India has never really been much of a force to reckon with in football. Cricket has been the dominant sport in the country for the last four decades or so, with other sports getting only a fraction of the attention and money that cricket attracts. However, this was not always the case. India was one of the best in the world at field hockey between the 1930s and 1950s, while it was certainly one of the better Asian sides in 1950s and 1960s. One person who had a huge role in Indian football’s success during this period was PK Banerjee, who sadly passed away last week in Kolkata.
Banerjee made his name as a forward or a right winger, with a rare blend of speed, skill and power making him one of the best sites in the forward roles. He first gained attention by playing a big role in Eastern Railways’ campaign to win the Calcutta Football League title in 1958. The CFL was probably more competitive than the national league at that point, owing to the presence of the ‘Big Three’ – East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting, and this marked the first time that a team other than the ‘Big Three’ had won the CFL title. This led to him coming into the national spotlight, and he became a regular for India as well, having made his debut in 1955.
He played 45 games for the national side, scoring 15 goals, having made his debut at the age of 19, but his greatest achievements were as part of the sides that played at various Olympics and Asian Games tournaments. He was in the teams which played at the 1958, 1962 and 1966 Asian Games, in Tokyo, Jakarta and Bangkok respectively, with India winning the gold medal at the 1962 Games, beating the hosts South Korea 2-1 in the final. India’s exploits at the Olympics would be even more memorable, though. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, India beat the host nation 4-2 in the quarterfinals, where Banerjee grabbed two assists. While India could not make it to the final, their fourth-place finish is widely considered the country’s best result in football on a global stage. By the time the 1960 Rome Olympics came around, Banerjee was the captain. India could not replicate their heroics from the previous tournament, finishing bottom of their group. However, they did manage to hold France to a memorable 1-1 draw, with Banerjee scoring the opening goal in that match.
Banerjee retired in 1967, and within five years, was made coach of the national side, having previously managed Mohun Bagan to a treble of the Durand Cup, IFA Shield and Rovers Cup in 1972. He managed India till 1986, during which time the team won the bronze medal at the 1970 Asian Games, after which he was technical director of the national side for a short while in 1999. Banerjee had gained international recognition as well, winning the FIFA Order of Merit in 2004, and the Indian Footballer of the 20th Century by the IFFHS, while he was also awarded India’s fourth-highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri, in 1990. His club coaching career was also a success, as apart from the aforementioned treble with Mohun Bagan, he won 30 trophies while in charge of East Bengal.
Banerjee was a throwback to an era where Indian football could compete with the best around the world and hold its own. It is a far cry from the state of the game today, where the national team are nowhere close to qualifying for World Cups, and not even among the best Asian sides. Banerjee was a much-loved figure amongst football fans in India, and his passing has created a huge void in the Indian football space.