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Remembering Peter Thangaraj: The Hyderabad footballer who became India's best ever goalkeeper

TRIBUTE BY
ATANU MITRA

If someone asks you to make the best Indian football XI of all time, the easiest way to get started is to write down the name Peter Thangaraj. Born in the erstwhile state of Hyderabad on 25th December, 1936, Thangaraj defied many roadblocks to emerge as one of the most successful footballers of the country, winning numerous recognitions even at the continental level.

A classmate of another India legend Tulsidas Balram, Thangaraj's journey began plying his trade for local sides Morning Star Club and Friends Union Club of Secundrabad, before he went to Madras (now Chennai) in 1951. At Madras Regiment, he was making his name for being a prolific goalscorer. However, fate had something else in store for him as he had to stand between the sticks for the last 15 minutes in one of the local games. That day changed the path of his career as the Andhra Pradesh footballer continued to start under the bar for the remaining part of his playing career and within the next couple of years, made it to the India national football team.

While India's performances at the Olympic Games in the 50's are often lauded, the significance of the Quadrangular Tournament of 1955 in Dhaka is often forgotten. The competition gave the nation two of its finest footballers of all time. P.K.Banerjee made his international debut in the first match against Sri Lanka, while the rookie Thangaraj donned the national colours for the first time in the following game against Myanmar. This was the start of a long partnership of two players operating at two extreme ends of the pitch, but who would combine to bring home several silverwares for the nation.

Thangaraj was the first choice goalkeeper of the national team for at least a decade. He played in both the Olympic Games of 1956 and 1960, and was part of the squad in three Asian Games - 1958, 1962 and 1966. The die-hard fan of Lev Yashin was an integral part of the Asian Games winning squad 1962, but was hospitalized following a flu infection after the first match of the competition. While Pradyut Barman did a decent job in Thangraj's absence until the semis, the latter returned in time to play the summit clash and be a part of arguably the biggest success story of Indian football.

After winning the Santosh Trophy for Services in 1960, Thangaraj made a much-awaited move to Kolkata, joining Mohammedan Sporting in 1961. The morale of the team was down after a 5-0 defeat to East Bengal in the Kolkata League. When Thangaraj joined them, he wasted no time to make his mark by pulling off a number of spectacular saves against Mohun Bagan only a day after coming to the city as the Black and Whites managed to salvage a goalless draw. 

His stint with Mohammedan ended in 1963 as Mohun Bagan came calling. He won two doubles with the Green and Maroons, coming out victorious in Kolkata League and Durand Cup for two consecutive years. However, while he remained a sure starter for the national team, he was second in the pecking order in his club as Barman emerged as the first choice custodian for the Mariners. This would pave way for him joining East Bengal in 1965, as his close friend Prasanta Sinha used his influence to rope in Thangaraj. 

He went on to win 10 trophies with the Red and Golds in his six years at the club, including the likes of Durand Cup, Rovers Cup, Kolkata League and IFA Shield. The outfit lost only 18 matches over the course of those six seasons. After not being offered a new deal by East Bengal in 1970, he spent another season at Mohammedan before joining Salgaocar for a couple of years. The 6 feet tall player, who hung up his boots in 1974, also remains the only player to have won the Santosh Trophy playing for three different sides - Services (1960-61), Bengal (1962-63) and Railways (1966-67). 

India has been home to outstanding goalkeepers for years now. However, the one attribute which sets Thangaraj ahead of all other Indian shot-stoppers was his ability to start a move from the back. The likes of P.K. and Parimal Dey have scored lots of goals taking advantage of long accurate balls played by the custdian, who was India's captain at the 1966 Merdeka Tournament in Kuala Lumpur, where the Blue Tigers finished third.

Speaking of his individual awards, Thangaraj was named the 'Best goalkeeper of Asia' in 1958, which is still a one-off feat for any Indian footballer. He was named in the Asian All-star team in 1967, an achievement which was repeated by Atanu Bhattacharya in 1975. He received the Arjuna Award in 1967. 

After reading about all his exploits on the field, if you think Thangaraj should be remembered only as a footballer, let us take you back to the morning of 25th February, 1967. Mohun Bagan supporters gathered in front of the Indian Football Association (IFA) office at the heart of the city on a Satuday morning after learning that Mohammed Habib, a talented young Indian striker is set to sign on the dotted line. The news reached the East Bengal tent as well, courtesy Syed Nayeemuddin, who was Habib's guardian at Kolkata.

Thangaraj reached the IFA office with two teammates Nayeemuddin and Afzal and when Mohun Bagan official Nabu Ghosh entered with Habib, the goalkeeper snatched the youngster and fled in a moment, with the crowd witnessing the event in awe. This was not the only incident of its kind, as he had also played a big role in similar operations of getting hold of Kannan from Mohun Bagan and Sadatullah from Mohammedan.

After retiring from football, Thangaraj was involved with the Bokaro football academy, where he spent the majority of his retirement years. He remained a frequent visitor to the East Bengal club, especially on the eve of the derbies. Only a couple of months before breathing his last, he was felicitated by the club he loved the most. One of the most popular footballers of the country breathed his last on 25th November, 2008.

Thangaraj, who was referred to as 'uncle' in the Indian football fraternity for his caring attitude towards the junior footballers, was a good human being too. Especially at a time, when India struggle to stop its slump in world rankings and press releases have become the most exciting components of the transfer window, Indian football and this generation misses a character like 'Chacha', who could not only terrify the best of the continent during the 90 minutes, but could also add to the fanatism that makes the game the most popular sport in the world.