France Football, the magazine that hands out the Ballon d’Or, wrote this when they conferred the prize on the legendary Lev Yashin in 1963, the only time a goalkeeper has won football’s most coveted award.
“He revolutionised the role of goalkeeper like no other before him, by always being ready to act as an extra defender and by starting dangerous counter-attacks with his positioning and quick throws”.
In an Indian context, they could very well have been writing about Peter Thangaraj. His career ran in parallel to Yashin with both making final appearances for their respective countries in 1967 having made their debuts a year apart. They came close to facing off against each other too. In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, India would have faced off against Yashin’s Soviet Union for the gold medal if they had overcome Yugoslavia in the semifinals.
Peter was a big fan of Yashin and it showed in the way he played the game. An inch taller than the Russian at 6’3’’, Thangaraj cut an imposing figure in goal. He dominated the goalmouth, collecting crosses from the flanks with ease. For a big man, he had very quick reflexes and people thronged the stadium to see him make acrobatic saves.
His long throws started numerous counter attacks and the likes of Parimal Dey and P.K. Banerjee in attack benefitted from his accurate goal kicks behind the opposition defence. These were rare attributes for an Indian keeper at the time and few have matched him since. India’s current shot stopper, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, is in his mould and at some stage, the comparisons will begin.
Until then, there’s no doubting whom we would pick to be India’s best ever number one. At Flying Goalie, we love our goalkeepers and Peter Thangaraj, whose career spanned two decades at the best clubs in India, is right up there with the best. In a poll conducted at the turn of the millennium to choose Asia’s best goalkeepers of the century, Peter came in fifth. The Asian All Star from the 1960s may have been out of the public eye for decades but his place in the pantheon of greats was secure.