Dubai: If there were any talk of Indian football before an international audience today, the chances are that it would be identified by the likes of a Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chhetri or the upstart Indian Super League (ISL).
The talk of a ‘golden era’ — harking back to the 1960s and ’70s — could be met with derision, but it did exist. Those were the times when India took part in the Olympics, emerged as the Asian Games gold medallists in 1962 — still the country’s greatest achievement in the sport — while their last podium finish in the continental Games was for the bronze in 1970 edition in Tehran.
P.K. Banerjee, or ‘PK’ as he is simply referred to in Indian football folklore, died at a private hospital in Kolkata on Friday after a prolonged illness. He was 83. He was an integral part of both the country’s high points. As a right winger who packed quite a punch in his finishes, PK formed a lethal combination with two of his surviving octogenarian friends today — Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram — and captained India to the gold medal in 1962 in Jakarta. Eight years down the line, he was the joint coach of the team which finished third in 1970 Asian Games — an event where the current crop failed to qualify since the new millennium.
It’s not for nothing that Fifa recognised him with the Centennial Order of Merit in 2004 by calling him the ‘Indian Footballer of the 20th Century.’ It was an honour which PK cherished, often taking lighthearted digs at his friend ‘Chuni’ whenever the subject of the ‘greatest Indian footballer’ came up in close media circles.
The larger-than-life character that he was in Indian football, it’s difficult to map PK’s contribution in tangible terms. From someone who led India at the 1960 Rome Olympics where he scored the equaliser against a formidable French team in a 1-1 draw to being the finest ‘man manager’ as a coach in Indian football — his range was simply mind-boggling.
For those of us who joined the profession in the early 1990s, it was always the memories of ‘PK’ the coach which we would cherish. His press conferences would always be a delight as he knew even the newcomer in the business on first-name terms and was never short of humour — not to forget that he would be the live wire of any social gathering around the city.
PK’s active club coaching career spanned a period of more than 25 years between 1972-1999, including a three-year break in between to be at the helm of the Tata Football Academy (1993-96). He was also the coach of the national team in three other Asian Games — 1974, 1982 and 1986.
At club level, Banerjee’s most memorable moment came in the twilight of his coaching career. It was the 1997 Federation Cup semi-final where Banerjee’s East Bengal hammered Mohun Bagan 4-1 in front of a record 131,000 spectators at the cavernous Salt Lake Stadium. Baichung Bhutia had netted a hat-trick as Banerjee’s rivalry with coach Amal Dutta came to a closure.
Dutta, a longtime rival of PK on the Indian coaching horizon, passed away a few years back due to age-related illness. PK, who was a shadow of his former bubbly self over the last few years after being afflicted with Parkinson’s disease and heart problems, is now also gone — shutting an album to a collage of memories for us. They certainly don’t make men like PK anymore.