India's greatest footballer

SAILEN MANNA with his Padma Shree medal, which he received in 1970.-S. PATRONOBISH

SAILEN MANNA'S exploits at the helm of the Indian national team had prompted the England Football Association to rate him among the 10 best skippers of the world in its yearbook of 1953, writes AMITABHA DAS SHARMA.

Who was the only Asian footballer ever to be named among the best 10 captains in the world? The man in question is Sailendra Nath (Sailen) Manna — the former Indian captain who fetched the country a host of international laurels including the first Asian Games gold in 1951. Today, Manna, 82, is the representative of the period when Indian football was at its peak. Manna's exploits at the helm of the Indian national team had prompted the England Football Association to rate him among the 10 best skippers of the world in its yearbook of 1953. That was the best of times. The euphoria of newly gained independence was sweeping across the nation.

Football embodied the spirit and aspiration of a newborn nation. India became Asia's top team as Manna led the nation to glory in the inaugural Asian Games. His leadership inspired more wins. India won four successive titles in the South East Asian quadrangular meet (featuring India, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka) between 1952 and 1955. The hat-trick was completed under Manna's captaincy. Manna recalls that the country had to forego many tournaments owing to lack of funds. "Indian footballers had earned worldwide recognition for their talent. We were receiving invitations from many corners of the globe. But the Federation did not have the money to fund our trips," he says.

The first overseas trip was finally realized in 1948. The occasion was the biggest sporting congregation of the world — the Olympics — and the venue even more enticing — London. The patronage of the Indian government ensured that for the first time an Indian football team set sail for Europe. It was a team stitched together under the captaincy of the celebrated Mohun Bagan captain Dr. Talimeren Ao. The squad included other stalwarts such as Sahu Mewalal, Ahmed Khan, S. Raman, Dhanraj and of course Manna. "There was no elaborate preparation. We only played a few matches against local teams under our trainer Baliadas Chatterjee. There was no concept of a coach at that time," recalls Manna. "We had to travel for more than three weeks and the deck of our ship became the training field. We would do the fitness drills everyday and practice shooting with balls dangled by ropes. We were cheered by other people travelling with us."

Manna's face gleams as his memory flashes images. "We lost the match 1-2 against France but our performance drew huge cheers as we were challenging the Europeans bare-footed," says Manna. The biggest appreciation came from the English monarchy. "Princess Margaret had asked me during a reception at Buckingham Palace, `Aren't you afraid of playing barefooted against boots?' We could not say that there was no fund for buying boots. We just grinned and said playing without them was more comfortable," says Manna with a hint of pride.

As a defender, Manna never allowed the opposition an easy route. His services were also utilised in set-piece situations where Manna showed his dexterity. "I was good with my shots but I missed a crucial shot from the spot against France," he says. India drew level with a goal from Raman but missed the lead as a second penalty was wasted. "This time, Mahaveer Prasad missed it. Captain Ao asked me to try again but I refused dreading another miss. I strongly feel now that I should have accepted the captain's offer." France managed to win the match by a late goal. "We played a few friendlies against some European club and local sides after the Olympics. And we earned lots of appreciation for our performance against sides such as Wales and Ajax Amsterdam, whom we defeated."

The Asian Games triumph came as the high point of achievement. "We had matched our strength with the best in Europe. It was natural that we would be claiming the Asian honour," says Manna. "Our team had matured in three years after the Olympic voyage and we possessed the best attack in the continent." India beat Iran 1-0 in the final.

"It was the realisation of a dream," says Manna. "The whole nation backed us to win our first big medal in football." Even the country's leadership was smitten by the prospect of a triumph. "I remember Prime Minister Nehru making a visit to our dressing room ahead of the final to give us a pep talk. We lived up to his expectations thanks to a brilliant goal from Mewalal. It was Pandit Nehru himself who gave us the gold medallion during the awards ceremony." India faced disappointment in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. "We were still the `barefooted bunch' as most of us were unaccustomed to boots," says Manna. "We could only see snow all around. We were freezing on the ground. The chill proved too much against a well-accomplished team like Yugoslavia." India bowed out of the tournament losing 1-10. This was followed by successive triumphs back in the continent in the quadrangular tournaments.

Manna was one of the most successful Indian football captains. Added to his eminence as one of the greatest defenders of the country is the clean image that he meticulously maintained on and off the field.

Manna was a natural leader and showed this in his unflinching loyalty to his club. Manna made a change only once in life. He joined Mohun Bagan from a second division side, Howrah Union, at the age of 18 in 1942. And stayed back with the green-and-maroon club for the rest of his playing days which ended in 1960. He captained the team for six years from 1950 to 1955. "I never took money playing for Mohun Bagan. I played out of love for the sport and was happy with the salary I got from my employer, the Geological Survey of India," says Manna.

Manna was drafted in as a coach in 1961. His association with Mohun Bagan grew even stronger as he was absorbed into the administration. "I became a football secretary under the charismatic Dhiren Dey and was later made the assistant-secretary," says Manna, who became the mascot of Mohun Bagan as the club identified itself with the image of this `saintly' footballer. This association lasted till 1990. As the old guard exited from the club at the start of the final decade of the last Millennium, Manna drew curtains on 50 years of uninterrupted association with the sport. He was awarded the Padma Shree in 1970. He was the second footballer after Gostho Pal to receive the honour.

"I have always been a common man's footballer. I feel comfortable in that role," says Manna, who is leading a quiet life with his wife, Abha, at his neatly decorated apartment in the eastern part of Kolkata. In 2000, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) named him the `Indian Footballer of the Millennium'. "I never strove for riches and I am leading a peaceful life with whatever little I have," says Manna. "I will be the happiest man to see India reclaim the Asian Games gold and I will live hoping to see that happen."