Not many are aware that football was once a very popular sport in India; in fact, the Indian national football team was very successful in the 1950s and 60s. The reasons why football was reduced to a back seat position in the country, was due to lack of proper long-term planning and the emergence of cricket —which the nation became highly successful and famous in. Football is now becoming popular among the younger generation of Indians.
In this piece, we look at the 10 greatest football players India has ever produced.
1. SUNIL CHHETRI
Although still actively playing, Chhetri is the greatest Indian player ever. He is very popular among Indian football fans and is the face of Indian football in modern times. He started his career at Mohun Bagan —the most successful club in India—and at a point in time played in the top MLS club, Kansas City Wizards and in Europe for Sporting Portugal B.
He is the current captain of Bengaluru and the Indian national team. He is the most capped player (115 appearances) and all-time goalscorer (72 goals) in Indian football history.
Popularly known as “Captain Fantastic,” Chhetri is the 2nd highest goalscorer international football history, behind Cristiano Ronaldo. The 36-year-old has won the AIFF player of the year a record six times so far.
2. BHAICHUNG BUTIA
Nicknamed “Sikkimese Sniper” for his shooting ability, Butia was a household name in Indian football in the 90s and early 2000s, alongside I. M. Vijayan. When he was just 18 years of age, he became the youngest ever goalscorer for the Indian national team. He went on to score 40 goals in 84 appearances for his nation. Bhutia is the first-ever Indian footballer to sign a contract with a European team when he joined England 2nd division side, FC Bury, in 1999, and the 2nd ever to play in Europe after Mohammed Salim. He also played for some Malaysian clubs.
A stadium was named after him by the Indian Football Federation for his outstanding contribution to Indian football.
3. PK BANERJEE
Pradip Kumar Banerjee was a right-winger who starred in the 60s. He captained India at the 1960 Olympics in Rome and the 1962 Asian Games — where the nation won a gold medal. He was capped 84 times (45 official) and scored 65 goals (15 official).
FIFA named him Indian footballer of the 20th century and was also awarded the FIFA Centennial Order of Merit (the highest honour awarded by FIFA). He became a manager after his playing career and managed some of the top Indian football clubs like, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, and the Indian national team. He is the most successful manager in Indian football history.
4. I. M. VIJAYAN
Inivalappil Mani Vijayan, alongside Bhaichung Bhutia, were the toast of Indian football in the late 90s and early 2000s as they both formed a successful striking partnership. He was selling soda at the stadium before his football talent was spotted. He represented the likes of Mohun Bagan, FC Kochin, East Bengal in his club career. Vijayan scored 40 goals in 79 appearances for India and holds the record for the 3rd fastest goal in international football with a goal he scored in just 12 seconds against Bhutan. He captained the Indian national team and won the Indian Player of the Year 3 times. At a point in his career, he was the highest-paid footballer in India. He is regularly referred to by Indians as “the Pele of Indian football.”
5. GOSTHA PAL
He was one of the best defenders in Indian football history. A commanding presence in defence, Pal, is called “Chiner Pracheer” (The Wall of China). He played for Mohun Bagan and captained the club for 5 years. He has a statue named after him in Kolkata. Gostha Pal was also the first captain of the Indian national team.
6. CHUNI GOSWAMI
Subimal “Chuni” Goswami was a striker who loves dropping deep to help build attacking moves with his extraordinary reading and understanding of the game. He starred for India at the 1960 Olympics, 1962 Asian Games (where the country won the gold medal), and the 1964 AFC Asian Cup (where they won Silver). Goswami was reported to have turned down the chance of joining the English side, Tottenham Hotspurs, during his playing days. He scored 32 goals in 50 matches for India.
He later dumped football for cricket and also became a hugely successful cricketer.
7. SAILEN MANNA
Sailendra Nath Manna was a left-back who was famous for his set-pieces ability due to his powerful shot and free kicks. He represented India at the 1948 Olympics and helped the country to a gold medal at the 1951 Asian Games. Manna played for Mohun Bagan for 19 straight years and was named “Mohun Bagan Ratna” for his outstanding service and dedication to the club. He is the only Asian Footballer ever to be named among the 10 best Captains in the world by the English FA.
8. PETER THANGARAJ
Thangaraj began his career as a striker before switching to become a goalkeeper, a decision which eventually proved wise as he became the best goalkeeper in Indian football history. He was famously known for his lightning quick and outstanding reflexes between the posts. He represented India at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics and the 1958, 1962 and 1966 Asian Games. He was named as the best goalkeeper in Asia in 1958.
In his club career, he represented the likes of Services, Mohammedan Sporting, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, and Railways.
9. JARNAIL SINGH
Singh was a defender who also gets played as a striker when his team needs to score. He represented India at the 1960 Olympics and the 1962 Asian Games. He cemented his legacy as an Indian football icon at the 1962 Games, where he was deployed as a striker in the semi-final and the final and scored in both games!
10. MOHAMMED SALIM
The first-ever Indian footballer to play in Europe. Mohammed Salim was a pharmacist and chemist who fell in love with football and starred for Mohammedan Sporting in his native India, helping the club to 5 consecutive Calcutta League titles. In 1936, he “escaped” to Britain through Cairo and joined Scottish giants, Celtic FC, after impressing on trial (despite playing with his bare feet!) thus, etching his name into the history books as the first-ever Indian to play in Europe. His adventure in Europe didn’t last long, though, as he became homesick and eventually returned home.
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Written by Muftaudeen Abdullahi Ishola