Footballer Shabbir Ali recalls an unforgettable meeting with the great Muhammad Ali

Abhijit Sen Gupta
Abhijit Sen Gupta

Muhammad Ali was the most widely traveled and best known sportsperson in the world. More articles and photos of him were published in the media than on any other athlete. In fact many people in far flung regions did not know who was the President of the USA or Russia but they knew who was Muhammad Ali and what he had achieved.

Almost every gym in every street in cities across the world had at least one photo of Ali hanging on its walls. Such was his popularity that there were few countries where he was not invited and honoured. Wherever he went, he drew crowds. He had a magnetic charm. The word handsome did not do him justice. He was more than handsome.

He came to India several times. But unfortunately he never visited Hyderabad and so Hyderabadis did not have the chance to see him live.

But one of the fortunate persons from Hyderabad who not only saw him but also shook hands with the great man was Shabbir Ali — himself a famous footballer. When he was at his peak, Shabbir Ali was a star whose famed headers never failed to find their mark. If Shabbir Ali got his head to the ball, it went like a guided missile into the goal. He was honoured with the Dhyan Chand award and remains one of India’s top goal scorers.

Shabbir Ali told that in 1990 when Muhammad Ali came on a visit to India, he was invited to Kolkata by Mir Mohammad Osman whose brother was a top official of the Mohammedan Sporting Football Club. Their sister and brother lived in London and knew Muhammad Ali’s Secretary. So it was arranged that Muhammad Ali would go to Kolkata on a private visit but not meet any journalists or VIPs.

The city was then called Calcutta and was the Mecca of Indian football. Shabbir Ali had then retired as a player but had taken a coaching license from India and also Germany. He met with outstanding success as coach of several clubs as well as Bengal state and was the technical director of the Indian national team. In 1990 when the great boxer was in Kolkata, Shabbir Ali was also present in that former capital of British India as the coach of Mohammedan Sporting FC.

When the famous footballer heard that the world’s greatest boxer was to visit the city where he himself was living, he made up his mind that he must meet the former World Champion come what may. Speaking about that unforgettable meeting with “The Greatest”, Shabbir Ali said that he had always been a great admirer of Muhammad Ali and wanted to see him in person.

“I made enquiries and found out that Muhammad was put up at the Taj Hotel. I did not want to tell too many people about my plan but my friend came to know. My friend’s son named Maksud who was about 16 years old, was very enthusiastic to meet the boxer too. So the two of us decided to drop in at the hotel and try to arrange a meeting with Muhammad Ali,” said Shabbir Ali.

“We went there, asked for the room number of Muhammad Ali and with their permission, we went up to the room and knocked. For a long time there was no response. However, after some waiting, the door was at last opened and there stood the great man himself – three time world champion, an Olympic Gold medal winner and the most famous sportsperson on the planet. For a few seconds I was speechless. Here was the man I had read so much about. He was such a magnificent person in many ways. Such a famous boxer yet dignified and courteous,” said Shabbir Ali.

“It turned out that Muhammad Ali had been praying. That was why he took time to open the door. But once we had introduced ourselves, Ali was very friendly and hospitable. Knowing that Indians drank tea at all times of the day and night, he asked us: “What tea would you prefer? Darjeeling or Assam?”

“We shared tea and some small talk but we did not want to keep Muhammad Ali busy for too long. The former boxer needed rest because he had a long and tiring schedule to attend. So we soon took our leave and went away. But we carried with us unforgettable memories of meeting one of the greatest legends of the sports world,” Shabbir Ali concluded.

Abhijit Sen Gupta is a seasoned journalist who writes on Sports and various other subjects.