Jeebon jokhon shukaye jay koruna dharay esho! (When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy!) – Rabindranath Tagore
The words bestowed upon us by Gurudeb Tagore find a place and meaning in the heart of every Indian football romantic. The dilapidated state of the beautiful game in the land of a billion has left generations devoid of any inspiration. The fanatics that used to jump on the terraces and burst their lungs for the men who were blessed enough to grace the field have now been left scarred, scorned and parched.
It is the golden days of the 50s and the 60s that Indians have to seek refuge to if they want to find glory in the stanzas of Indian football. For a young country still trying to figure out its identity, it was the national football team that came to the fore as one that gave Indians a sense of pride. Amongst the many names that lit up the Indian footballing scene in those years, the name of P.K. Banerjee arguable shone the brightest.
Some stories just write themselves. With strokes of his boot that kissed the leather ball, Pradip Kumar Banerjee, or P.K., as he is fondly known, scripted the lines of his story as one of the greatest sons of India to have ever graced the football pitch. His feet made sure that his name was engraved in golden letters in Indian footballing history, and when he put his mind to the task of cultivating success from the sidelines, he made sure that that was attained too. P.K. Banerjee not only made headlines as a player, but the spotlight shone brightly on him even when he was the orchestrator-in-chief of many a glorious championship run.
Growing up in the times of partition in Bengal, with scenes of human displacement a commonality in his youth, young Banerjee found peace and inspiration on the football field. The talent was there for all to see, as P.K. took to the field at a young age. The prodigy broke into the Bihar Santosh trophy team at the tender age of 15 in 1951. After that, there was no looking back. For some, the relation between the feet and the ball comes naturally, and such was the case for P.K., as he began wowing opponents while still in his teens. Three years later, it was “Welcome to Calcutta (presently Kolkata)” for the 18-year old striker, who moved from his native Jamshedpur to join Aryans F.C.
In the years to come, he would build up a reputation as one of the most prolific scorers that Indian football would ever witness. Blessed with exquisite dribbling skills and blistering pace, he mesmerised the crowd and created fear in the hearts of defenders as he made the right wing spot his own.
One year on after playing for Aryans, he moved to join the Eastern Railways, with whom he would spend the rest of his career. The offers from East Bengal and Mohun Bagan came in fast and furious, but the pressure of being the eldest of seven siblings meant that he was forced to opt for the safety of a government job and forego any history-making exploits with the legendary clubs.
His real exploits would, however, come on the international stage. As a 19-year-old, he made his first appearance in Indian colors in a quadrangular tournament in Dhaka, East Pakistan (now capital of Bangladesh) in the year 1955.
It was in the 1956 Olympic games that PK would truly come to the fore, as he played a vital role in India thrashing and stunning the hosts Australia 4-2 in the quarterfinals. Though he didn’t score that day, he assisted on 3 occasions, as a Neville DeSouza hat-trick coupled with a goal from J. Krishnaswamy “Kittu” would cap off one of India’s most famous days in their footballing history. The team eventually finished 4th, their highest ever finish in any event with worldwide participation.
The next time round, in the 1960 Rome Olympics, it was PK himself who was bestowed with the honour of leading the team, and he did exactly that. The results may not have been ideal, as India bowed out from the group stages, but PK would go on to score one of his most memorable goals in the game against France as India held the the far superior French team to a 1-1 draw.
Banerjee would finally pick up his much coveted winners medal in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, where against all odds, India triumphed over both the mighty South Korea and the hostilities from the home crowd.
Recurring injuries would finally get the better of this transcendental talent, as he was forced into retirement at the age of 31. By this time, he had won 84 caps for the national team, in which he scored an astounding 65 goals. A goal-scoring machine in every sense of the word, he was.
When his body could no longer cope up with the rigours on the field, he turned his cerebral prowess to work off the field. Not all great players become as successful in a coach’s role, but for P.K. it came as second nature, as he took to the job like a duck to water. Accolades soon followed, as under his guidance India was able to power itself to a bronze medal finish in the 1970 Asian Games. That would be India’s last triumph in a major international competition till date. Banerjee coached the national side in 4 Asian Games: in Bangkok (1970), Tehran (1974), Delhi (1982) and Seoul (1986).
His successes as a coach didn’t limit itself to the international stage. ‘Where P.K. goes, the trophies go’, was the saying around the 70s in Indian football. He may have spurned the opportunity to join either East Bengal or Mohun Bagan as a player, but as a coach he spent time on both sides of the border and came out as a champion, a talismanic coach who was loved by both sets of fans, as both sides under him reached new heights during his reign. East Bengal created the record of becoming the only club to win the Calcutta Premier League (the biggest league at that time) in the post-Independence era without conceding a goal in 1972. Mohun Bagan weren’t left disappointed either. P.K. lead them to one of their most successful years in their illustrious history when they won the “triple crown” (IFA Shield, Rovers Cup and Durand Cup) in 1977. When he brought an end to his coaching days in 1999, PK had won all that there was to be won in the Indian football scene.
It was not only his exploits on the field that made his popularity swell. P.K. Banerjee carried an unmistakable swagger with him whenever he made a public appearance, and he also had the ability to charm. He had a great sense of humor and always knew which notes to hit with the media. His larger-than-life personality was a refreshing change from the early generation of Indian coaches as well as players, who mostly shied away from media contact. In a way, he became the darling of the media.
While on the field, the ball felt like an extension of his legs. From the bench, the extensions to his thoughts were trophies. The bliss that football lovers in this country crave for was exactly what P.K. delivered. Sadly for the defenders that faced him and the teams that went against him, there was no bliss to be had in his presence.
- First footballer to be bestowed with the Arjuna award, in 1961, which is given to great achievers in sports in India.
- Bestowed with the Padma Shri award in 1990, one of the highest civilian medals in India.
- Given the Fair Play Award by FIFA (thus becoming the only Indian to be given the honour).
- Awarded the FIFA Centennial Order of Merit in 2004, which implies that PK Banerjee was recognized as the greatest footballer of the 20th Century for India.