Pradip Kumar Banerjee, recognised by world football’s governing body, FIFA, as the greatest Indian footballer of the 20th century, passed away Friday after a prolonged illness at 84. PK, as he was known, belonged to an era when Indian football was still relevant on a global stage; when the salaries were small but the crowds were big; when the players kicked a heavy leather ball on harsh, uneven grounds; when local heroes were revered and European stars weren’t household names. It was a different time and PK defined it, first as player, then as coach.
Mostly self-taught, the eldest of seven children of a government employee made his international debut in 1955, aged 19. PK was the first player to be used as an inverted winger in the national team, when Syed Abdul Rahim paired him along with Tulsidas Balram and Chuni Goswami. He could cut in from the wings and score, or stay wide and create chances for the other two. The trio, in the early 1960s, led the Indian national team to arguably one of its best phases. After retirement, PK continued his association with football as a coach, winning every domestic trophy with East Bengal and Mohun Bagan through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. A raconteur, he motivated his players, using stories and analogies, and became popular with his man-management skills and ability to read the game.
His exploits as a player — the goal against mighty France at the 1960 Olympics — and as a coach — his Mohun Bagan side holding Pele’s New York Cosmos to a draw — will remain part of Indian football folklore. Even after his health deteriorated, PK did not stop caring about Indian football. As a commentator, he continued to lament the rapidly-declining state of local football and constantly suggested ways to reinvigorate it. His demise leaves Indian football a poorer place.
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