The death in Kolkata on Friday of 83-year-old PK Banerjee, who had been given the Fifa Centennial Order of Merit in 2004, was hardly as dramatic – he’d been battling a variety of serious ailments in a nursing facility since 2 March – as his life, which was an extraordinary story.
So much so that elements of it seemed to overshadow one another, most strikingly when his coaching career came to be interpreted as the high point of his achievements, eclipsing his primary identity of a footballer who had been exceptional by even our continental standards.
Together with Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balram, Banerjee sparkled in the frontline in an era of Indian football when it did much better than it would even hope to today.
Blessed with incredible speed, on or off the ball, power-packed shooting and intelligent passing instincts, he rose to the highest level of the game in the country and beyond, his 1956 Olympics appearance coinciding with India’s ascent to the semi-final of its football tournament, the first Asian team to have done so.
Four years later, he led India in Rome, so far the last time India played in the football finals of an Olympic tournament. In 1962, when India won their second gold in the game in the Asian Games, Banerjee was a scorer against South Korea, whom we would struggle to hold off today.
The crucial point about this from-one-success-toanother journey of the flamboyant, outspoken man from North Bengal who had hit Kolkata after his family had found some kind of financial footing in Jamshedpur was that he represented neither of the dominating duo of the Maidan, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal.
The older club had tried him out and found him ~ laugh out loud, if you like ~ qualitatively ineligible. East Bengal had looked down their long, snooty nose to see a ne’er-do-well. There also were others in Kolkata’s middleweight football clubs who did not think much of him ~ and drove it home.
Banerjee knew he had what it took, so did Bagha Shome, and the colossal personality of yesteryear took him under his wing, played his influence card to get him a job. The right-winger extraordinaire soared thereafter, with Eastern Railway, who won the Calcutta Football League in 1958, making jaws hit the floor as they had not been among the usual winners of the honour, the big clubs.
It was a record until Peerless matched it last season. But Banerjee would take some emulating: statisticians say that he scored 65 goals for India in 84 games. The self-confidence, apart from the skills, that took him to the top never faded even when he had reached his twilight phase as a player.
Central to his ascent to the Indian pinnacle as a player was a secret: he was a glutton for a punishing tune-up schedule. Banerjee was never tired of practice: he spent hours polishing himself even after his early morning exertions out on the Maidan with Eastern Railway were over. Perfection is seldom attained without it.
“I sweated blood, day after day,” he once told this correspondent. Why? “Because Mohun Bagan and East Bengal had spurned me” was the unequivocal reply. Later, coaching the duo brought him fame and money and also several tutorial stints with the national teams.
But it was not an effort crowned with the sort of success that his playing career had yielded. He took over at East Bengal in 1972 to announce that he would take the red-andgold flag to the farthest corners of the football world, won the IFA Shield-Durand Cup-Rovers Cup triple crown, threatening – and only narrowly missing – another clean sweep in the next season.
But his agressive philosophy took a beating in the 1974 Asian Games, where China thrashed India 7-1 playing on the counterattack. Banerjee, as a coach, was never the same again. He too decided to park the bus. Even home international matches at club level had him composing his teams defensively, Sudhir Karmakar as a fore-sweeper in the 1978 IFA Shield final against Ararat Yerevan being a case in point.
And Banerjee knew that the 1970s, when he sampled success as a club coach, were also the period when a talent drought hit Indian football. His trophy-winning consistency dwindled later on. Towards the end of his coaching life, he had no end of problems having to cope with players who could neither be motivated to practise hard nor goaded to do their best in crunch situations.
They were stars all right but cavorting about in a dark period of our game. Banerjee was a heart-broken man, though the jokes never stopped flowing forth in unending streams. Most of these were not meant for public consumption, but now that he would never have us in splits, the eyes misted over.