A Tribute To PK Banerjee: The Man Who Silenced Pelé

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Football legend PK Banerjee is currently admitted at the Medica super facility hospital, Kolkata, and in a very unfortunate turn of events, his condition is reportedly deteriorating every single day. Banerjee has been in an on-again, off-again battle against various age-related, and other diseases, and has been in and out of medical facilities for the last few months. Banerjee has been suffering from acute pneumonia, heart problems, Parkinson’s disease and dementia. With the general panic over Coronavirus which extends to the sports section of newspapers, websites and Television channels, PK Banerjee’s health condition has largely been outside the public eye, especially outside Bengal. Now the question arises, Who is PK Banerjee? And why are a barrage of sports-related personalities so, so concerned over his health and safety?

To this generation, the name PK Banerjee may not evoke memories. Outside of some uncommon football knowledge through trivia sites, PK Banerjee, alongside India’s iconic football team of the ’50s and ’60s have largely been underappreciated. But then, go ask your parent and if they love football, they will remember PK Banerjee as a legendary coach, with stories about his iconic ‘vocal tonic’ and that unforgettable 4-1 victory of pride and technique over fellow great coach Amal Dutta’s Mohun Bagan. Even older generations of football fans, of whom very few exist today, will have their eyes gleaming on the utterance of this name. Memories of the right winger-forward who destroyed defences regularly in Indian football, and internationally for the national team.

There’s only one PK Banerjee. Almost universally beloved in the football community, Pradip Kumar Banerjee was born at the North Bengal city of Jalpaiguri, on 23 June 1936. At the tender age of 15, Banerjee represented Bihar in the Santosh Trophy. The 18-year-old debuted on the Kolkata Maidan in 1954 for Aryan FC but finally found his footing for Eastern Railway, the team he joined in 1955 and for which he played a staggering twelve years. It was a time when professionalism didn’t exist in Indian football, and Banerjee had to resist the temptation of joining the three heavyweights of Kolkata Maidan in favour of a well-salaried job with Eastern Railway. Even playing with a comparatively smaller club, Banerjee glittered and as his crowning achievement, he became the force behind an unbelievable championship victory at the 1958 Calcutta League, by defeating the three heavyweights, a record which wasn’t replicated until very recently by Peerless in 2019. Banerjee’s cherished dream of playing for a bigger club came true when he played for Mohun Bagan during a foreign tour, but he remains on Fransisco Totti level on the loyalty list: 12-year career at a small club when he would’ve been welcomed with open arms at the biggest clubs of India.

If his performances at club football seem prodigious, then his performance for the Indian National Team will seem legendary. He debuted as a 19-year-old in a Quadrangular Tournament in 1955, which was held at the then East Pakistan city of Dacca. He scored 5 of his 19 Indian goals in his debut tournament, spearheading India to a superb title win.

The Legendary attacking trio of Indian Football: Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Tulsidas Balaram

In the 1960s, something changed in Indian football. Syed Abdul Rahim, the coach, adopted a 4-2-4 position system, where PK Banerjee on the right combined with the unbelievably skilled Chuni Goswami on the left, and in the middle remained the great Tulsidas Balaram. The biggest innovation Banerjee and Goswami brought was their ability to cut inside like wingers in 2020, which confused the opponent defenders. India’s greatest attacking trio played in 16 matches together, and India won in 12 of those matches. The highest point of the partnership came in the 1962 Asian Cup, where India came home with a Gold Medal. Incidentally, Banerjee’s 6 Goals at the Asian Games is the highest for any Indian player, even today. The 1962 Asian Games was the team’s gift to the cancer-striken beloved coach. In front of a hostile crowd at the Final, Banerjee scored, finally delivering the gift his coach asked for, while Syed Abdul Rahim himself spurted out blood at the dressing room. Banerjee was also the first to hug and celebrate with Rahim after the victory.

India playing Football at either World Cup or Olympics seem like a distant dream today, but once upon a time, this wasn’t a case. India regularly played at Olympics and when asked to enter the 1950 World Cup (albeit due to the cancellations by several European nations), financial problems led to India sticking with the Olympics. In the 1956 Olympics, India received a walkover and then defeated host Australia 4-2. In the semi-finals (Yes, Indian national football team played Olympics SF), India was knocked out by Yugoslavia 1-4. Olympics 1960 was a different ball game. In a brilliant but short fight where India marginally lost to Hungary (then arguably the strongest team in the world) and lost 1-3 to the merciless rough football of Peru, PK Banerjee’s goal shocked the world as India drew 1-1 against France! India’s greatest glory against European teams remain at that Olympics, and it would’ve been impossible without that goal by Banerjee.

After the 1962 glory, however, PK Banerjee broke a leg during a training camp, which led to his retirement in 1967. Balaram’s brilliant career also came to an end by pleurisy. Rahim Sahib died soon after. All alone, Chuni Goswami couldn’t power the team to an Olympic berth in 1964, and India never played Olympic Football again.

But Banerjee’s career wouldn’t end as a player. As a coach, he relished his dreams of being a part of the Calcutta Greats, as he coached Mohammedan, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. His 54 trophies as a Coach is the most for an Indian, miles above late rival Amal Dutta’s 41. Some moments of Banerjee’s vast coaching career stands out as ones of great interest and bewilderment.

Credits: Anandabazar Patrika

In 1972, he led East Bengal to win a quadruple. The club remained unbeaten and conceded just 4 goals in the entire season! They won the CFL, The Durand Cup, Rovers Cup (shared) and even the IFA Shield. In 1973, Banerjee’s tactics brought victories against Pyongyang City and Dok Ro Gang, as EB won the Shield again. In 1975, his East Bengal defeated Mohun Bagan 5-0 in the most dominant victory in the history of the Calcutta Derby. In 1977, even New York Cosmos, star-studded with the diamond known as Pele, couldn’t win over Banerjee’s technical mastery and the match against Mohun Bagan went 1-1. Pele said about Banerjee: “This man had prevented me from showing my skills to the audience of India…”

A player, a coach, a mentor to countless footballers, a winner of Fifa Order of Merit: PK Banerjee remains one of the most iconic Indian footballers alive today, and thus, the deterioration in his health affects the entire football community all over India. Let us hope PK Banerjee will defeat disease and get healthy again, as wisdom such as his is ever-needed for the newer generation to get their feet strengthened with.

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