Incomparable, legend, unparalleled, magician, icon, vocal tonic – some of the words used to pay tribute to a great Indian footballer and coach, P K Banerjee, who passed away in Kolkata on Friday after battling a prolonged illness. He was 83.
In a sparkling career both as player and coach spanning nearly 50 years, Pradeep Kumar Banerjee (known more popularly as P K Banerjee and even more so only by his initials P K) was one of the forerunners who took Indian football to a totally different height. His playing career was as impressive as his role as a coach at both club and national levels – not many football personalities could achieve the laurels that P K did. His knowledge of and insight into international football amazed many football pundits.
What was extraordinary for P K as a footballer in the Kolkata Football League is that he had never donned the jerseys of any of the so called 'Big Three' – East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting – although he coached the first two and the national team in his post-retirement career. And he brought laurels for both these clubs as a coach.
Though P K was born in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal, his family later moved to Jamshedpur, where he completed his school education, and it was there that his footballing talent blossomed when he was selected to play for Bihar in the Santosh trophy when he was only 15.After making his debut in Kolkata Football League with Aryan FC in 1954, P K joined Eastern Railways and in 1958, played a pivotal role in winning the league title for his team – the first time any team outside the 'Big Three' had won the title. This record was intact for around 50 years in the Kolkata League. P K had a very important role to play in the rise of Eastern Railways in the Kolkata Football League.
P K had to take a job in Eastern Railways as in those days the set-up of football had yet to get on a professional footing, and footballers were paid pittance as remuneration. P K as the eldest of seven siblings had a family responsibility to shoulder. He, once, jokingly said about his taking a job in Eastern Railways, 'Chakrinaakorlekhaboki'? (What am I going to eat if I don't take up a job?)
Football in those days was mostly played in the 2-3-5 formation and P K was equally adaptable both as a right-winger and a centre-forward. His talent was spotted early by the national selectors and at the age of 19, he was selected for the Quadrungular Tournament held in Dhaka in 1955. India were the winners beating Pakistan 2-1.
The following year in the Melbourne Olympics, he was instrumental in taking India to the semi-finals after a 4-2 win against the hosts Australia. India lost to the Yugoslavians in the semi-final and then to Bulgaria in the third place play-off. But the fourth place standing in an Olympic remains the finest performance by the Indians. P K also played in the Rome Olympics in 1960 leading the national team and although India finished last in a four-team group, P K's equaliser against a strong European team like France in a 1-1 draw caught the eye of many.
P K had the distinction of playing for the national team in three editions of the Asian Games (1958-Tokyo, 1962-Jakarta and 1966-Bangkok). In Jakarta, India bagged the gold medal. P K had also represented India in the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia where India won two bronze and one silver medal. His goal scoring prowess was prolific; in his 84 appearances in the national shirt P K scored 65 goals. It is sad that that there are no video recordings of this legendary player and his team-mate of the 1962 Asian Games, ChuniGoswami once remarked, "I don't think anyone had more power in his shots as Pradeep and that kind of with the ball speed down the flanks. And add to it, terrific ability to read match situations".
After hanging his boots in 1967, P K got himself associated with the game he loved as a coach. He coached the two big giants of Kolkata football, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, bringing laurels for both the clubs. He soon became known as the 'vocal tonic' for the manner he used to motivate his players. P K also earned the distinction of being the national coach.
P K also became renowned as a football commentator. My encounters with this footballing icon were during my days as a radio broadcaster with BBC World Service Bangla. During FIFA World Cup tournaments, we used to arrange discussions for the sports programme 'MatheMaidan-e' which I used to host and P K was a regular discussant. P K's understanding of the game and his thinking of the tactics that teams would and could pursue kept us all dumbfounded. His knowledge of the game in the international arena was really praiseworthy.
P K was one of the first recipients of the Arjuna Award in 1961. In 1990, he won the prestigious Padma Shree Award. World football body FIFA recognising his contribution to Indian football, bestowed their highest honour to him the Centennial Order of Merit in 2004.
P K Banerjee was a revered figure in Indian football. Hailed as one of the most distinguished players to have played for India, his passing away brings an end to what is described in Indian football as the golden period. His name will remain synonymous with the top-class generation of Indian football and his incomparable legacy will remain etched in Indian football forever.
The writer is a senior journalist, political commentator and sports analyst.