Death of an Indian football icon

As player and coach, Pradip Kumar Banerjee or P.K. Banerjee, who passed away at the age of 83 on March 20 in Kolkata from respiratory problems, was a rare figure on the football scene.

He was a pioneer in many ways, lifting the sport in India to new heights during a glittering career on and off the pitch.

He is noted for his famous equaliser against formidable France in the 1960 Olympics and lifting India to a gold at the 1962 Asian Games.

But, more importantly, he used his man-management skills to deliver success as coach to Kolkata giants East Bengal and Mohun Bagan and the national team.

Born in Jalpaiguri, a major town in West Bengal, Banerjee completed his school education in Jamshedpur and broke into national reckoning when he donned Bihar's jersey in the Santosh Trophy (the national tournament contested by states and government institutions).

His exploits down the flanks caught the selectors' eyes and, not before long, he was included in the national squad for the 1955 Quadrangular Tournament (featuring India, Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma) in Dhaka.

India ran out winners, defeating Pakistan 2-1 in the final, but, more importantly, the country got two of its finest players in Banerjee and goalkeeper Peter Thangaraj.

Banerjee was picked for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics where he played a key role in India's 4-2 win over Australia in the quarter-finals with two assists.

It remains one of India's finest performances as they later lost to Yugoslavia in the semi-final and Bulgaria in the third-place tie.

The 1960 Olympics were all about Banerjee's equalising goal against France as India pulled off a shock 1-1 draw.

It was a poor tournament for India as they finished last in a four-team group, but his efforts made everyone believe that the team could fight against the best.

The 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta is considered Banerjee's high point as a player.

The forward formed a deadly partnership with Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram - a troika that would later be named the "Holy Trinity" of Indian football - and opened the scoring in the final in the 19th minute. Jarnail Singh netted another goal as India beat South Korea 2-1.

Sahu Mewalal is the only other Indian to score in an Asian Games final - in 1951 in New Delhi when India beat Iran 1-0. Overall, Banerjee's six goals at the Asian Games are the most by an Indian.

"I don't think anyone had more power in his shots than Pradeep and that kind of ball speed down the flanks. Add to it, terrific ability to read match situations," Goswami once said in an interview.

An outstanding feature of Banerjee's career was that he never turned out for any of Kolkata's big clubs - East Bengal, Mohun Bagan or Mohammedan Sporting. He plied his trade with Eastern Railways after starting out with Aryan. He was forced to do so as he was the only earning member of his family and worked for Eastern Railways.

In 1958, Eastern Railways, with Banerjee in the side, were crowned Calcutta Football League (CFL) champions in a fairy-tale finish.

They remained the last team besides East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting to achieve this feat until Peerless won the CFL last year.

Banerjee would eventually retire in 1967, after having played 84 international matches and pumping in 65 goals.

He ventured into coaching and had short stints at Bata Sports Club and Eastern Railways in Kolkata before East Bengal came calling in 1972.

On his watch, East Bengal won four of their six consecutive CFL titles (1970-75), including a 5-0 win over arch-rivals Mohun Bagan.

As Mohun Bagan coach, he pulled off a famous draw in 1977, when the Kolkata side held the New York Cosmos 2-2 in an exhibition match starring the legendary Pele.

Banerjee along with G.M. Basha also coached India to the 1970 Asian Games bronze in Bangkok - the country's last podium finish at the continental stage. He was the coach of the national team in three other Asian Games - 1974, 1982, 1986.

He would also guide India to a joint triumph at the Singapore Pesta Sukan Cup in 1971.

At the club level, Banerjee's most memorable moment came in the twilight of his coaching career.

In the 1997 Federation Cup semi-final, his East Bengal side hammered Mohun Bagan 4-1 in front of 131,000 spectators.

Prolific striker Bhaichung Bhutia netted a hat-trick as Banerjee's rivalry with another brilliant Bengali coach, Amal Dutta, came to the fore.

"Pradip da never came under pressure. He did not make any statement unnecessarily against anyone," Bhutia told the Press Trust of India.

"He was not just a great player and coach, for me he was also a great human being. He was such a happy man. He was always happy, smiling, full of fun. That was the greatest quality in him."

Banerjee was known for his defensive football and pep talk before games and at half-time, which was called "vocal tonic".

Probably, he was India's first "football manager".

He was a pro at handling gigantic egos in his own inimitable style and got the best out of the players.

His contribution to Indian football was duly recognised by the world governing body FIFA, which awarded him the Centennial Order of Merit in 2004.

"He was very helpful in everything. Not only about football, but in everything you needed," former Indian international Bruno Coutinho told Sportstar.

"He had a ringside view of the world. He was a man who used to tell you different stories from the world.

"On the football field, he was a legend. Overall, what he has done for Indian football is tremendous and everybody will cherish it forever."

Banerjee is survived by his daughters, Paula and Purna. His wife, Aarti, died of liver cancer in 2003.

Indo-Asian News Service

"He (P.K. Banerjee) was not just a great player and coach, for me he was also a great human being. He was such a happy man. He was always happy, smiling, full of fun. That was the greatest quality in him." - Striker Bhaichung Bhutia

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