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John Terry, the last of his kind

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-05-2017 Pulasta Dhar

When the English Premier League (EPL) beamed into living rooms in India for the first time on 18 August 2001, broadcaster ESPN only had space to fit in three live games a week. The first of those was Liverpool vs West Ham United, live from Anfield. Jamie Carragher played in the home game and earned a yellow card. Michael Owen scored twice for the hosts and they won 2-1. Steven Gerrard wasn’t even in the playing squad (he, however, scored two goals in Liverpool’s next three EPL games).

Fulham vs Manchester United at Old Trafford was the next game to air live, on 19 August. David Beckham’s free kick and a double strike from Dutch sensation Ruud van Nistelrooy saved the hosts from the embarrassment of defeat at the hands of the Londoners competing in the league for the first time. Manchester United came from behind twice to win 3-2. No Arsenal games were shown till the end of September but, by then, Thierry Henry had already scored six goals in seven EPL matches for the Gunners.

One Chelsea game was also shown on 19 August. Frank Lampard was in the starting eleven as they drew 1-1 against Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge. John Terry also started, but got injured in the 26th minute and had to make way for William Gallas.

For Indian viewers, players such as Owen, Beckham, van Nistelrooy, Henry, Lampard and Terry were transformed suddenly from photographs in newspapers to heroes on television. Soon enough, Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea became the clubs to support, inspired by the storied careers of players—not only those already mentioned, but Dennis Bergkamp (Arsenal), Gianfranco Zola (Chelsea), Paul Scholes (Manchester United), Robbie Fowler (Liverpool) and Alan Shearer (Newcastle).

It was the first guard of football heroes whose posters adorned the rooms of children across India. Their names were on the backs of T-shirts—scribbled and embroidered. Sometimes they were simply written with sketch-pens on old school uniforms.

And on 17 April, when Terry announced that he would leave Chelsea at the end of the 2016-17 season later this month, it meant that the last member of that first guard for Indians—or the first set of Premier League football demigods—was leaving the field. Terry’s exit from the Premier League will leave fans in the subcontinent, who have been watching the game for the best part of two decades, wistful.

The 2001-02 season was Terry’s first as first-choice centre back at Chelsea. He played 47 games across all competitions that season for the Blues. The season before that, he played 26 times. That he went on to make more than 700 total appearances for Chelsea in a stunning career built on resilience is no surprise. Nor is the fact that he’s finally leaving, his 36-year-old body bruised and battered by nearly 19 seasons of top-flight football, finally unable to grasp the quick, counter-attacking and high-pressing tactics that managers now apply.

What makes Terry so special to Chelsea fans is his connect with the club’s past. When Chelsea were a club bursting with potential, but without the resources to challenge, Terry was there. He was there when Russian oil baron Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 and splurged money, and when José Mourinho took over as manager and in 2004 won them their first title in 50 years. Mourinho left, returned and was sacked for Antonio Conte—and Terry was still there. Through 12 managers since his debut in 1998 to the glories of four Premier League titles, five FA Cups, three League Cups, one Europa League win and one Champions League title, Terry was there. From the shocking penalty miss in the Champions League 2008 final to eventually lifting the trophy in 2012, Terry was there; and for a record 578 times, he was there as the team’s captain.

A file photo of Terry with his children. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters.

It’s not just an era of superstars that will come to an end with Terry’s exit. He was also a member of the very rare group of one-club players. Apart from a brief loan spell at Nottingham Forest (six appearances in 2000), Terry has been with Chelsea since he was 14 (as part of its youth academy)—just like Gerrard (he started when he was 9) and Carragher (at the age of 11) at Liverpool, Scholes and Ryan Giggs at Manchester United and Tony Adams at Arsenal. The one-club player is a dying breed in football, which is now controlled by super-agents and an inflated transfer market. Even though there were more player arrivals in the Premier League in the 2001-02 season than in the current one, clubs spent just €576 million (around Rs4,000 crore now) in Terry’s breakthrough year (2001-02). That number reached €1.6 billion (around Rs11,000 crore) this season.

Those who started watching football even a little later have a different set of heroes. For the number of Premier League fixtures telecast here kept increasing, along with matches from the Champions League, exposing fans to European clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Bayern Munich. The next wave of players who rode this explosion of football broadcast around the world included the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Lionel Messi and Kaká, a generation that is likely to bow out over the next five years.

But for many Indians, it was the group of Terry, Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham and Henry who seduced a cricket-crazy country into watching a foreign league as if it was theirs.

Chelsea’s “captain, leader, legend” wasn’t just keeping the blue flag flying high, he was also the last man standing, keeping the embers of nostalgia burning for the first group of Premier League fans in India.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and news editor (sport) at Scoopwhoop.

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The league of extraordinary men

Philipp Lahm (Bayern Munich)

Philipp Lahm. Photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images

Lahm’s career is full of Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich and the world cup with Germany. Since joining the club in 1995, he has made more than 500 appearances for Bayern and will finally hang up his boots at the end of this season.

Francesco Totti (AS Roma)

Francesco Totti. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Totti made his debut for the club in 1993. He holds the record for the most appearances (782) in the club’s history and is the top-scoring active player in the Serie A (250 goals). The AS Roma captain will finally retire at the end of this season and move into a directorial role at the club.

Matt Le Tissier (Southampton)

Matt Le Tissier. Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Matt Le Tissier is worshipped by Southampton fans to such an extent that he is known as “Le God”. He represented the Saints from 1986-2002, making more than 400 appearances.

Thomas Müller (Bayern Munich)

Thomas Müller. Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

Müller, 27, has already spent 17 years at the Bavarian club. He has already played more than 350 matches for Bayern, scored 160 goals and has won a World Cup with Germany.

Rogério Ceni (São Paulo FC)

Rogério Ceni . Photo: Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images

Ceni holds the record for most goals scored by a goalkeeper in football. He represented São Paulo from 1990-2015 and was their first-choice penalty and free-kick taker. He scored 131 goals in 1,237 appearances for the Brazilian club.

—By Nitin Sreedhar

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