Peter Thangaraj, who passed away on Monday night in Bokaro at the age of 72, was a prolific scorer when he started his career as a footballer in Secunderabad.
It was only at the insistence of his unit commander in the Madras Regimental Centre (MRC), that the six feet three inches Thangaraj took to goalkeeping when he joined the Indian Army.
As fate would have it, the teenager from Bolarum in Andhra Pradesh proved to be a great success under the bar for nearly 20 years and ended his career as one of India’s best custodians at the international level.
Thangaraj fell ill on Monday morning and was admitted to the Bokaro General Hospital. The end came at around 11.30 pm. He is survived by his wife, son and three daughters.
For 13 years, between 1955 and 1968, he was the national team’s undisputed first choice goalkeeper and even some of his most-talented contemporaries like S.S. Narayan, Sanat Sett and Prodyut Burman could not dislodge him from his position.
Tall, athletic and virtually unbeatable in the air, Thangaraj, who later quit the Army to join East Bengal, represented India in two Olympics, three Asian Games, three Asian Cups and four Merdeka tournaments.
Apart from winning the Jakarta Asian Games gold medal in 1962, Thangaraj was also a member of the team that finished fourth at the Melbourne Olympics.
Thangaraj, who was presented the Arjuna Award in 1967, was member of the Asian All-Star team twice in the 1960s. In 1959, Thangaraj kept the goal when India finished unbeaten runners-up in Merdeka.
Ironically, Thangaraj’s greatest moment of glory was marred by controversy to some extent. In the 1962 Asian Games, the national coach Syed Abdul Rahim was criticised by many for fielding Thangaraj in the final against South Korea after the goalkeeping great had missed the whole tournament through illness.
Though many felt that it was wrong on Rahim’s part to sideline Prodyut Burman, who was in scintillating form till the semi-final, Thangaraj proved how correct the coach was.
He did concede a goal after India took a 2-0 lead but was simply superb when the Koreans were at their rampaging best in the last 15 minutes. It was the greatest day in the history of Indian football and Thangaraj was the star performer.
Voted the best goalkeeper in Asia in 1958, Thangaraj was equally effective at the domestic level. One of the few players to win the Durand Cup for three different teams (MRC, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan), the stylish custodian from Andhra Pradesh was one of the biggest stars in Calcutta football in the 60s.