Maidan Masters – Bikash Panji
In the 1980s and 90s, when Krishanu Dey was scorching the Kolkata maidans with his brilliant passing, ball play, and dribbles, there was another man who was quietly passing the ball to Krishanu with amazing accuracy, and setting the game up for the Indian Maradona. That man was Bikash Panji, who played alongside Dey at every level for nearly 15 years.
Not much is known about Bikash’s early days, except that he was born to a government servant in Salkia, Howrah. He grew up playing football in the local junior and sub-junior leagues before being signed by Salkia Friends in 1978—then a mid rung club in the first division of the Calcutta Football League. Initially, he played as a defender due to his height. Bikash was impressive as he became team’s captain in only his third year and led them to a fifth position in Calcutta’s local league in 1981–82. Mohun Bagan immediately signed him for the 1982–83 season and it was here that the legendary Krishanu–Bikash partnership took root.
Bikash led his employer, Indian Railways, to the runners up position in Santosh Trophy in 1983 and, once again, in 1984. Naturally, he was selected to be part of the national team for the 1984 Asian Cup. That tournament saw India winning the qualifying group stage comfortably before finishing last in the main stages. However, this was also the tournament where the Indian team held a strong Iranian side (who remained unbeaten in the tournament) to a goalless draw. That was the only match, starting from qualifying tournaments, where Iran had failed to score a goal. Impressed by his tackling skills, Amal Dutta, the Mohun Bagan coach, asked him to play the role of a halfback in the upcoming domestic tournaments.
This was a good move. Bikash used his height and power to good use as he formed partnerships with Prasanta Banerjee, Krishanu, Narayanswami Ulaganathan, and Babu Mani—helping Mohun Bagan win the Calcutta football League and the Durand Cup. In 1985, East Bengal paid a whopping sum of INR 2 lakh to avail of Bikash’s services, an unheard of amount for a footballer who was not a striker in those days in the Kolkata maidan. Some say that it was Krishanu who insisted that his move to East Bengal would only happen if Bikashwas taken along too, thus helping Bikash fetch such a high price.
At East Bengal, Bikash formed formidable partnerships with Manoranjan Bhattacharya and Sudip Chatterjee. With the addition of Syed Abdus Samadin 1987, the East Bengal defense came to be known as the best in the country. They certainly proved their mettle as they won one trophy after another. Coaches Pradeep Kumar Banerjee and Shyam Thapa also ensured that the team gelled well. Bikash was made the captain in 1988 when East Bengal won the Calcutta Football League by conceding just 5 goals in the entire tournament. The trio was also the mainstay for Bengal when they won the Santosh Trophy in 1986–87. Bikash Panji scored the winner for East Bengal twice in the finals of the All Airlines Gold Cup in 1987 and 1990, making Mohammedan Sporting suffer 0-1 defeats on both these occasions.
East Bengal assembled a good team in 1991. They had three good foreigners in Peter Maguire, Steven Alan Prindiville, and Neil Edmonds, and a host of good Indian players like Tushar Rakshit, Ilyas Pasha, and Darbara Singh. Bikash was again made the captain, and the side, coached by Syed Nayeemuddin, won the rare treble of IFA Shield, Durand Cup, and the Calcutta League. The team’s defense was so powerful that they did not concede a single goal in the entire season of the Calcutta League!
However, in 1992, Bikash again followed Krishanu back to Mohun Bagan after a controversial transfer before which the duo was hidden in a secret place by Swapan Sadhan (Tutu) Bose, the Mohun Bagan President. Bikash was made the captain in 1993, and led the side to the Federation Cup title. In 1994, Bikash, a semi-professional like most of his contemporaries, was forced to play for his employer, Food Corporation of India (FCI) along with Krishanu. The next year (1995), Krishanu rebelled and left his job with FCI to return to Mohun Bagan. For the first time since 1982 the partnership of Krishanu–Bikash was broken.
Bikash ended his career with FCI in 1997. He was the captain in 1996 as they finished fifth in the Calcutta Football League—ahead of strong teams like Aryan and Rajasthan. Bikash didn’t play as much as his illustrious team mates for national side. However, he did play in the 1988 Nehru Cup and was part of the squad in the 1993 SAFF games, which India won. Bikash was the assistant coach for East Bengal between 2003 and 2008, helping the team win their third National League crown in 2003–04. For the 2007–08, he in fact was reunited with his old team mate, Manoranjan Bhattacharya who was then in charge of the team.
What made Bikash such a household name?
Utter the name Bikash Panji to any old timer of the maidan, and he would invariably mention two things—Bikash’s long flowing beard and his height. He was pretty tall for an average Bengali, and this helped him go for aerial balls against taller African strikers. He had a good tackle, and a great off-the-ball game sense. It was the latter that was behind his on-field understanding with Krishanu as he often created passes and opportunities for the strikers upfront.
As per Tarun Dey, who played alongside him for several years in defense, and Bhaskar Ganguly, who played as a goalkeeper—Bikash was a very humble man and had a keen sense of learning. He would watch videos of international footballers, especially defenders, and would not mind learning from even youngsters. Additionally, Bikash acted as a mentor to younger players like Tarun Rakshit and Balai Mukherjee. He would be one of the earliest arrivals in the practice sessions. As captain, Bikash acted as an elder brother to youngsters unused to Nayeem’s tough coaching methods. Even as coach, he carried on the same practice.
Bengal football has lost Krishanu and Sudip Chatterjee to various reasons, and recently even Bikash had a life threatening accident. Let us wish him well and hope that he still has it in him to give something more to the maidan.