Looking Back - Shabbir Ali
Great players, for some reason, often struggle to emulate their accomplishments as managers - the most notable exception to this norm in Indian football is, Shabbir Ali.
Ali burst on to the international stage in 1974, at the remarkably young age of 18 when he captained India to win the AFC Youth Championship in Bangkok jointly with Iran - a performance that even drew praise from the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi.
Taking a trip down memory lane, he recently recalled how just a while before the tournament, the Indian team was struggling to get permission from the government to participate. This is a testament to the fact that not even the most ardent Indian supporter had any expectations. India’s journey from gate-crashers to joint-winners is truly unprecedented and Ali deserves his fair share of credit, leading by example and scoring 5 goals in the tournament.
This led to a deserved senior national squad call-up for Ali along with some of his teammates and he never looked back. In the 1976 Merdeka Cup in Kuala Lumpur he scored a hat-trick against Indonesia in the first 35 minutes, the fastest by an Indian in an international match, adding another feather in his burgeoning cap. Arguably the finest striker of his time, Ali was a prolific goal scorer scoring 23 goals in 72 appearances for his country. He remains one of the all time top scorers of the Indian national team.
At club level, Ali started out with Tata Sports Club in Bombay before moving on to the well-reputed East Bengal in the late seventies. Later, he joined Mohammedan Sporting Club (MSC) and led the club to unparalleled heights before hanging his boots in 1985.
After his retirement Ali took to coaching like a duck takes to water. Starting where he left off as a player, he joined Mohammedan Sporting Club (MSC) for his first managerial project. He guided them to numerous laurels before taking up a challenging role at a relatively smaller set-up - Peerless Club. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t disappoint, taking just one season to get the club promoted to the Calcutta Super Division.
Consequently, Ali was appointed as the Technical Director of India in 1995 and steered the team to the gold medal in the South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) Championship in Chennai in 1995; no mean feat considering India’s failures to win any of the last 3 championships.
The best was yet to come for Ali with his tenure as manager of Salgaocar FC from 1997 to 1999. Under his guidance Salgoacar went on a relentless run, starting 1998, winning almost everything that came their way to enter the history books. This remarkable period was key in Ali being regarded as the best Indian coach at the time.
Ali has since gone on to manage several clubs including second stints at both MSC and Salgaocar. He also played a huge hand in reviving West Bengal’s fortunes at the national level by guiding them to consecutive Santosh Trophy victories in 2010 and 2011.
The vexed question - whether Shabbir Ali was a better player or a better coach - speaks volumes of his illustrious career. While the answer to the question is not evident, Ali’s legendary status most certainly is undoubted. He has left an indelible impact on Indian Football and he can rest assured that his achievements and memories will be fondly cherished by fans of the sport for ages to come.