Since the Indian men's national team made its official international debut at the London Olympics in 1948, it has been a roller coaster ride for the sport in the country. In the early years since its independence, India emerged as one of the most prominent footballing nations in Asia. The country went on to win the gold medal in football twice at the Asian Games, in 1951 and 1962.
India also finished runners-up to Israel in the 1964 Asian Cup, which was competed between four teams in a league format. At the 1956 Olympics, the Indian team reached the semis, beating Australia in the quarters. In the later years, India enjoyed moderate success in the international platform, across both genders.
India's relative success in the sport over the decades has meant that it has had quite a few footballing heroes of its own. From Sailen Manna to Sunil Chhetri, many Indian footballers have enjoyed their fair share of fame over the years. However, there are many who have either been lost in the pages of history over the years, or simply haven't been given the due credit for their contribution to the sport.
On the occasion of Independence Day, here is a look at six unsung heroes of Indian football:
The first ever captain of the Indian team post-independence, Talimeren Ao was born in Changki, Nagaland (then part of Assam) in 1918. At a time when Naga nationalism was on the rise, Ao was given the role of flag-bearer for the Indian contingent at the 1948 London Olympics. At the games, he captained the Indian team in its official debut, where the Blue Tigers were narrowly beaten 2-1 by a strong French team.
Ao went on to take over the captain's role at Mohun Bagan in the same year, five years after signing for the club. He played for Bagan till 1952, the year he retired from the game. Fifty years after his death, his contributions were recognised by the club in the form of a posthumous Mohun Bagan Ratna Award. In 2009, the first Dr. T Ao memorial football tournament was inaugurated in remembrance of his achievements.
Thazhatheri Abdul Rahman
I M Vijayan is the first name to come to mind when one talks about footballers from Kerala. Long before Vijayan started his career, however, it was Thazhatheri Abdul Rahman who flew the state's flag in the sport. A highly talented left-flanker, Rahman played a key role in India's stunning 4-2 victory over Australia in the quarterfinal of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
With him being one of the most prominent Olympians from his state, Abdul Rahman came to be popularly called as 'Olympian' Rahman in Kerala. From 1955 to 1966, he won five Santosh Trophy titles, leading Bengal to four titles and Bangalore to one. He was one of the most prominent figures at Mohun Bagan in the early 60s, captaining the club for a few years during the period.
Many football historians hail Sheeo Mewalal as the greatest Indian centre forward. Once praised by Jawaharlal Nehru for his performance in the 1951 Asian Games final against Iran, Mewalal's name, in recent years, has been lost in the pages of history. So much so that, weeks before his death, he was refused admission to a Railways Hospital in Kolkata because the authorities of the institution denied having knowledge of Mewalal.
Born in Daulatapur, Bihar, Mewalal spent most of his life in Kolkata, after his family migrated to the city during his childhood years. Playing for the East Bengal Ralilways FC team, Sheeo Mewalal emerged as the best striker in the country in the years after independence. He was a key member of the Indian team that lost to France in the 1948 Olympics, and three years later, played a big part in India's gold medal in football at the Asian Games in New Delhi. He scored three goals at the continental event, including the winner in the final against Iran.
Widely regarded as India's greatest ever female footballer, Bembem Devi started playing football with the boys of her locality as a ten year-old. The Imphal-born Bembem broke into the senior Manipur team in the matter of a few years, and in 1995, made her debut for India at the age of 15. Her list of honours include an incredible 16 national titles with the Manipur state team, nine of which she won as the captain.
Moreover, she has also led India to three South Asian titles, in 2010, 2012 and 2014. One of the best midfielders of the continent, Bembem has also played for Maldives' New Radiant club in the last two seasons, leading the team to the national title on both occasions. Despite her immense contribution to the sport, Bembem's name remains conspicuously absent from the list of Arjuna Awardees.
The first footballer from Mizoram to play at a top-flight club in India, Shylo Malsawmtluanga enjoys a cult status in his home state. Popularly known as 'Mama' among Indian football fans, Malsawmtluanga's move to East Bengal in 2002 inspired many Mizo youngsters to follow in his footsteps. He went on to win two league titles and the 2003 ASEAN Cup with the Kolkata giants, among other trophies.
Known for his high work-rate on the field, Malsawmtluanga is equally adept at playing down the middle or on the flanks. Now a regular first team player for East Bengal, he also plays for Delhi Dynamos in the Indian Super League. The 30 year-old, however, has surprisingly played for India on only three occasions so far in his career.
47 goals in 15 games; an average of 3.13 goals every game. This goalscoring stat belongs to Bala Devi in the 2014 season. Born in Manipur, Bala Devi has been the best player in India in recent years. She was the inspiration behind the country's SAFF Women's Championship victories in 2010 and 2014, with her scoring a phenomenal 16 goals in the 2014 edition.
Despite the absence of a professional structure for women's football in India, Bala Devi's career has been in an upward curve in the last couple of years. She has been an important part of the Manipur team for quite a few years now, and scored 29 goals in 7 games in the last National Championships.
In February 2015, she helped Manipur to the gold medal in football at the National Games in Kerala. More recently, she scored 25 goals in 7 games for New Radiant, en route to the club's successful defence of the Maldivian national title in June. She was adjudged the best player of the tournament.