Football legend P.K. Banerjee no more

Published : March 20, 2020 20:44 IST

P.K. Banerjee in 2011 at the function to felicitate the members of the Indian football team to the 1960 Rome Olympics. He was the captain of the team. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty


Pradip Kumar Banerjee, affectionately known among the football lovers of the country as PK, was one of the greatest football players this country has ever produced. In the 1950s and 60s, a period considered to be the golden age of Indian football, PK was one of the brightest stars in a galaxy of legends like Chuni Goswami, Tulsidas Balaram, Neville D’Souza, Peter Thangaraj, Badru Banerjee and others. On March 20, PK passed away after a prolonged illness. He was 83, and is survived by his two daughters.

Funnily enough, the man who was one of the pillars upon which modern Indian football today stands, who brought international glory to his country (both as a player and as a coach) and put Indian football on the global map in the 1950s and 1960s, hardly ever played for the two football giants in the country—East Bengal and Mohun Bagan (he once played for Mohun Bagan on loan). Except for a short stint in Aryan FC in 1954, PK spent his entire illustrious career with the largely unfancied Eastern Railways. It was not for any lack of opportunity or offers to play for the big clubs that PK remained with Eastern Railways, for both East Bengal and Mohun Bagan would have given their right arms to have a player like him. But having a large family to support from a very early age, PK sacrificed his opportunity to represent a big club on the altar of practicality. However, that could not stop his genius from shining through as he guided his team to its only Calcutta Football League (CFL) championship in 1958. Until Peerless FC won it in 2019, Eastern Railways was the only team to deny the Big Three—East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and Mohammedan Sporting—the CFL championship which they had been winning since 1934.

Born on June 23, 1936, in Jalpaiguri, in West Bengal, PK was a precocious talent, who represented Bihar in the 1951 Santosh Trophy when he was just 15 years old. But it was in 1955 that he announced his presence in the football scene, representing India in the Fourth Quadrangular Cup in Dhaka. In his international debut match against Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), 19-year-old PK scored two goals in a match India won 4-3. He ended up scoring five goals in the tournament. No Indian player has scored as many on his debut international tournament. India had got itself a most deadly right-winger with a nose for goals. PK was equally effective as a Centre-back too.

In 1956, in the Indian Olympic team in Melbourne, young PK showed his tremendous ability to create. In the epic quarterfinal match against the hosts Australia, PK set up three goals in a game India won 4-2. India ended up in the fourth position—its highest till date on the world stage.

Football legend Samar Banerjee, affectionately known as Badru, who was the captain of the 1956 Olympic team, recalled his time with PK, while talking to Frontline: “I was the captain of the Indian team in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and P.K. Banerjee was the right wing player. After that the Indian team toured Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, Thailand, Indonesia and other places, where we got very good results. So many years we have been together; it was truly a glorious time. With PK’s death all those memories are flooding back. He was always jovial and full of life. In those days we were all very close to each other. It was like a big football family, even when played against each other in opposing teams. PK and I shared a very close friendship and we would often get together and enjoy each other’s company. When he fell ill I went to see him in the hospital, and felt very bad seeing him lying senseless.” Badru Banerjee, who recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday, remembers PK as a “very speedy and positive player, who had the ability to score.”

In the 1960 Rome Olympics, PK was the captain of the Indian team. Though India could not repeat its earlier showing in Melbourne, there were, nevertheless, memorable moments; one was holding the formidable French team to a draw, with PK scoring the equaliser.

Two years later, India established itself as the best team in Asia when it won the gold in the Asian Games in Jakarta. Beating the more heralded South Korean team in front of a crowd that was openly hostile to India, Jarnail Singh and PK scored one goal each to secure the top podium spot for their country. This was PK’s second Asian Games appearance. He had played in the 1958 games in Tokyo, and would play in the 1966 games in Bangkok, before retiring in 1967. PK’s six goals is still the Indian record for the highest number of goals in the Asian Games. PK was also a member of the Indian team that won silver in the Merdeka Cup in Kuala Lumpur in 1959 and 1964, and bronze in 1965.

Successful coach

Following his retirement, PK turned to coaching, and became one of the most decorated and successful coaches in India. In fact, he became the benchmark by which all other coaches in India would be measured. Under his guidance, India won the 1970 Asia Games Bronze in Bangkok, the last time India won an Asian Games medal in football. He was also the Indian coach in the 1974 Asian Games in Tehran, the 1982 Asiad in New Delhi, and the 1986 Asian Games in Seoul.

He was in charge of the national side in the Merdeka Cup in 1971, 1973, 1981, 1982 and 1986; the Nehru Cup in 1982 and 1986; the Kings Cup in Bangkok in 1981; and the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games in 1985 in Dhaka, in which India emerged champions.

In domestic football, whatever PK touched turned into gold. He led East Bengal to a record five CFL titles (from 1972 to 1975); and in 1976, when he moved to the rival Mohun Bagan camp, Mohun Bagan immediately began winning, capturing as many as five trophies that year alone. Mohun Bagan legend Subrata Bhattacharya told Frontline, “PK was a great player and a national treasure. But however great he was as a player, he was even greater as a coach. Just as he brought success to East Bengal, he also managed to take Bata up to the superleague division. Under Pradip da, Mohun Bagan won around so many trophies.” Under PK’s guidance East Bengal won 30 trophies and Mohun Bagan 23.

He introduced a psychological approach to coaching, which was popularly referred to as ‘Vocal Tonic’. He was a master tactician, who took on-the-spot radical decisions that paid off. Subrata said, “Nobody understood better than P.K. Banerjee when to use which player. On several occasions he made me play as a forward (Subrata is known as one of the great defenders of the game).”

The former football star and illustrious coach Subhash Bhowmik said, “I tried to copy him, but I could not handle it the way he did. During my coaching I used to close my eyes and think of him. He was technically very sound, and had great tactical knowledge and his man-management was immaculate. There are very few great players in this world who also became great coaches. P.K. Banerjee was one of them.” PK also had a keen eye for talent and could bring out the best in his players. “He transformed me from a bulldozer to a technically sound player,” said Bhowmik.

When Pele’s Cosmos came down to play in Kolkata, it was held to a 2-2 draw by Mohun Bagan. The legendary footballer Gautam Sarkar, who was assigned by PK the daunting task of marking Pele, remembered how PK infused confidence in the players. “For seven days he took classes, and said, Pele is Pele, but remember you have to prove that you know how to play football to him. We played on the field, but the inspiration was provided by P.K. Banerjee.” Nobody could get into the minds of the players and make them into effective weapons for the team like P.K. Banerjee could; and nobody could understand like he could either. There were his critics who said that he coached great teams with legendary players. He silenced his critics when demonstrated that even without any leading player, he could lead a team to victory as in the case of East Bengal in 1980. That year East Bengal did not lose to a single Indian team. He was also a discoverer of legends—Bhowmik, Jamshed Nassiri, Majed Bhishker, to name a few.

He was also the first Indian footballer to receive the Arjuna Award (in 1961), and was awarded the Padma Shri in 1990. PK was also awarded the FIFA Fairplay Award (in 1990), and the FIFA Centennial Order of Merit in 2004.

But for all his great popularity and stardom, he always remained a man of the masses. After games it was not uncommon to see the legendary coach, leaning on his scooter and talking to the fans and vendors outside the stadium, explaining the finer points of the just-concluded match. Football aficionado and football researcher Kushal Chakraborty recalled how a senior official of a club expressed dismay at PK chatting with the common people outside the stadium, to which the legend replied, “These are the people who are keeping your club alive. I will always talk to them.”

Kushal Chakraborty, a historian of the game, tells a story that sums up the character of P.K. Banerjee: “One of the most enduring stories of PK was that during one particular game, he hit a powerful shot that rebounded off the goal post. The goalkeeper in his attempt to stop the ball crashed into the goal post and was injured. PK could easily have scored off the rebound, but he let the ball be and rushed to help the goalie. That was P.K. Banerjee.”