In his association of more than five decades with Indian football, Pradip Kumar Banerjee has donned various roles: player, coach, thinker, scout and commentator. Banerjee, who passed away on Friday aged 83, scored landmark goals, coached iconic teams and mentored players who have gone on to become legends themselves. Here are some of the moments and stories that made Banerjee the ‘greatest Indian footballer of the 20th century‘, an honour bestowed upon him by FIFA.
They called India the ‘Brazil of Asia’. And Banerjee was at the forefront of that golden generation, which made India one of the top teams of the continent in the late 50s and early 60s. Back then, India traditionally used a 3-2-5 formation. But out of the five strikers that were used, three routinely inflicted the biggest damage on the opponents. Tulsidas Balram, playing on the left, was as versatile as he was lethal. Chuni Goswami, the inside-left, was the one with skills. And Banerjee, the right-winger, had the pace and power: he could take on players, dribble, cross and shoot.
They had a telepathic understanding and gave the Indian team an identity that none before or after them have managed.
Balram-Goswami-Banerjee formed the most famous attacking trio in Indian football. According to historian and statistician Gautam Roy, the national team won 12 of the 16 games they played between 1958 and 1962, with the three of them scoring 20 of India’s 36 goals. Banerjee scored some of the most prominent goals during this period: against France in the 1-1 draw at the 1960 Rome Olympics, in the final against South Korea in 1962 Asian Games and so on.
India defeated Thailand 4-1 in second group match of the 1962 Asian Games campaign. Goals came from holy trinity of Chuni Goswami (L), PK Banerjee (C) & Tulsidas Balaram (R). PK scored twice. #IndianFootball #BlueTigers #THAIND #BackTheBlue #KingsCup pic.twitter.com/quHVfKG9SY
— IndianFootball_History (@IndianfootballH) June 8, 2019
Wet, heavy footballs
A lot of what Banerjee did was self-taught. Back then, there was little formal coaching for young players who started out. Neither were there any professional coaching courses, or access to techniques adopted by other countries. That, though, did not stop Banerjee from perfecting his art.
After the routine training sessions ended, Banerjee soaked the ball – the old, leather footballs which were used at the time – in water. The already heavy ball got heavier and Banerjee practised his shooting with that to increase the power behind his shot. Syed Abdul Rahim, the coach of the team, used to set targets for accuracy.
FROM THE ARCHIVES | PK Banerjee and legends roll back years back to 1956
As a coach, he made his players do the same. “More than tactical, I would say he emphasised on the technical aspects of the game,” says former India international and FC Goa technical director Derrick Pereira. “At that time, we were not exposed to proper coaching and there was no internet to look at what others were doing.
So he made sure we focussed on that aspect a lot; things like using open spaces, ways to improve individual skills and such. He kept an eye on what the latest trends were and tried to implement that in training. He was ahead of his time in that sense.”
North Korea, Old Delhi rooftop
In that sense, Pereira regards Banerjee as India’s first ‘modern’ coach. Not only because of his emphasis on technique and tactics, but he is considered to be the first one to bring the man-management aspect to coaching. A raconteur, he knew which player to talk to before a match and how to inspire them.
A story goes, according to Novy Kapadia’s book Barefoot to Boots, that on the eve of East Bengal’s 1973 DCM Cup final against Dok Ro Gang, a formidable North Korean side, Banerjee called a team meeting on the rooftop of an old Delhi hotel where they were staying. A lot of players, including East Bengal’s fearsome striker Mohammed Habib, were resigned to their fate and believed they had no chance of beating Dok Ro Gang, who had six players from the legendary 1966 World Cup North Korean team.
“On the roof of the Duke Hotel in Daryaganj where the team stayed, PK used to take theory classes with the team. In one of the sessions he brought glass bangles and gave them to Habib, (Mohammad) Akbar and some other players, and told them that if they did not want to fight, they could wear bangles like sissies. The players were incensed and got charged up,” Kapadia writes. The match, eventually, ended as a draw.
Bhutia, Datta and a famous win
Another example of him needling his players to get the best out of them came in the 1997 Federation Cup semifinals between Banerjee’s East Bengal and Amal Datta’s Mohun Bagan. Roy says the match was one of the crowning moments of Banerjee’s coaching career because of his ability to break the ‘diamond midfield’ system employed by Datta, which no one had been able to counter.
It was one of Indian football’s most iconic matches.
We have had some wonderful memories. Thank you. RIP PK DA pic.twitter.com/rQPB1hxYZz
— Bhaichung Bhutia (@bhaichung15) March 20, 2020
As a sub-plot, Datta and Banerjee – the two most successful coaches – shared a great rivalry, too, and the match drew a crowd of more than 130,000. In his pre-match comments, Datta had slighted Bhaichung Bhutia. So, a couple of days before the match, Banerjee called the striker for dinner and read out every single word in Bengali, and ended the conversation with a simple, ‘show him who you are’.
On the match-day, Banerjee set up his team in a way that did not give Bagan’s dominant midfield any space while a vengeful Bhutia scored a hat-trick and East Bengal won 4-1.
‘Where PK goes, trophies go’
His style and philosophy made Banerjee the most successful coach in Indian football. He won 54 trophies with Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, 13 more than Datta, India’s first professional coach. Across maidans, a reputation was cemented. “Where PK goes, the trophies go,” they said.
#PKBanerjee talks about his strategy for the legendary #DiamondMatch when he was coaching @eastbengalfc and what he said to @bhaichung15 and the rest of the ❤️💛 players #Legend pic.twitter.com/tmydWCe7Zo
— EAST BENGAL the REAL POWER (@EBRPFC) March 20, 2020
In 1970, when India won the Asian Games bronze, he was the team’s manager. He thus has a unique distinction of winning an Asian Games medal as a player (gold, 1962) and support staff; a record, perhaps, that will last for several more decades.
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