Kenya hockey legend ‘Alu’ was world’s greatest left winger

Alu Mendoca scores against Pakistan in 1960 with an unstoppable shot in Kenya's 3-1 win in Nairobi. PHOTO | CYPRIAN FERNANDES |

What you need to know:

  • There isn’t a greater sight in field hockey than seeing a player thunder down at full speed and cannon the ball to the back of the net with awesome power.
  • With the constant roar of the crowd chanting “Alu, Alu, Alu” the great Alexinho Mendonca would ignite City Park Stadium with his exhilarating pace on the left wing.
  • The exclamation point was the ball finding the top of the net past bewildered goalkeepers.

There isn’t a greater sight in field hockey than seeing a player thunder down at full speed and cannon the ball to the back of the net with awesome power.

With the constant roar of the crowd chanting “Alu, Alu, Alu” the great Alexinho Mendonca would ignite City Park Stadium with his exhilarating pace on the left wing.

The exclamation point was the ball finding the top of the net past bewildered goalkeepers.

Just ask the best goalkeepers at the time — India’s Deshmathu and Abdul Rashid of Pakistan — and the others who faced him when he played for the Railway Goan Institute and in Kenya’s colours.

This star, who was known to the fans only by his first name — just like those Brazilian soccer maestros Pele, Tostao, Rivelino, Ronaldo and Neymar — passed away peacefully at the Nairobi Hospital on Friday, March 10, 2017, at the age of 85.  

Alu’s death comes three years after the dashing centre forward and his international team-mate Egbert Fernandes died in Canberra in November, 2014.

Alu was one of a kind. I was fortunate enough to line up with this multi-talented star for the Railway Goan Institute for several years and many a time stood still in awe watching this phenomenon perform his magic on a star-studded team that included Silu Fernandes, Hilary Fernandes, Leo Fernandes and Reynolds de Souza.

In 1976, Alu and I were together again when I managed the Kenya national team for the Rene Frank International tournament in Madras.

Mendoca bullying off with a young fan before flying off with Kenya's national hockey team to the Rome Olympic Games in 1960. PHOTO | CYPRIAN FERNANDES |

I got an insight of his coaching methods as he was the national coach and was ably assisted by the late Hardev Singh Kular.

Under Alu’s guidance, the young team posted a creditable fifth-place finish. Apart from his national duties Alu also enjoyed success coaching the RGI women, one of Nairobi’s top women’s teams.

EXCEPTIONAL ATHLETE

Mendonca was born in Anjuna, Goa, in January, 1933, and on arriving in Kenya with his family he joined Dr Ribeiro’s Goan School, the famed school in Nairobi that was a conveyer belt for producing world-class hockey players under the tutorship of coach-extraordinaire Anthony de Souza.

It was here that the talent of this exceptional athlete was recognized and he was picked to represent the Schools Combined XI against touring All India in 1948-1949. This was the match that launched the illustrious career of the greatest left winger of his era as he went on to represent his country at four Olympic Games.

His first appearance came in 1956 when the country made its Olympics debut in Melbourne and it was a proud moment for all Goans as Mendonca’s team-mate, the late Anthony Vaz, was given the unique honour of being the flag bearer.

Four years later in 1960, Mendonca captained his country in Rome and he ended his career following the Olympics in Tokyo in 1964 where the squad posted its best-ever showing and earned an Olympic certificate.

Mendonca was later appointed national coach and that meant two more Olympic visits to Munich in 1972 and Montreal four years later.

His six Olympic appearances were a rare feat matched only by his close friend and international team-mate left back Avtar Singh Sohal. Avtar, like Mendonca, was also only the second Kenyan to be named the best player at their respective position by their peers and the world media.

Alu’s flair wasn’t only confined to hockey. He also happened to be a first-class sprinter and opened the bowling for the Railway Goan Institute cricket team.

He will be remembered for giving the great Kenyan sprinter Seraphino Antao a scare after he had just returned from Perth with his two sprinting gold medals in 1962. Seraphino pipped the hard-charging Alu at the tape.

Alu’ Mendonca (seated, centre, behind Gold Cup trophy) with the Railway Goan Institute team which was later politically corrected to Railway Institute. The institute, then near Pangani, just up the road from the Goan Institute, became extinct after the Asian exodus between 1968 and 1974. PHOTO | CYPRIAN FERNANDES |

One of the many tributes that poured in after Alu’s death came from Avtar Singh who echoed the thoughts of every player associated with Alu.

“Alu was my colleague, my captain, my coach and my great friend,’’ said Avtar. “He was humble, down to earth and always smiling. You rarely get a personality like Alu in your life time.”

At the club level Alu played for the Railway Goan Institute, one of East Africa’s premiere clubs, and captained the team to the club’s first of three M.R. de Souza Gold Cup victories in 1958. He was an integral member of the team in the other two victories in 1967 and in 1969. So what made Alu the greatest left winger of his time?

It was his pace, power and incredible technique to score goals on the turn.

“He was the greatest left winger ever, period!,’’ said Silu Fernandes, that uncompromising left back, who played in three Olympics and a RGI team-mate.

“I played internationally so many times and never saw one winger as good as Alu. It was that ability to turn and hit on the run at full speed.

“We shared a room on every one of our numerous tours and he was one of the finest roommates you could have. My greatest memory of Alu was him depositing the ball past India’s Deshmathu in a Test match in Nairobi. He never saw the ball.”

Kenya’s wizard of dribble Hilary Fernandes, another three-time Olympian, was also Alu’s team-mate at school and on the three RGI-winning teams.

Alu was a gifted athlete and his ability to hit the ball at speed separated him from all of the other wingers. “My most enduring moment was setting up a pass for him after beating two defenders against Pakistan in 1960 and he found the net with an unstoppable shot in our 3-1 win.’’ This was Pakistan’s heaviest defeat and Kenya’s greatest win against the world power.

The goals came from Alu, Avtar Singh and centre-half Surjeet Jnr. The forward line consisting of Gurcharan Singh, Hilary Fernandes, Egbert Fernandes, Hardev Singh and Alu was generally considered by far the most potent line-up the country fielded.

ONE OF A KIND

Amar Singh, another Sikh Union ace and Olympic team-mate, also had fond memories of Alu.

“Alu was a natural left winger and I never saw any player dart down the wing at such speed and let go such a hard shot,’’ said Amar who played on the right wing.

“He was always smiling and the beauty of our Kenya team was that we were all so fit and very, very close despite playing on different teams at the club level. Alu was one of a kind.’’

Between 1950 and 1970, two communities dominated hockey in Kenya: The mighty Sikhs and their arch-rivals, the Goans.

This was a rivalry that has, perhaps, never been duplicated in any other country where two communities have warred for national, Olympic and club hockey domination.

For most of that period each of the factions were led by two fierce warriors: Avtar Singh Sohal, “Tari” to every one, who went on to become one of the most decorated hockey players in Kenya, and “Alu Mendonca”, hailed as the greatest Goan player in Africa.

The rivalry was akin to Gor Mahia playing Maragoli (in its heyday) or Abaluhya when they were at their best. Days when Joe Kadenge was king.

Like the Goans and he Sikhs, their supporters were passionate and dedicated.

While at club level, the brilliant Sikh Union dominated the decade with some of the toughest, defensive hockey ever seen in club hockey, their motto must have been “none shall pass” with Avtar Singh Sohal at the centre of it.

Legendary sprinter Seraphino Antao (second, right) outsprints ‘Alu’ Mendonca (left) at the tape in 1962. Antao had just returned from Perth with two British Empire and Commonwealth Games gold medals. PHOTO | CYPRIAN FERNANDES |

There was brilliance up front too with the like of Surjeet Singh Panesar, for me one of the greatest centre-halves ever. The Railway Goan Institute led by Alu Mendonca and the Goan Institute spearheaded by the late sterling centre forward Egbert Fernandes were no slouches either, especially in the MR De Souza Gold Cup tournament.

Ironically, most of the Sikh and Goan Olympians were best of buddies on the national team and away from their respective clubs socialised as much as occasion would allow.

However, the friendship between the two Trojans, Alu and Tari was special.

Make no mistake, they played hard against each, never gave an inch or took it a little easy on each other. However, once the game was over, they were back to being old mates.

This was true of most hockey players. They left their difference on the rich murram of City Park or any of the other club grounds. There was always an after-the-match soft drink at the Goan Institute, the Railway Goan Institute, or the Goan Institute (the Singh’s bar across the road from the GI where Egbert often hosted visiting before and after international matches).

Virtually every one of the Goans admired “Tari” and players like “Alu”, Hilary Fernandes (who played for the Sikh Union for a while) Silu Fernandes, Egbert Fernandes were also considered Tari’s pals.

Surjeet Singh Panesar and mothers enjoyed similar relations. With Alu’s passing, memories of the great rivalries also begin to fade with only Tari, Surjeet Panesar, Hilary, Silu, Edgar, Raphael, Edgar, Leo, Reynold D’Souza, and a few others left to carry the torch of days that used to be.

Here is a touching farewell from Tari to Alu:

“It is sad news. We lost a great man and great personality. I had the honour to play three Olympic Games 1960, 1964 and 1968 with him. He was my assistant coach in 1971 hockey World Cup where Kenya finished fourth in the world. He had great speedy and control on the ball and scored some fantastic goals in his career.

He was the greatest left wing Kenya ever produced. He was humble and down to earth. I had great memories with him and my other friend Egbert Fernandes.

Very hard to get these type personalities in your life and it was honour to be their friend. “Alu” will be remembered for his great work in hockey. Our heartfelt condolences to his children Derek, Erika and Cora-Lisa and their families.

May God rest his soul in eternal peace. God Bless. We all will miss you.”

By the time 1970 arrived, most of the Goan and Sikh players had already migrated to other shores but “Alu” and “Tari” preferred to remain dedicated and loyal to Kenya and the game that had given the fame and pleasure.

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