Obit: The incomparable P. K. of Indian football

Legendary Indian footballer P. K. Banerjee, who had been battling a respiratory problem due to pneumonia, passed away in Kolkata on Friday.

Published : Mar 20, 2020 13:35 IST , Kolkata

P. K. Banerjee captained the Indian football team at the Rome Olympics.
P. K. Banerjee captained the Indian football team at the Rome Olympics.

P. K. Banerjee captained the Indian football team at the Rome Olympics.

Pradip Kumar Banerjee, one of the greatest footballers to have played for India, is no more. His death signified the passing of an era that is embellished in the history of Indian football as the golden period. He left behind two daughters and a legion of admirers of his unparalleled legacy in football.

Popularly known by the initials, P.K. strode the map of Indian football like a colossus with his multifaceted talents. He enriched the sport as a player, coach, administrator and commentator – all these hats he wore with distinction, at different times in his long association with football. Acknowledging these accomplishments, the world governing body of football, FIFA, in 2004, accorded him the Centennial Order of Merit which recognised him as the greatest Indian footballer of the 20th Century. The Arjuna Award -- he was the country's first footballer to receive it -- and the Padma Shree are two important adjuncts to his life.


What made P.K. the legend was his larger than life status both as a footballer and then as a coach. For many of his peers and players of later generation, P.K. belonged to that realm of excellence which very few footballers in the country could match. At a time when football was mostly played in the five-forward system, P.K. excelled both as a right-winger and a centre forward showing a rare disposition of speed, skill and power. This could be gauged from the fact that he scored 65 goals in 84 matches for the national team.


Showing his talent quite early in age, P.K. made his Santosh Trophy debut for Bihar at the age of 15. Born on June 23, 1936 in the north-Bengal town of Jalpaiguri, he completed his early education in a local school before moving to Jamshedpur to pursue further education. Scouts from clubs in Kolkata (then Calcutta) took note of his precocious talent when he turned out for Bihar, before he started his club career with Aryan FC in 1954.

P.K. opted to take up a job in Eastern Railway as club football, which was in a purely amateurish set-up at that time, offered very little in terms of remuneration. As the eldest among seven siblings, earning a livelihood was the primary concern but P.K. never allowed that to overcast his passion for football. Soon after he joined, the Eastern Railways team made its way up the rungs of the famed Calcutta Football League and won the title in 1958. That was the first time any team outside the Big Three — Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting — had won the CFL title. And P.K. had the most notable contribution in the rise of Eastern Railway.

P. K. Banerjee (fourth from left) was a part of the Indian football team which came fourth at the 1956 Olympics.

Soon P.K. was part of the national team, again breaking the trend of being considered for selection despite not playing for the Big Three. He earned his first national cap at 19, when he played the Quadrangular Tournament in Dhaka in 1955. He was part of the Indian team that played at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. India beat host Australia 4-2 in the quarterfinals — with P.K. assisting Neville DeSouza, who scored a hat-trick, and J. Krishnaswamy to help write one of the most memorable chapters in Indian football.

India finished fourth in Melbourne, which is considered the country's best finish on the world stage. In India’s next Olympics participation in 1960 (Rome), P.K., as the captain, made it memorable by scoring an equaliser to hold France 1-1. However, the Indian team could not replicate the success of the previous edition.


The disappointment soon disappeared as India became the best at the Asian Games, the continental competition, by picking up gold in the 1962 Jakarta edition. In the final, India beat the formidable South Korea 2-1 in front of a crowd that was enraged by some remarks made earlier by the head of the Indian contingent. Jarnail Singh and P.K. scored one apiece to down the South Koreans. P.K. also played in the 1958 and 1966 Asian Games.

His international career ran for a considerable period as he represented India on three occasions in the Merdeka Cup in Kuala Lumpur — where India won silver in 1959 and 1964, and the bronze in 1965.

East Bengal coach P. K. Banerjee giving instructions to his players ahead of the 1985 Federation Cup.

In 1967, P.K. announced his retirement from the sport.

Hereafter, P.K. began preparing to get into a coaching role. He took charge of the national team and under his stewardship, India won the bronze in Bangkok Asian Games in 1970 — the last time India won a medal in football at the Games. He was also the coach when India participated in Tehran (1974), Delhi (1982) and Seoul (1986) Asian Games.


He started his club coaching career with East Bengal in 1972. He found success immediately and became extremely popular with his fantastic game-reading ability and excellent man-management skills. He guided East Bengal to the CFL title for a record fifth time in 1975. Its traditional rival Mohun Bagan struck gold in 1976 when it appointed P.K. as its coach. By this time P.K’s ‘vocal tonic’ had become a household word. He had the unparalleled ability to motivate players with his careful selection of words laced with metaphors and anecdotes. Mohun Bagan did the 'treble’ under P.K, winning the Durand Cup, Rovers Cup and IFA Shield in 1976.

East Bengal, where he spent a great part of his coaching career, won around 30 trophies under his charge. He also gets the credit of getting the best out of some of the biggest names of Indian football like Habib, Akbar, Surojit Sengupta, Subhash Bhowmick, Subrata Bhattacharya, Shyam Thapa, Chima Okorie and Manoranjan Bhattacharya.

The passing away of P.K has created a void that can hardly be filled.

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