Indian football has seen a revival in recent years with the popularity of the sport in the country growing. The Indian Super League has helped aid the development of the sport ever since its inception six years back and one of its clubs - FC Goa - even became the first team from India to directly qualify for the group stage of the AFC Champions League. That said, it would be naïve to believe that India are only just starting to produce talented footballers since one glance at history suggests otherwise. On India's 74th Independence Day, we have a look at what we consider India’s all-time best XI.
Voted Asia’s best goalkeeper in 1958, Peter Thangaraj represented the Indian national football team at the 1956 Melbourne and 1960 Rome Olympics. A member of India’s golden generation in the late 50s and early 60s, Thangaraj was a towering presence in goal and was known for his brilliant reflexes. An Arjuna Award recipient in 1967, Thangaraj won the gold medal at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games and was a part of two Asian All-Star teams.
Renowned for his bravery and determination on the field, Jarnail Singh was the only Indian footballer to be captain of the Asian All-Star team in 1966. The tough guy during Indian football’s golden era, Jarnail was dominant aerially and an excellent tackler. The 1964 Arjuna Award recipient’s bravery came to the fore when he scored an unforgettable header in the 1962 Asian Games final despite having six stitches on his head.
India’s captain when they won their first Asian Games gold in 1951, Sailen Manna still remains one of the greatest defenders that the country ever produced. The only Asian footballer to be named among the 10 best captains in the world by the English FA in 1953, Manna was also strong at set-pieces and packed a powerful free-kick. All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) Footballer of the Millennium, Manna was the nation’s captain during the Olympics and Asian Games in the 1950s.
Mahesh Gawli emerged as one of India’s most dependable and reliable defenders after the turn of the millennium. The centre-back from Goa won five Indian top-flight titles and several SAFF Cups with the Blue Tigers. He was also the Man of the Match in the final of the historical Nehru Cup International Football Tournament win in 2007 and played a key role for the victorious India team at the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup.
One of the most versatile players during Indian football’s golden era, the Andhra Pradesh-born defender was an integral member of the famous Hyderabad City police team of the late 1950s and early 1960s. One of two Indians to be selected in the 1965 Asian All-Stars XI, Yousuf Khan received the Arjuna Award in 1966 and was a part of the Indian team that won gold at the 1962 Asian Games.
Even though he played most of his games up front as a striker, Tulsidas Balaram’s adaptability meant that he could seamlessly shift into a more withdrawn role if required. An integral member of India's gold-winning team at the Asian Games in 1962, Balaram was a versatile and industrious talent who excelled in the role of an inside striker long before they became popular. Despite having to retire prematurely due to health concerns, he left an indelible mark on Indian football and most notably, scored against a strong Hungary team at the 1960 Olympics.
An individual who was equally comfortable up top or out wide, Chuni Goswami along with Balaram and PK Banerjee formed India’s lethal attacking trident during football’s golden age in the country. Goswami led India to the 1962 Asian Games gold and a runners-up medal at the 1964 AFC Asian Cup. He was adjudged the Best Asian striker in 1962, received the Arjuna Award the following year and the Padma Shri award in 1983. A man of many talents, he also played first-class cricket for Bengal and captained the state in the 1971-72 Ranji Trophy final.
India’s all-time leading goal-scorer, Sunil Chhetri is the only active player to make this list. The 36-year-old has won plenty of silverware with both club and country over the years. He’s won four I-Leagues, two Federation Cups, one Indian Super League and a Super Cup at the club level.
An AFC Cup runner-up as well, Chhetri’s had brief stints with Sporting Kansas City and Sporting Clube de Portugal B away from Indian shores. With country, Chhetri’s lifted three Nehru Cups, two SAFF Cups and the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more than Chhetri when it comes to active players with the most international goals.
Regarded by many as the best attackers to have ever played the sport in India, the legendary PK Banerjee’s ability on the filed saw him become one of the first recipients of the Arjuna Award when it was instituted in 1961. A clinical finisher who was comfortable with both feet, Banerjee was part of the team that won gold at the 1962 Asian Games, and in 2004, was awarded the FIFA Order of Merit – the highest honour granted by football’s governing body. A few important goals scored by him include a strike in the 1-1 draw against France at the 1960 Olympics and the opener in the 1962 Asian Games final.
Fondly known as the Sikkimese Sniper, Bhaichung Bhutia enjoyed plenty of success with the Indian national team. He won three SAFF Cups, two Nehru Cups and the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup with the Blue Tigers. The clinical striker also plied his trade abroad, playing Bury FC in the lower leagues in England and a couple of clubs in Malaysia.
One particular goosebump-inducing moment for Indian football fans was Bhutia’s hat-trick in a Kolkata local derby in 1997. His hat-trick helped East Bengal beat Mohun Bagan in the semi-final of the Federation Cup in front of a jam-packed and vociferous Salt Lake Stadium.
Blessed with an abundance of flair and the ability to breeze past defenders with tricky feet, IM Vijayan was crowned Indian Player of the Year in 1993, 1997 and 1999, making him the first individual to win the award multiple times. The technically gifted attacker won three SAFF Cups with India and represented the biggest clubs in Indian football. Vijayan also netted one of the fastest-ever international goals in a match against Bhutan in the 1999 SAFF Games and became an Arjuna Award recipient in 2003.
Feature image courtesy: Twitter / @MumbaiCityFC
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