Goalkeeper to game-changer, Football Paradise charts the remarkable journey of Henry Menezes – One of Indian football’s finest Renaissance men. This is the second part of a 3-part series. To read this first part, click here.
Chapter 2: Exile
“One must imagine Sisyphus happy,” declared Albert Camus in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus deconstructed from the ancient text, that Sisyphus, a figure of Greek mythology who was condemned to repeat forever the same thankless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain only to see it roll down again, was happy.
One must imagine goalkeepers happy. An individual phenomenon, isolated within a team ethic. A lonely sentinel, standing at the gates. If his team scores, plays well – it will be none to do with him. If his team lose, and he concedes– it shall be all to do with him. Performances are binary – 1 or zero, good or bad. And god forbid, if goalkeepers wish for the good days. For him to be called into action would mean his team is doing poorly. A striker needs to take one chance to be a hero, while the one chance the goalkeeper misses, makes him a villain. It is little wonder why The Colossus of Rhodes was the first wonder of the ancient world to fall.
Popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, or Whorfianism, which spoke of linguistic determinism – an idea that language and its structure and determine human knowledge or thought, as well as thought processes such as categorisation and perception, i.e. influence cognitive ability. While a full-back, or a winger’s articulation requires them to put their blinders on, and ply within the grammar of the chalk of the touchline and their attacking corridors, goalkeepers resigned to the best seat in the house have a vista of the play and possibilities as wide as the horizon itself.
Henry Menezes saw the bigger picture. After the demise of his father from cancer in 1994, the goal-keeper, forced into an early-retirement, was faced with a decision. What, if not, football? He’d been out of the game for the three years his father was ill; sidelined from Mahindra, he knew it was time to pivot. It was his wife who came up with the suggestion that would take him into the next phase of his life. “You’re resourceful, why don’t you join NIIT and study software or technology?”
He was unsure, but listened to her…and came out with a diploma each in software technology and general management. In the meantime, the tuition classes and company (for hosiery materials) started by his family during the tough years of his father’s illness, grew from his blessings into something sustainable (the company is now worth 300 crores) – “Everybody has grown from there.” It also provided skills and experience that the newly-graduated Henry could use in his new role in personal and industrial relations. “I got more experience with the management union, they included me in that, and I was given the entire welfare, how to handle all that…it was an amazing time for me, and then they selected me for a management course in Welingkars, and they spent all the money for me.”
Henry realised that this was another thing he was naturally good at, and enjoyed doing. “It was a lot of fun. Tackling day-to-day production. It was a different ball-game. I enjoyed it all…because I always felt that a union management meeting would be confrontational. But when I went inside the conference room, I was delighted to see all the negotiations and everyone was smiling. All fantastic negotiations where I could actually use my skill-set.”
In his own words, he “grew into the management field like hell”. Back then nobody knew just how close he was to renewing his connection with one of his old clubs. In 2001-02, Mahindra became Mahindra United. Henry wrote to the president, questioning their decision of buying ex-players for optics (for show), when they could easily have bought some of the current stars and managing the wage-budget. The president had no idea who he was, but when told, asked the executive director to call him.
“Henry, can you help us with the budgeting?”, they asked. “I can give it to you right now. It’s easy if you know how to,” was the very modest answer provided by the man.
“You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.”
– Albert Camus
Within a matter of hours, Henry Menezes was hired as the new “think-tank” on the Mahindra United board. With the help of his very own team (agreed as part of the clause he inserted in his contract), he restructured the entire organisation, bringing in his own standard of efficiency and vision. It wasn’t all easy pickings though. There was a “slight conflict” with the president who still doubted his competence. Henry was accused of not being able to win. He retorted in his inimitable style – if he was given the money, he would get in players capable of winning them the league. He was so successful in convincing some of these players, that every time he goes to Kolkata, the club officials there feel like he’s there to pull off something out of his hat. (“Henry kuch natak karne wala hain” – Henry’s about to set the cat among the pigeons, they mumble.)
“Stupidity has a way of getting in its own way.”
– Albert Camus
He was right. Mahindra United won the I-League the following season (to add to their 2 Federation Cups and three Asian Football Confederation Cup Qualification). Yet, the lack of trust continued, and he quit. There are probably more cases where the situation is reversed but Mahindra clearly didn’t want Henry to leave and his resignation letters were torn up! At that time, the team were in the AFC quarterfinals. The president, particularly, tried desperately to make the brains of his operation to stay, including a long and lavish meeting at the posh Taj Lands End hotel, where Henry reassured him that all the work and recruitments for the team was already over, and that the team was ready for the season with or without him. In May 2007, he left…bumping right into his Mumbai FC destiny.
Subhash Chandra, the CEO of the Zee and Essel group wanted him to head the new team he was building. ‘Building’ is probably an understatement as it was June 8 the day they spoke, and June 20 was the deadline for signing and registering players. If you have had any impressions so far about the kind of man Henry is, you would expect a magical conclusion – and you wouldn’t be wrong. It took him all of four days to put a team out on the pitch.
The night that he accepted the job, Henry went into the boardroom with four people – Khalid Jamed, Arshad, Abhishek Yadav (all hold top positions within the club right now), and they collaborated to write down the names of all players from “Kashmir to Kanyakumari” (the very corners of India and then proceeded to procure the very best of them. In 2 days, 40 players flew in to Mumbai, with flight tickets courtesy the club management. For much of those four days, Henry was cloistered in the office they’d set up in a room at the Orchid Hotel near the Mumbai airport. Unable to hold proper trials at short notice, the incoming players were asked one question – “why do you want to play for us?” Henry well aware of the style and philosophy he wanted the club to represent, was able to pick the best 24. But everyone else was sceptical because they had bought many senior, experienced players who went under the radar, as well as hired a foreign manager in England’s David Booth, who assured Henry that he knew many of the foreign players they’d signed, and would manage them.
But that wasn’t the final hurdle. They had to register the team with the Mumbai District Football Association and the negotiations reached an impasse – “I’m not going to renegotiate, but I assure you, I will develop Mumbai football one day”, his word added weight to the final offer. As did his menacing intent to register with a different (Thane) district altogether, saw the deal go before the clock struck twelve. Henry flew to the All-India Football Federation and submitted all the paperwork. This added to his already burgeoning legend.
“The fun bit was the fact that we didn’t have a place to stay, we didn’t have a ground, we didn’t have an office.” Fun is the word he uses. It’s clear that he relished this new challenge. For days, he sat in a Cafe Coffee Day outlet with his head of marketing, hopping over to the nearby Pizza Hut whenever they needed printouts.
He fondly recalls the day they were preparing the logo of with Ogilvy and Mathers, a premier advertising firm. It was a right-footed player kicking the ball towards the Gateway of India. Henry liked it, but suggested one small change. “He needs to be kicking the ball in, not out.” The player became left-footed and Mumbai FC was born.
The squad’s arrival was imminent, but they had no roof over their heads. Again, it was Henry arranged for a meeting with Jitendra Thakur of Thakur Complex, who immediately offered them the rent of his grounds and facilities. On June 28, players started arriving at the complex, stepping into rooms with no beds, just mattresses and bedsheets. But Henry admits that the rooms themselves were sufficient, and that his players were troopers.
Training began the next morning. The conditions were like a “Sunday league ground”, and all these professional players lined up on the edge of it and waited, and waited some more. Henry, unperturbed, went over and spoke to David Booth – “if the foreign players stepped onto the ground, all the others would follow”. Booth posed the question to one of the Brazilian internationals standing there. “What do you think about this ground, Felix?” In a typical Brazilian buoyancy, he exclaimed, “There’s no problem. Anywhere you give us space, we’ll play.” Henry recounts the story with flickering of pride in his eyes.
It wasn’t long after that Mumbai FC had their first game. Their opponents were Union Bank. Despite the considerable buzz around the team thanks to a big launch and press conference, Henry refused to promise the directors anything – “Baby steps, I can’t promise a win.” 10 minutes in, they went a goal down. 25 minutes in, two goals down. Most of the directors left before half-time. The owner grumbled. “Can you shut up? This is our first game” – said a Henry Menezes who wasn’t going to have any of that, and walked off. Mumbai FC ended up losing 1-2, sacked some players who weren’t pulling their weight. What followed was an unbeaten run which resulted them walking away with the second division title and promotion to the I-League (the top-tier of Indian football).
Being a realist, he refused to promise that they would finish in the top 3 of the first division – “we are a small team and out of our depth. This needs slow and steady progression. Maybe we’ll be 6th out of 10.” His projection turned out to be accurate as they finished 6th that season, which, by no means was a leisurely kickabout in the park. No, they were playing with the big boys now.
Mumbai FC were facing a gruelling fixtures list – they would play the giants of Indian football, Mohan Bagan and East Bengal in Kolkata, followed by a derby with Mahindra in Mumbai. Henry insisted that they needed to win the mental game first, and ensured that the team landed in Kolkata three days before their first fixture to acclimatise to the condition and prepare. Their arrival dominated the press-talk and, consequently, they grew in credibility and into their shirts. Three back-to-back wins made the round table of Indian football mainstays acknowledge Mumbai FC’s place in amongst them.
The very next season, battleplans were drawn up by the Henry and the management for the assault of the I-league title. Henry wanted to push on. The board didn’t – the seaside club was hit an untimely tide of recession. Non-payment of players’ wages.
Soon, Henry found himself sitting in the familiar surroundings of Taj Lands End hotel again… With the same president, who since had had a change of heart and opinions. Mahindra United wanted him back. He agreed, under certain conditions of course, unbeknownst then, that they were planning to close down at the end of the season. When he did find out, the club were in 3rd position with two games to go. If they won both, they’d be I-League champions. Simple enough?
They go on to win the first of the run-in. On the eve of the second, it was Henry’s birthday. The bosses arrived with a cake for him.
“Are we going to cut a cake or a scapegoat?”
“The cake first,” responded his greeters.
The vice-president informed him that they were going to close down the club immediately. Nothing he said would make a difference; they were there just to inform him, the press conference was already called in. Ever the consummate professional, Henry was clear that the management needed to speak to the players immediately, without delay, to break the news to them.
“I don’t want them to hear from outsiders.” He turned down the four lakhs they offered him to speak to the press that had already started swamping his house as he’d find out a few hours later, driving back after a hard day’s night. There’s a hint of what-could-have-been in his tone even now when he tells me that the players had even agreed to go without pay if allowed to play that final game and be given a shot at being champions.
“Virtue cannot separate itself from reality.”
– Albert Camus
Camus’ whole life was devoted to, as he revealed in his essays ‘The Rebel’, against the philosophies of nihilism, while delving deeply into the virtues of human nature, self-awareness and a constant struggle of finding purpose. The joy of journey. “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart and mind,” wrote Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. It’s little surprise, Henry Menezes finds himself seated where he is, talking to Football Paradise, in his office at the Cooperage Grounds. Little after Mahindra United, the dauntless Henry Menezes, befitting the character of the goalkeeper, brushed himself off and took aim at the stars, took a long punt, mailed in his plans for Maharashtrian football to AIFF President, Praful Patel, setting into motion a move that will edge him closer to his one true, unenviable goal – setting Indian football right as the CEO of Western India Football Federation. One must imagine Henry Menezes happy.