Till Peter Thangaraj came on the scene, standing like a colossus between the Madras Regimental Centre posts, the trade of goalkeeping in India was hardly anything to be talked of. His advent raised it to new heights. It attained a new elevated status when he was selected on two occasions in the Asian All-Star team. With his death Monday night in Bokaro it can truly be said that a legend has passed away.
You don’t celebrate goalkeepers like you do goal-scorers. Tournament statistics, from ordinary domestic ones to world cups, will put on record only the number of goals scored by players, not the saves made by goalkeepers, however impossibly acrobatic or daring they might have been. The public knows and cares about the scorers of goals rather than the ones whose duty it is stop them from being scored. Unless you are an Oliver Kahn. Such is the injustice that goalkeepers are fated to face.
It is no surprise that Thangaraj started off as a centre-forward. With the advantage of height that he enjoyed, he could score with his head when the ball came to him by the aerial route and with his feet when it came his way along the grass.
Then, somehow, came the switch to the vocation of goalkeeper. There, too, he had the advantage of his towering height. His initial experience as a centre-forward gave him an insight into the ways of strikers. In fact, more than his diving saves and stupendous clearances he owed his success to his uncanny knack of 'reading' moves of opposing attackers. There were those who thought he was weak when it came to saving low shots. But this writer is not among who subscribe to this view.
Thangaraj belonged to the army and it was with the 'thambis' (younger brothers) of the MRC Wellington that he first came into prominence in the 1950s. That was a period in Indian soccer when regimental teams could hold their own against the best civilian clubs of the country. More than half a century after that famous MRC team of 1950s old-timers would remember how the gallant 'thambis' would raise their game to the stirring exhortations of their Col Rajaratnam standing high up in the stands near the press seats. 'Come on MRC', the colonel would thunder, and the response out in the middle, from Thangaraj in goal and Alphonse upfront, had to be seen to be believed. That is how some of their famous victories were achieved in the Durand Cup.
It was in such times that Thangaraj was selected to keep goal for the country in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games, not to mention three Asian Games. Down with flu at Jakarta, he was out of action for the most of the 1962 Asian Games tournament. But coach S.A.Rahim fielded him in the final against Korea, such was his trust in Thangaraj.
It was in the same match that Rahim Sahib also pulled off a coup by asking defender Jarnail Singh, with stitches in his head, to lead the attack as centre-forward and the sturdy sikh even scored a goal, P. K. Banerjee getting the other in India's 2-1 victory.
Indian footballers were of different fibre those days. Thangaraj was one of that rare breed. Thanga in Tamil means gold and this Thanga was 24-carrat every inch of his frame.
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