Chennai: Indian football lost a stalwart on Monday night in the death of Peter Thangaraj. He was 72. An Olympian and an Asian gold medallist, Thangaraj was an icon in his own right, matching in stature with players like P.K. Bannerjee, Chuni Goswami and Balram in his heyday.
Tall — he was over six feet — and lithe, Thangaraj’s athleticism under the bar and adeptness in goal-kicks captured the hearts of the crowds in every nook and corner of the country till he hung up his boots to take up the role of a coach and advisor.
Born in Bolarum in 1936, Thangaraj blossomed as a teenage player with the Morning Star Club and Friends Union Club in and around Secunderabad. His potential as a footballer found full expression once he enrolled in the Services, and began representing the famous Madras Regimental Centre.
Though he was initiated into the sport as a centre-forward his flair for goalkeeping proved more rewarding. MRC won the Durand Cup in 1955 and ’58. He donned the colours of Southern Command in the inter-Services tournaments for five years, and even led the Services team for its first-ever triumph in the Santosh Trophy in 1961.
After leaving Services, Thangaraj’s expertise was utilised handsomely by Kolkata giants, Mohd. Sporting, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal. In the process, he also represented Bengal in the National championships between 1961 and 1964 and again from 1966 to 69. He also captained Indian Railways in 1965 and piloted it to success in the Santosh Trophy.
Thangaraj had an illustrious international career. His first stint with the Indian team was the Quadrangular in 1955, but the high point of an eventful career was the 1956 Olympiad in Melbourne, where the national team secured a semifinal berth.
Unfailing form and consistency earned him another Olympic cap in Rome in 1960. He represented the country in three successive Asian Games from 1958 in Tokyo and was a part of the gold medal winning team in 1962 at Jakarta.
His international campaigns included the Merdeka tournament at Kuala Lumpur, the Asian Cup in Israel and Burma and a few exhibition matches in England.
Fittingly, Thangaraj was named as the ‘best goalkeeper of Asia’ in 1958 and was presented with the Arjuna Award in 1967.
Twice he was selected for the Asian All Stars team.
He retired from active football in 1971, finishing his last season with Mohd. Sporting and then took to coaching. Thangaraj’s first assignment was with the Aligarh University and then with the Vasco Club in Goa. He also served as the coach of Bokara Steel Plant and later as an advisor.
A complete footballer who dedicated his lifetime to the sport, Thangaraj leaves behind a rich legacy and an imprint that no chronicler of Indian soccer can afford to ignore.
In Chennai, the Chairman of the Referees Board, T.R. Govindarajan said: “It is a great loss. I remember refereeing the final of the Southern inter-command tournament where the focus was on him as MRC goalkeeper and his counterpart Ethiraj (MEG). It was a rousing contest and Thangaraj excelled in his team’s win. He was indeed one of India’s finest goalkeepers,” he added.
The AIFF Vice-President, C.R. Visswanathan said: “Thangaraj was a close friend. It was a delight to see him throw the football beyond the half-way mark on the field and his goalkicks used to reach the rival end. Such was his strength. I consider his death a personal loss and Indian football has lost a great player.”
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