by Bhargab Sarmah
On September 6, in Bangor, Wales, an 83-year-old Masood Fakhri breathed his last. Fakhri, born in Toba Tek Singh in 1932, long before Sadat Hasan Manto’s highly-acclaimed short story immortalised the town, was a Pakistan international footballer.
For a country currently languishing in the 190s in the FIFA world rankings, Pakistan’s footballing history isn’t particularly very rich. However, for a nation obsessed with cricket, like the rest of the sub-continent, it has had its own footballing heroes.
Masood Fakhri was one of them. And his story is one that needs to be told, especially in times when India’s severely fractured relationship with Pakistan has made it extremely difficult for athletes from one country to ply their trades in the other’s land.
East Bengal’s derby hero
In 1952, East Bengal raised quite a few eyebrows when they signed the 20-year-old youngster from Pakistan. Masood Fakhri had made his name playing for Pakistan Raiders Club and was making rapid strides in the sport in the early 1950s. However, not much was known about him when he first arrived in Kolkata.
Fakhri wasn’t the first Pakistani national to play for East Bengal. Three seasons before, Taj Mohammed had signed for the club. Three more players from the neighbouring country would go on to play for the club in subsequent years. Those were times when the wounds of partition were still fresh.
He made an instant impact at East Bengal. In his first season, Fakhri played a key role as the ‘Red and Gold’ won the Calcutta Football League (CFL), Durand Cup and DCM Trophy. In those days, the Durand Cup, Asia’s oldest football tournament, was the top attraction for clubs in the national football calendar.
The Pakistani forward, who played on the left flank of an attacking line, took little time to win over the East Bengal faithful. In his first two derby appearances against the club’s fiercest rivals Mohun Bagan, Fakhri scored the winning goals for East Bengal, with both ending in 1-0 victories.
Only a few years after widespread communal riots in 1946 in Kolkata and adjacent towns had claimed the lives of thousands, and confirmed the inevitability of a bitter and hate-filled partition of India, it was quite a turn of events that a Pakistani national was, all of a sudden, celebrated as a hero by one half of the city!
Foray into English football
Fakhri went on to play for two more seasons at the club. In 1953, he was part of the senior team’s tour to the Romanian Youth Festival in Bucharest and to Soviet Union. In 1955, Fakhri moved to Mohammedan Sporting. He continued to do well at Mohammedan, and helped the club to the Rovers Cup triumph in 1956.
During this time, the young forward was at the peak of his career. He had been a star for the Pakistan national team in the preceding years. Fakhri had most notably scored a hat-trick as Pakistan thumped Singapore 6-2 in a group match at the 1954 Asian Games in Manila. He had also scored goals against India and Myanmar during the period.
In 1956, Bert Flatley, a coach with the Football Association (FA) in England, communicated to Fakhri the possibility of a move to Bradford City. The club then played in the third tier of English football. After negotiations with the then manager Peter Jackson, Fakhri finally signed for the club.
The Pakistani forward arrived in Bradford on August 8, 1956, and played for them till 1957 when he prematurely quit football due to personal reasons, as confirmed to NDTV by his family.
Masood Fakhri’s footballing legacy
Indian football great Chuni Goswami was in his mid-teen years when Fakhri first arrived in Kolkata. “The first day I saw Masood Fakhri, I must have been 16. I kept looking at him. It felt as if some prince from a fairytale had come straight into the football field,” Goswami said of Fakhri’s good looks in a recent column in Ananda Bazar Patrika.
Goswami added that Fakhri’s ability and playing position often saw him being compared to East Bengal great PB Saleh. “There used to be regular debates as to who was the better footballer of the two,” Goswami wrote.
For Fakhri, Kolkata represented the peak of a short but significant career in football. Speaking to NDTV, Zaynah Iman Butt, the niece of Masood Fakhri, said, “He always said that his playing days in Kolkata were the most memorable of his career, with some of his best performances coming during his time there.”
The former footballer later lived a quiet life in Wales where he settled after his retirement from the sport. Zaynah says Fakhri closely followed sports despite being no longer professionally involved in any form after 1957.
“He followed football, cricket and other sports with great passion. Even in the last two weeks of his life in hospital, he wanted Sky Sports on (TV), so that he could watch cricket and football,” she said.
Fakhri is survived by his wife Rhoda Eileen Fakhri, who lives in Llanrwst, North Wales. His brother’s family is settled in Britain as well.