual limbo between the demarcated posts of philosophies while in goal for the Racing Universitaire Algerios in the 1930s, while Henry Menezes, playing for Mahindra & Mahindra from 1988-94, found himself physically reach for the eternal question that an unclaimed ball floating into the box asks us all.
He vies with the matadors (defenders) and the flying aces (strikers) – an object of thrilled adulation, he is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender, the first man on the team-sheet.
– Vladimir Nabokov
Goalkeeping is sport’s most unique phenomenon and football’s most anecdotal of positions. The #1 shirt is usually full-sleeved and is quite literally cut from a different (coloured) cloth. It is little surprise then that it has been donned by expressive individuals on whom a different set of rules apply.
Adorned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Julian Barnes, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce and Pope John Paul II, it has almost inevitably attracted mavericks, ranging from the most colourful (Bruce Grobelaar – was a Rhodesian army corporal, fighting against Black guerillas ), the cynical (Harald Schumacher – the goalie who sent a forward into a state of temporary coma), eccentric (Rene Higuita – the man of the famed scorpian goal-kick), and mostly, the most determined (Bert Trautman – former German axis spy, Manchester City’s English hero). For where else on the pitch does taking on one the chin, for the greater good, involve actually having to take one on the chin?
It is the same kind of headstrong pluck that made 16-year-old Henry Menezes line up against his long-jump idol Aslam Bari, at the All-India Athletics meet and then have the cheek to beat him. That too by a record 1.83 m against Bari’s 1.81 m. He tells me this, punctuated by a warm, disarming smile that nostalgia sometimes imparts on us all. He tells us this as I cosy up to a cup of coffee in his office. An office overlooking the lush and creaseless green turf of Cooperage Grounds, embellished with trophies and honours, testifying his resilience. He’s talking to us as the U-17 World Cup bid-winning CEO of the Western India Football Association (WIFA), the member of the technical, coaching and development committee of the All India Football Federation (AIFF). All great stories, all great deeds have ridiculous beginnings – Henry Menezes’ starting off in the athletic fields, makes this one of those good, wholesome stories. Up until the age of 16, Henry was an athlete (4×100 metre dash and the high jump).
“I used to look at Aslam Bari jumping on the sandpit and I started doing the same. They told me that my speed was good…I was a natural athlete, never practised, but I used to go out and jump and I came first.”
It seems only natural to expect that the precociously talented teenager would go on to set more records. Enter Milind Rajan in the form of a divine intervention, a fellow competitor. Menezes recalls a meet in Thane where he clocked a 1.85 m…and lost out to Rajan who was ahead with 1.91 m. “We were using different techniques (the Fosbury Flop for Menezes and the older Straddle for his opponent) and he had the advantage because he was practising on foam, and also because he had worked really hard over the past few months,” he says observantly.
It would be a pivotal moment for the future footballer, though nobody had any inkling just then. In what was a glimpse at just how much desire the young Henry had to be the best, he left the “bloody sport” because, in his own words, “I don’t like to be number two”.
And which other sport could he pick up but the one dominating the majority of Mumbai’s Catholic neighbourhood – from Parsi Colony to Parel? The initiation, as with most origin stories, would be fraught with rejections. Henry was thrown out every time he tried to enter the pitch as a striker because he was “no good”. Similar experiences followed in midfield and defence (where they put him on the left because “that’s where the weaker players used to play”), until he was relegated to stand behind the goal, catching/fetching the ball and throwing it back into play. He kept coming back. One day, he was asked to stand in goal where all his attributes of high-jump kicked in – “diving, daring, jumping” – and just like that, he was one of the lads.
An elderly scout from the Indian Gymkhana, a local team, earmarked Henry and another of the boys, remarking – “yeh dono ladke-log me kuch dam hain” (these two have the bottle) –. Henry was sure that his parents wouldn’t allow him to – “I was a handful” – but his older brother too, saw something in him – enough to send a car for him to ply to the gymkhana practises in Matunga. He used to take the train home after. “He believed in me,” Menezes accentuates.
And very soon, Henry Menezes, some 16-and-a-half-years-old then, playing for Indian Gymkhana against the then-top teams, started believing in himself too. Mafatlal Sports Club and Rashtriya Chemicals & Fertilisers (RCF), were one of the clubs who had their foreheads furrowed by their inability to put any goals past the growing stature of Menezes. Following those intrepid feats, stood the upcoming national selection trials at Cooperage. This necessitated another confrontation with parents who were naturally worried about their son’s future. He unnervingly informed his mother that he would leave early for school that morning (he had to be on the grounds by 7 am).
In those days, Indian Gymkhana collected the playing kits from the players at the end of each game – how could he turn up to a trial without shoes or a kit? Equal parts resolute and resourcefulness, Henry cut the sleeves off his grandmother’s sweater and waited for other boys in his neighbourhood to throw some discarded shoes out. “I picked them up and went to the cobbler’s”, before adding a cheeky grin.
On the first day of the trials, Henry lumbered out of bed at 4.30 am, had a bath and packed his clothes; rueful at how shabby he looked even to himself. He looked shabbier still, at the end of a day in which he confesses that he felt invisible among 120 others. This was the routine for the next 2 days, yet he persisted. On pick-up time at the end of the 4th day, and he was shoving his kit in his already stuffed bag, mentally preparing to go home and come to terms with the natural order of things.
To know oneself, one should assert himself.
– Albert Camus
At 6.10 pm, one of the goalkeepers got injured and it was Henry who jumped like a lit fuse up and hoiked his hands summing fate to strike this lanky lightning rod draped in sweat – “Sir, me, Sir, me!” For the next 40 minutes on this stifling summer’s day, Henry was inspired and made the team. It would be the start of the first man’s first flight, swooping two junior nationals and a 3rd while he was still underage. “There was no pressure. Just enjoyment and hunger. I wanted to be number one,” he asserts.
This single-minded determination made it really hard for any coach to miss out on him, and his pride in having walked into the team solely on merit (unlike many of his contemporaries who had godfathers and contacts in the industry) is understandable. It was this combination of grit, talent and promise that made his Maharashtra coach, who was also the then Mafatlal coach, pick him for the club.
At the wizened age of 17 and a half, Henry Menezes was part of a club set-up, punching their weights against the Indian footballing dynasties of East Bengal and Mohan Bagan; and learning first-hand from seasoned professionals as Pran Chatterjee, Shyam Thapa and Ranjit Thapa.
“My knees used to quake when the coach used to call on me – ‘abhi goal me khada reh!’ (go stand in the goal). He put 20-30 balls on the spot and told the others ‘maar daalo saale koh!’ (Finish him!) It was like standing on the wrong side of a shooting-range!”, he says with a half-wince.
In time, he learned to relish the challenge and was grateful to find that the senior staff was fully invested in his development, which would normally the case elsewhere. With Mafatlal, he clocked the miles around India, earning reasonable money doing something he loved. A strong bout of financial hiccups saw Mafatlal close down in 1983, only a year after he joined them, and Henry, by then a year away from finishing school needed to figure out his next move. His talent and work ethic didn’t leave him wanting for work.
He was invited for the State Bank trials at Oval Maidan He turned up to find no one there at the designated location. He heard intermittent shouts and the sound of a ball towards the centre of the ground. Upon arriving, the State Bank of India players simply gave him a kit and told change for a game of football.
In the next five years, Henry would take his club from the first division to the elite division, winning the Harwood League (1986) and conferred the Shiv Chattrapati recipient for excellence in sports (1986) – the highest recognition of merit that could be doled out in his native state of Maharashtra. Followed, a call for the national team… however it would take him six attempts to be selected. But, it was a case for not being old enough, than being good enough – he was the 4th or 5th choice behind veteran keepers like Bhaskar Ganguly, A. Bhattacharya, Brahmanand, and rejection became a rite of passage, though the camp itself, he insists was a valuable experience.
“Blessed are the hearts that can bend, for they will never be broken.”
– Albert Camus
Fortunately for our hero of the story, and unfortunately for Bhaskar Ganguly – the veteran keeper suspended for 6 months for hitting a referee; while Mr. Bhattacharya had picked up an injury at the All-Asian Stars game. Suddenly it was between Henry and Brahmanand, and Henry would go on to represent India between the posts for eight consecutive years. “Once you get on the national team, you find your place and see that nobody takes it away. That’s a test of mental strength and ability.”
He recalls an incident with the national team. It was the 1st of January, 1986. They were playing against a visiting French team. When he flew back to Mumbai, Bank of India was in the super 6 play-offs, competing for a chance to win the Harwood League. Morris Alphonso, India captain at the time, asked him whether he was crazy for he wanted to play for them after having just landed and wrought with jetlag. But play Henry did, keeping clean sheets for his team for the 6 games. They were champions and qualified for the Federations Cup, which still stands as a team record.
It was obvious, is obvious, in fact, why Henry is passionate about the sport – it is because the football gods, like the old god, does favour the brave. Football Paradise would know.
I asked him about his heroes, influences, inspirations as an interview such as this would be incomplete without it. He catches me off-guard by stating that he’s never had any. Take this rather amusing incident he narrates: It happened right after his first game. Someone from the press asked him who his idol was. Henry had to rush to his support staff and team and ask them to name a goalkeeper, any goalkeeper. That’s how the infamous Harald Schumacher (Germany) became his go-to name!
There’s another interesting anecdote involving Germany. During his Mahindra days, Henry would play for India against teams from all around the world – Brazil’s Sao Paolo, teams from Poland, Chile, Bulgaria, China, USSR…and Germany. When they played Bochum 11, their coach called Henry at 11 pm after the match, clearly impressed, and gave him a pair of gloves. He thus became the first keeper in India to use gloves (imagine a time when professional keepers played without them! In fact, most professional teams in Europe didn’t have goalkeeping coaches until the 1970s, never mind gloves).
Henry left Bank of India in 1988 after five years and a month. His legacy with Mahindra beckoned – another top club and a home one to boot. But it would take a bidding war before he could finally for them, becoming the highest-paid goalkeeper in Indian history at the time. 17 trophies with Mahindra would follow despite ups and downs – “a huge achievement” – as well as reciprocal ups and downs with the national team (his highlights include the bronze and gold medals). It was a period of great success for the club and for Menezes himself – it’s hard not to imagine a sepia-tone highlight reel being projected into the back of mind. In the 1992 highlights package, still in the peak of his career, it was as if someone pulled the plug on the projector, and his faraway eyes came back into focus.
What next? – he kept asking himself. He confesses that he didn’t know. Football was his whole life. How was he supposed to find something else that meant as much, and fast? To paraphrase Camus – all he knew most surely about morality and obligations, he owed to football.
Incidentally, Camus’ essay ‘The First Man’, which he hope would have been his piece de resistance, his masterpiece, ended abruptly owing to a tree getting in the way of his car. Critics agreed, even in its unfinished state. It was a novel about Jacques Cormery, his childhood basking in the sun and sea, a lost father, and a vast but an apparently indomitable landscape…
The universe has a way of evening things out. It’s why I reckon the word ‘eventually’ starts with ‘even’. Fast-forward to 2017, I would interview a much surer Henry Menezes in his Cooperage office, him heading the football association of one of the largest states in the country. I’m going to ask him how.
“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer”
– Albert Camus
Next Chapter: The Exile and the Kingdom