A natural leader

Bagan's pride... Sailen Manna (second from left) with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (second from right) and former India footballers Chuni Goswami (extreme left) and P.K. Banerjee during the centenary celebration of Mohun Bagan's historic 1911 IFA Shield win, in Kolkata in July 2011.-S. PATRONOBISH Bagan's pride... Sailen Manna (second from left) with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (second from right) and former India footballers Chuni Goswami (extreme left) and P.K. Banerjee during the centenary celebration of Mohun Bagan's historic 1911 IFA Shield win, in Kolkata in July 2011.

Sailen Manna was one of the most revered idols of Indian football. Generation after generation of Indian players and fans held him in awe. By Amitabha Das Sharma.

The legend of Saliendranath (Sailen) Manna will now occupy the prime position in Indian football's hall of fame. The only footballer from India to be named among the 10 best captains of the world, Manna passed away on February 27, but he leaves behind the romance of a glorious football career that would continue to nourish the sport in the country.

Manna, 87, was one of the most revered idols of Indian football. Generation after generation of Indian players and fans held him in awe. This despite the fact that most of Manna's admirers knew him from his records and the stories that they heard about him being the most complete football player the country has ever seen.

Among his many admirers was the former India skipper and Mohun Bagan technical director, Subrata Bhattacharya. “Apart from being a great player, he was a gentleman who taught us a lot about the game,” he said.

Manna's climb to fame began in a grand manner. Making his international debut at the London Olympics in 1948, he became an instant hit with his ‘bare-foot' performance. During a reception at the Buckingham Palace, after India had lost 1-2 to France in its first match of the Olympics, the late Princess Margaret, younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II of England, asked the soft-spoken Manna how he could defend so well against the tough Europeans despite playing bare-foot. The Indian centre-back replied that his strength lay in his mind.

“I have no hesitation in calling him one of the best footballers of the country. He was definitely an accomplished player and also endeared everyone with his great human qualities,” said Samar (Badru) Banerjee, another great footballer who played under Manna's captaincy.

As a natural leader of men, Manna took over the responsibility of leading Indian football out of the shadows of the Imperial dominance after the Independence.

The nation tasted its first big success under Manna by winning the Asian Games gold in 1951. Having taken Indian football to the peak of its excellence, Manna was named among the 10 best captains of the world by the England Football Association in its yearbook published in 1953.

Manna's leadership inspired more victories. India won three successive titles in the South East Asian quadrangular tournament — which also featured Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka — between 1952 and 1954.

True to his nature, Manna showed unflinching loyalty to his club Mohun Bagan. Making only one switch in his career, Manna joined Mohun Bagan from a second division side, Howrah Union, in 1942 at the age of 18. He stayed with Bagan until his retirement in 1960.

Manna captained Mohun Bagan for six years from 1950 to 1955 and prominently figured in the club's 14 title triumphs, including the IFA Shield, Calcutta League, Rovers Cup and Durand Cup. “He was a gentleman in the true sense. Even his opponents loved and respected him,” said former Indian captain P. K. Banerjee.

Immediately after his retirement, Manna was drafted in as a coach. He then joined Mohun Bagan's administration, where he rose to the position of assistant secretary.

Manna dissociated himself from the sport in 1990 on completing 50 years of association with football. He received the Padma Shri in 1971 and was named the Best Footballer of the Millennium by the All India Football Federation in 2000. He was also conferred the Mohun Bagan ‘Ratna' (jewel) in 2001.