Charles Cornelius was touted as one of India’s best goalkeepers in the seventies – he was instrumental in India winning a bronze and a silver at the 1971 Barcelona World Cup and 1973 Amsterdam World Cup as well as a bronze at the 1972 Munich Olympics. At 29, his playing career was at its peak – he was picked for the 1974 Tehran Asian Games but he picked up a minor strain in his left knee at the national camp in NIS Patiala a couple of weeks before the national team was to depart for Tehran.
Subsequently wrong medical treatment caused permanent damage to his knee and halted his hockey playing for good. “I vividly remember only 16 selected players were at the camp an even the standbys had left the camp. The entire squad used to engage in high-intensity training and during one of our penalty corner drills, I had stopped the ball and the likes of BP Govinda, Ashok Kumar, Kusha and MP Ganesh came forward to score off a rebound on account of which they was a collision, where my leg was accidentally hit. I was feeling ok that day but the next day there was a big swelling on my knee and I was rushed to a nearby hospital,” Cornelius recalls the dark phase of his career.
What followed after the injury rankles him even today. “The NIS doctor who attended on him gave him an ‘hydrocortisone’ injection – a sort of pain-killer – with an unsterilised needle. The injection spoiled my knee joint and I was then taken to a military hospital in Pathankot from where I was referred to the Base Hospital in New Delhi since it had the best knee surgeons in the country at that time,” recounts the 75-year-old two-time World-Cupper, whose favourite goal-stopper is three-time Olympic gold medallist Ranganathan Francis.
The bitter reality awaited him after he underwent a knee surgery at the Base Hospital. “Doctors did not hide anything from me – they were categorical that I should forget playing hockey as walking itself would be a challenge. I was reduced to tears when I heard this in the hospital. The likes of Dhyan Chand, Ashok Kumar and Kishen Lal visited me at the hospital, hugged me and consoled me saying everything will be ok,” he says barely able to hide the rancour.
The injury to the country’s best goal-tender just weeks before the 1974 Tehran Asian Games was a crisis-like situation for Indian hockey and it was Cornelius, who did his bit in finding a solution. “Our team manager Leslie Claudius asked me to give an honest opinion on who can replace me for the 1974 Asiad. I suggested the name of Leslie Fernandes, who was in rollicking form for Corp of Signals at that time, and Claudius picked him. Leslie wore the shirt, short and coat prepared for me and left with the team for the Asian Games,” he reminisces.
Cornelius, who has trained the likes of Ashish Ballal, AB Subbiah, Romeo James, Neelkamal Singh, RS Rawat among a host of other goalkeepers post-retirement, offers his perspective about how India should go about grooming goalkeepers. “I think Sreejesh has had a great innings for the Indian team and he can be proud of what he has done for the country. Having said that I feel it is the right time to nurture goalkeepers, who can be useful for the next ten years. If juniors can replace seniors in the senior team, why not junior goalkeepers be groomed for the future. The end of an Olympic cycle is the best time to induct youngsters,” he pointed out.
The euphoria that swept the Indian hockey following its monumental bronze medal win at the Tokyo Olympics is well documented to be delved into. And Cornelius gets excited talking about one Indian forward. “Simranjeet was outstanding in the bronze medal play-off match. He first scored to get Indian on level terms and again scored the fifth goal, which proved to be the match-clincher in the end. He brings so much to the Indian team when you factor in that he was not even in the original squad of 16.”
Cornelius, who was first employed with Punjab Police and later shifted to BSF, still regrets not getting the Arjun Award. “I should have got the Arjuna Award and maybe my international career-shortening injury had to do with me being not considered for the award. I did win the Dhyan Chand Lifetime Award in 2003 but not receiving the coveted Arjun Award still hurts,” he calls spade a spade.