Past Masters of Indian Sports: Remembering Peter Thangaraj, goalkeeper who drew fans to the grounds

An unparalleled figure in Indian football, Peter Thangaraj revolutionised goalkeeping with his ability to play accurate passes from the back and acrobatic saves, winning him national and continental recognition.

Ujwal Singh July 22, 2020 10:56:09 IST
Past Masters of Indian Sports: Remembering Peter Thangaraj, goalkeeper who drew fans to the grounds

Editor's Note: Every sport needs its superstars to thrive, and the Indian sporting ecosystem is no different. Despite a notoriously fumbling officialdom and a history of 'what-ifs', Indian sport has thrown its fair share of flagbearers who have led the way for this generation of promising athletes who unabashedly dream of global recognition and success. In Past Masters of Indian Sports, Firstpost's latest series, we look at such flagbearers,  forgotten or otherwise, who have shown that being world-class in a largely mediocre environment is a pursuit worth celebrating.

Indian football had its best years in the 1950s and 60s. From winning the Asian Games gold in 1951 and 1962, finishing fourth at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics to playing and finishing as runners-up at the 1964 AFC Asian Cup, Indian football soared in that era. Quite naturally, the footballers back then were superstars. They were mobbed in the street by fans, and thousands, sometimes even lakhs, turned up to watch their matches.

As time went by, the popularity of the sport spiraled down with other disciplines taking over. The popularity of footballers suffered a similar fate, but the romanticism for the players of the golden era hardly faded. Long discussions over wizardry of PK Banerjee, Subimal 'Chuni' Goswami, Tulsidas Balaram, or the steely defending of Jarnail Singh Dhillon are regular affairs for football fanatics. If you know a little about Indian football, there's a good chance you know about some of these stars.

The recent unfortunate demise of Banerjee and Goswami brought with itself glorious and fitting tributes, giving us a glimpse of what those players meant to the journalists and fans. However, not every player has had the privilege of being remembered decades after they mesmerised millions on the field of football. Some, with time, became obscure, even if they were as towering as Peter Thangaraj.

In a national career spanning from the mid-1950s to '68, the Andhra Pradesh goalkeeper continuously stayed the first-choice pick despite stiff competition from his talented contemporaries like Shankar Subramaniam 'Babu' Narayan and Prodyut Burman. An integral part of India's most memorable footballing moments from the golden era, Thangaraj became the first goalkeeper to win the Arjuna Award in 1967, the second-highest sporting honour in India.

The media reports state that he was voted the best goalkeeper in 1958 and was also the part of the all-Asian team on two occasions, an unparalleled feat in Indian football. However, media reports are all that is left of him. Thangaraj passed away due to a heart attack in November 2008 after leading a life of anonymity in the sleepy town of Bokaro in Jharkhand, yearning for Padma Shri and recognition from the government for his contribution to the sport.

There's little you can find about him on All India Football Federation's (AIFF) website or government portals. His death was followed by ordinary obituaries and a shrug by football authorities. His pain could be agonisingly felt in an interview, which is claimed to be his last, that he gave to The Telegraph. In the same interview, Thangaraj described his last wish as "India should remember me as a goalkeeper who wanted to raise the standard of Indian soccer" and why not, he led a career worth celebrating again and again.

Goalkeeping is the least popular spot on a football field but Thangaraj was no ordinary custodian, he was a football revolutionary in this part of the world, a goalie way ahead of his time. Modern football is littered with sweeper-keepers, goalies who not only authoritatively command the goalposts but also the space behind the backline. Those who are the origin of their team's attacks. The Neuers, Alissons, Edersons. Thangaraj did all that and more, half a century ago.

"That (50s and 60s) era had a lot of players with individual brilliance, such as Chuni Goswami, (Tulsidas) Balaram. It is understandable for forwards to have huge fan following because fans come to watch artistic players but very rarely fans come just to watch a goalkeeper, that is unbelievable but Thangaraj was entertaining," said football historian and veteran journalist Novy Kapadia.

"People would shout in joy when he would make a long 60-70 yards clearance with a thump to the other half and immediately a counter-attack would start. People found it very exciting, the way he would throw the ball, he was like a fielder in the deep (in cricket) who throws the ball back to his fielder. Thangaraj’s throws went straight to his players."

A six-footer, Thangaraj is credited for introducing long throws in Indian football and brought more to the job than being just an ordinary goalkeeper who went on to the pitch with the sole purpose of stopping the opposition from scoring. For Thangaraj, helping his team score was also a motive.

“Firstly, he was 6'3" tall, so he could grip the ball very well. He was very good against the crosses from the flank. Secondly, he was a very modern goalkeeper like Manuel Neuer, though he played back then. In the Rovers Cup, he was playing for one of the Kolkata clubs against Inder Singh’s Leaders Club from Jalandhar. He used to play like modern-day goalkeepers. He was very good with the ball and he would play like an advanced defender. Inder Singh asked him, ‘Bhai, tu toh goalkeeper hain, tu itne aage kaise aa sakta hain’ (you are a defender, how can you come so ahead), Thangaraj replied, ‘main bhi paer se khel sakta hu’ (I can also play with my feet)," said Novy explaining Thangaraj's style of goalkeeping.

"Thirdly, he was very good with his distribution. While playing for India, he would give directions to PK (Banerjee) with his eyes and make 70-80 yards accurate long kicks. And the throws with the hands! He had big palms and he could throw till the halfway line. He was very daring. In one-on-one situations, he would put his whole body in front of the opposition and guard the goal. A commanding goalie, he was probably the only goalkeeper people would come to see. Watching Thangaraj was like watching a spectacle."

Things, though, could have turned out differently for Thangaraj had he continued playing as a forward, which he did till playing for Madras Regimental Centre (MRC). Born in 1936 in Bolarum in Andhra Pradesh, Thangaraj began his career with local sides Morning Star Club and Friends Union Club in Secunderabad before joining MRC. Even at MRC, he started as a forward but after being asked by his unit commander, he took to goalkeeping, a decision that would change the course of his footballing career for better.

"He started as a forward when he was a youngster but full credit goes to MRC where he converted into a goalkeeper because of his height and flexibility. With constant practice he became such a great goalkeeper," said Novy.

The switch to goalkeeping was the start of a glittering career. One of his earliest international successes came in 1956 during the Melbourne Olympics where India finished a respectable fourth. It was also the tournament where Thangaraj met the erstwhile Soviet Union goalkeeper Lev Yashin, considered the safest pair of hands in football. Thangaraj, whose style of goalkeeping included acrobatic saves, intercepting crosses, and accurate ball distribution, was modelled on Yashin's art and it was their meeting in Melbourne that helped the Indian adopt those skills.

"At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Indian team was practising in one half of the field and in the other half was the USSR team, which had the legendary Lev Yashin as the goalkeeper, who is arguably the greatest goalkeeper of all time. The Russian’s distribution and kicks were immaculate. India coach (Syed Abdul) Rahim tentatively asked Yashin if he could spend some time with Thangaraj, so when his session got over, Yashin came over to the Indian half and guided Thangaraj for about 20-30 minutes. That is where Thangaraj learnt the importance of accuracy in distribution. In old days, goalkeeper just use to kick out the ball but Thangaraj started attacks and he could play with his feet, he was unique," revealed Novy.

Past Masters of Indian Sports Remembering Peter Thangaraj goalkeeper who drew fans to the grounds

Peter Thangaraj played for all three big Kolkata clubs — Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. Image: Twitter/@gautamfootball

He was once again a part of the Olympics team for the 1960 Rome Summer Games. Though India didn't qualify for the quarter-finals, Thangaraj's defiance against a much stronger Hungary helped India return with their heads held high. They also played out a draw against a strong France and the tournament is widely considered as one of India's greatest-ever performance at an international stage. The biggest moment of his career, though, came in 1962 with India's gold medal triumph in the Asian Games in Indonesia — still considered as Indian football's biggest win. Thangaraj was battling sickness during the tournament and missed most of the matches as coach Rahim opted for Prodyut Burman between the sticks but in the final, the gaffer returned to his trusted lieutenant, Thangaraj.

The goalkeeper repaid the faith with a string of impressive saves after India took the lead in the final against South Korea, eventually leading his nation to a memorable 2-1 win.

"Thangaraj played in some memorable matches. In the 1960 Rome Olympics, he was remarkable against Hungary, which was a world-class team back then. The same Hungarian team defeated England in the 1962 World Cup but they defeated India by just a margin of 2-1. Thangaraj played excellently, (Tulsidas) Balaram, PK Banerjee did very well too, but it was Thangaraj and Jarnail Singh who kept the scoreline down. Then in the 1962 Asian Games final, when India were leading 2-0 against South Korea, the opposition put a lot of pressure in the second half, but Thangaraj, returning from sickness, made save after save," remembered Novy.

Thangaraj's revolutionary style of goalkeeping and heroics for the Indian team and his clubs would later go on to serve as an inspiration for future generations of goalkeepers.

"Looking at him, I was like ‘wow, this is how an international goalkeeper looks like’. He was one of the personalities that I cannot forget today also," said former India goalkeeper Henry Menezes, who donned the national colours from 1985-92.

"I didn’t see him play but I met him once or twice in some of the gatherings. I always heard a lot about him. We had many good goalkeepers, (Shankar Subramaniam) Babu Narayan, Sanjeeva Uchil, Atanu Bhattacharya, Bhaskar Ganguly, but Thangaraj was a towering figure. He was someone I was in awe with when I looked at him.

"Every goalkeeper has a different style of playing. Thangaraj was a sweeper-defender as he was good with his legs and he had a good reach also because of his height. I was very happy to read that he was once voted as the best goalkeeper in Asia and also an Arjuna Awardee because many (goalkeepers) were not thought to be given Arjuna Award but Thangaraj was very popular. He was always a first choice goalkeeper," said Menezes.

Apart from the Olympics and 1962 Asian Games, Thangaraj also represented India in 1958, 1966 Asian Games, and 1964 AFC Asian Cup. He also tasted a lot of success at the domestic level. He won the Santosh Trophy in 1960 with Services before leaving MRC for Kolkata giants Mohammedan Sporting, a club that paid him big money for his services.

Mohammedan Sporting was the start of a long and affectionate relationship with the maidans of Kolkata as Thangaraj spent a lot of time in the city, playing for all the three big clubs; Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting of course.

"He joined the army, MRC Wellington, then went to Mohammedan Sporting in 1961, they apparently paid him 20,000 Rs a year which was a lot of money at that time. Then he moved on to Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. He played for all the big three Kolkata clubs," said Novy.

Meanwhile, his love affair with Santosh Trophy continued as he won the tournament from 1961-64, playing for Bengal and clinched the 1965 trophy with Railways. After his playing career, Thangaraj dabbled into coaching with Aligarh Muslim University and Vasco Sports clubs in the early 1970s before taking up the role of sports officer with Bokaro Steel Plant and later worked as an advisor for their sports academy. He would continue to stay in Bokaro until he passed away in 2008.

Since Thangaraj, three more goalkeepers have won the Arjuna Award — Brahmanand Sankhwalkar (1997), Subrata Paul (2016), and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu (2019) but there has not been a single counterpart who could match the legend in his talent, achievements and fan following.

Click here to read more pieces from this series

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