The Saviour of Indian Football
Shibaji Banerjee’s finest moment probably came in the first half of the match between Mohun Bagan AC and New York Cosmos in Kolkata on September 24, 1977. The 80,000-capacity crowd at the Eden Gardens witnessed the great Pelé dodge his marker and trap the ball, dribbling his way furiously to the home side’s goalmouth. Banerjee, as the Bagan goalkeeper, simply lunged at Pelé’s feet as if the Brazilian, his boots or his legend did not exist. Not only was a sure goal averted, but one of the bravest saves had been executed (the match ending in a 2-2 draw). Banerjee’s life, which ended on Sunday night at the age of 68, was one save football fans wish India’s greatest goalkeeper could have made. The duel against Pelé may have been the snapshot most fans will remember Banerjee by. But like in a 90-minute game, value is measured more than just by individual moments. The fact that Banerjee had not allowed a single goal to be scored by Mohun Bagan’s arch-rivals East Bengal from 1977 to 1981 speaks volumes about the goalie’s standards of defence. He was especially good at stopping penalties, as if the ball knew him well enough to not want to always go past him. Football may not have reached the levels in India that one would have wished for. But thanks to Shibaji Banerjee at the Bagan gate, we had the anomaly of having a great footballer among us.