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Best Indian football players of all time

Wed 12 May 2021 | 7:30

From Jarnail Singh to Sunil Chhetri, in this article, we take a look at some of the best Indian players in football history.

Football in India was brought by the British during the British colonial period. Initially, football matches were played between military teams. Football clubs started to be formed soon. Many of these clubs were formed even before the formation of modern football organization like FIFA.

Nowadays, after cricket, football is one of the most popular sports in India. It is particularly popular in West Bengal, Goa, Kerala and the entire North East of India, especially in Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, and Sikkim.

While India has won the football event at the Asian Games twice before, the standard of Indian football has declined due in part to a lack of investment and the strong influence of cricket (India's cricket team is among the top three in the world).

Meanwhile, the standard of Asian countries where football was the most popular sport continued to rise. The Indian and Brazilian governments signed an agreement in September 2006 to set up a system for training Indian footballers and coaches.

Greatest Indian footballers of all time

In this article of SportMob, we took a look in the history books of Indian football and in the following, will introduce some of the best Indian football players in history, stay tuned to see which of your favorite Indian footballers are in our list of best Indian football players of all time.

Peter Thangaraj

Peter Thangaraj, born in Andhra Pradesh in 1938 was an Indian football goalkeeper who emerged as one of the country's finest goalkeepers of all time. From 1954 to 1968, he played for the

Indian national team

. Thangaraj was on the crossbar when India won the football final against

South Korea

(2-1) in Jakarta in 1962 during the Asian Games. He also played for the Indian team in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics. He was voted Asia's best goalkeeper in 1958. In 1968, he received the Arjuna Award. He retired from football in 1971.

Tangaraj started playing football at the local Morning Star Club and later moved to the FC FC from Secunderabad. In 1953, he was drafted into the army, where he played for the Madras Regional Center. Initially, Tangaraj played as a striker but later moved to the position of goalkeeper, where he played much better. The performances of the Madras military team at that time were quite successful, they won the Durand Cup from 1955 to 1958 in a row. In 1960 he was captain of the team, who won the Santos Trophy - in fact, it was the main tournament in the country before the National Football League.

From 1960, Tangaraj played for the three strongest clubs in India at the time, based in Calcutta - "Mohammedan" (from 1960 to 1963, again from 1971 to 1972), "Mohun Bagan" (from 1963 to 1965) and "East Bengal” (from 1965 to 1971). During this time, together with the teams, he won the Santos Trophy twice, in 1963 and 1965, and won several other All-India tournaments at the time. For outstanding sporting achievements in 1967, Peter Tangaraj was awarded the Arjuna Prize.

After finishing his active football career, Thangaraj served as a coach, including for Vasco in Goa. He was among the founders of a football academy and trained local footballers. Thangaraj died of a heart attack in 2008. He will always be remembered as one of the

best Indian soccer players ever

.

Mohammed Salim

The next player in our list of

best Indian football players of all time

is Mohammed Salim. He was an Indian football star, who played for

Celtic

in 1936-37. While playing for Glasgow Celtic in 1936-37, he became the first player from the Asian continent to wear the shirt of a European football team. During the 1930s, Mohammed Salim became a vital part of the Mohammedan Sporting Club and helped the club win five consecutive league titles in his home town of Calcutta.

His cousin from England, on a trip to Calcutta in 1936, persuaded him to return with him to try his luck in Europe. He was presented to the Celtic coaches, and although he played with bandaged feet, made a strong impression on them. Following these initial tests, he made it into the first team and impressed the press in Scottish Football Championship matches, earning the nickname 'The Indian Juggler'.

However, homesickness prompted him to return to India. In his later years, his son wrote a letter to Celtic mentioning his father's illness, and to his surprise received a cheque for £100 and a Celtic shirt as a reminder of the good memories his father had left behind during his time in Scotland. Many consider him amongst the best Indian players in football history.

Jarnail Singh

Many consider him to be one of the best Indian football players of all time. His full name is Jarnail Singh Dhillon. He is one of the very successful players in India's football. Jarnail Singh was born in 1936 in Panam, District Hoshiarpur Punjab. During his playing days as a defender, he proved himself as one of the

greatest Indian footballers of all time

, helping his country to win lots of silverware. At the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, Jarnail was instrumental in India’s gold medal win.

Some Indian football pundits say that he was the player who managed to improve the defense in the Indian national football team with his great power and superior performances. He continued to play for Khalsa College Mahipalpur Punjab from 1952 to 1956. Then he was a member of the Khalsa Sportrig College Punjab team between 1956 and 1957.

He was a member of the Rajasthan Club, Calcutta team in 1957–58. In the golden age of Indian football, Jarnail Singh played a key role in taking Indian football forward and on the path of progress, like other best players of his time. His ability and superiority in the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games are not hidden from anyone. His best performance there is still remembered. He will always be remembered as one of the

best Indian football players in history

.

Gostha Pal

Gostha Pal, born on 20 August 1897 was a famous Indian football player and one of the best Indian soccer players ever. He gained a reputation for playing some great matches in defense. During his playing days, he earned the nickname “Wall of China” from the English press. As he was born in Bengal Presidency, and while he played his international football for the Indian national football team, Gostha Pal, he never forgot about Bengal and in his autobiography he repeatedly wrote about his homeland.

Gostha Pal started playing football at an early age. In 1908, at the age of 11, he joined the Kumartuli Club in Calcutta and played there till 1913. With the help of Mohun Bagan player Rajen Sen, he joined the Mohun Bagan Club in Calcutta in 1912. The previous year,

Mohun Bagan

had won the IFA Shield by defeating foreigners. He first played for Mohun Bagan in 1913. As one of the legendary footballers of the club, he played for Mohun Bagan for 23 years. The first team formed by the East Bengal Club in 1920 included a group of legendary footballers.

In 1920, he played in the Hercules Cup, the only East Bengal tournament, and they were crowned champions. In 1921 he became the captain of Mohun Bagan, and three years later in 1924, he was named captain of the Indian national team. He played in the right back position. After proving himself among the

best Indian football players of all time

, Gostha Pal retired from playing football in 1935.

Chuni Goswami

As one of the

best Indian players in football history

, Chuni Goswami played as a striker or winger and has captained both Mohun Bagan and the Indian national team. Known popularly as Chuni Goswami, he scored nine goals in 30 international appearances for the Indian national team. He was an Olympian, representing the Indian team in the 1960

Summer Olympics

. He also guided the team to a gold medal at the 1962 Asian Games and earned a runner-up spot in the 1964 AFC Asian Cup.

Chuni Goswami went on to excel in his club career playing for one club, Mohun Bagan, despite several offers from other clubs, including one from Tottenham Hotspur. Goswami moved to the Mohun Bagan youth team in 1946 at the age of 8. He played for the youth team until 1954 when he was promoted to the senior Mohun Bagan team. He continued to play for Mohun Bagan until his retirement in 1968. During his tenure with the club, he managed the club for five seasons from 1960 to 1964.

Chuni Goswami played for India for the first time in 1956 during the team's 1-0 victory over the Chinese Olympic team. In the following years, he played in 50 international matches for India, including the Olympic Games, Asian Games, Asian Cup and Merdeka Cup. India won a gold medal at the 1962 Asian Games and silver medals at the 1964 Asian Cup in Tel Aviv and the Merdeka Cup. He will always be remembered as one of the greatest Indian footballers of all time.

Tulsidas Balaram

The next player in our list of best Indian football players of all time is Tulsidas Balaram, who played as a striker for the Indian national team and several clubs in India. Balaram was born in a village near Secunderabad, to a poor family that often failed to provide him with proper nutrition. He had to interrupt his career because of pleurisy. He was first noticed in a local tournament by Hyderabad City Police coach Syed Abdul Rahim, who convinced him to join his team by giving him 25 rupees to buy a bicycle to get to the training ground.

After playing for CCOB and Hyderabad City Police, he moved to

East Bengal

in 1957. He won an IFA Shield (1958), a Durand Cup (in 1960 tied with Mohun Bagan), a Rovers Cup (in 1962 tied with Andhra Pradesh Police) and two DCM Trophies (1957 and 1960) with East Bengal. He was India's top scorer in 1959 with 39 goals, while he scored 104 goals throughout his time with East Bengal. In 1963 he transferred to Bengal Nagpur Railway and won an IFA Shield (1963) and a Rovers Cup (1964).

He was called up to lead the India national football team in 1970 but had to deal with some clashes with the AIFF and he decided not to manage the national team. Balaram participated with India's Olympic national football team in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games football tournament, finishing with his teammates in fourth place overall, losing the 3rd place final to Bulgaria. With India he also participated in the next edition in Rome, this time failing to pass the group stage. Many regard him as one of the best Indian football players in history.

Sailen Manna

Consider one of the

best Indian football players of all time

, Sailen Manna was an Indian defender who played for the Indian national team for many years during the 1940s and 1950s. He is believed to be one of the best defenders the country has ever seen. The All India Football Federation chose him as 'Footballer of the Millennium' in 2000. He played internationally from 1951 to 1956 (14 caps) and captained India to the gold medal at the 1951 Asian Games in New Delhi.

For nineteen years, Manna played for India's top club Mohun Bagan, with whom he won several trophies. However, he kicked off his football career in 1940 with Howrah Union, which was then playing in the second division of the Kolkata Football League. He joined Mohun Bagan in 1942 and remained there till the end of his career in 1960. He captained the side for six years (1950-1955). As a defender, he was known for his anticipatory skills and strong free kicks. After his active career at the club, he became a coach and later a member of the board as assistant secretary.

He was also a member of the national team that played at the 1948 London Olympics, where the team was narrowly defeated by

France

(1-2). In addition to the gold medal in 1951, he won the Quandrangular Tournament (with the countries India, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka) for four consecutive years (1952-1956).

Inivalappil Mani Vijayan

As one of the best Indian football players of all time, Inivalappil Mani Vijayan made his way into football when he was a beverage vendor at the city stadium in Thrissur as a youth. He was noticed by representatives of the local club Kerala Polis and eventually became a national star and the highest-paid footballer in the country.

He was voted India's Footballer of the Year three times - in 1992, 1997 and 1999. He was a pivotal player in the national team for many years. At the 1999 South Asian Championship, he won with the national team, during which he set a world record by scoring the fastest goal in an official national team match (in the 12th second in a game against Bhutan). He became the top scorer at the 2003 Afro-Asian Games with 4 goals.

After his career as a footballer, Vijayan established a youth football academy in his hometown. He is also politically active in India and is a member of the Congress of Nationalists Party (NCP). Many Indian football fans and pundits consider Inivalappil Mani Vijayan as one of the best Indian soccer players ever.

Bhaichung Bhutia

Known to be amongst the best Indian football players of all time, Bhaichung Bhutia began his career at the age of ten when he played for the Tashi Namgyal Academy in Gangtok. He left Sikkim at the age of 16 and started his career with East Bengal Club in Kolkata, for whom he played from 1993 to 1995. Following two successful years at JCT Mills in Phagwara, winning the championship and top scorer award in 1996/97, Bhutia returned to East Bengal in 1997 where he spent another two years.

He eventually moved to

Bury Town

in the English third division in 1999. While in England, however, he only managed to play 37 games in three years and scored three goals. Bhutia returned to India in 2002, where he first played for Mohun Bagan (2002-2003) and again for East Bengal (2003-2006). Following a short stint in Malaysia (Perak), Bhutia returned to Mohun Bagan. He played in the newly created I-League in the 2007-08 season. In 2009, Bhutia moved to big league rivals East Bengal Club before joining United Sikkim, of which he is a co-owner, in 2011.

In 1995, Bhutia played his debut match for the Indian national football team and became the youngest goal scorer in India's national team when he scored against Uzbekistan in the Nehru Cup at the age of 19. At the 2009 Nehru Cup, he made his 100th appearance for the national team against Kyrgyzstan. With the national team, he won the AFC

Challenge Cup

2008 and was voted the best player of the tournament. In the meantime, Bhutia played a total of 107 international matches for India and scored 43 goals in the process. Bhutia ended his career with the national team with the friendly match on 10 January 2012 against

FC Bayern Munich

.

Pradip Kumar Banerjee

One of the famous names in the list of best Indian football players of all time, Pradip Kumar Banerjee has played for India in 45 international matches, scoring 15 goals for them between 1955 and 1966. Banerjee was one of the first recipients of the Arjuna Award. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1990 and is regarded by the IFFHS to be one of the best twentieth century Indian footballers. In 2004, he was awarded the FIFA highest award, the Order of Merit.

In 1951, when he was just 15 years old, PK Banerjee made played his first match for Bihar in the Santosh Trophy. He then transferred to Calcutta in 1954 and joined Aryan Football Club. Later he played for the Eastern Railway Football Club. He made his Indian national team debut in 1955 at the age of 19 in a four-nation tournament in Dhaka, East Pakistan.

He played with the Indian national team in three Asian Games, the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta, where India won the gold medal, and later in the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok. He also played for the national team at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Four years later he represented India at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where they drew 1-1 with France. He played for India three times (1959, 1964 and 1965) in the Merdeka football tournament. There India won silver in 1959, and bronze in 1984.

Sunil Chhetri

Without a doubt, Sunil Chhetri is the most famous footballer in the history of Indian football and one of the best Indian football players of all time. After starting his career in Mohun Bagan and establishing himself as a talented striker, and following a short spell with the American side Kansas City Wizards, the captain of the Indian national team, who was an idol in India, signed for

Sporting CP

on 5 July 2012. He was expected to play in the reserve team.

Incorporated into Sporting's B team squad, he failed to establish himself, only featuring in 3 games (3 minutes against Freamunde, 2 minutes against SC Braga B and 52 minutes against União Madeira). As a result, on 13 February 2013, Sporting officially announced his loan to Churchill Brothers SC for the rest of the season, with Sunil Chhetri returning to Sporting for the 2013-2014 pre-season of the B team. Sunil Chhetri was about to be transferred on 10 July 2015 to join an Indian Super League club, Chhetri eventually joined

Mumbai City

and played for the first time in the Indian Super League.

At the 2019 Asian Cup, he scored twice in the opening match against Thailand (4-1 win), to become India's all-time top scorer with a total of 67 goals for the national team. He is also the most capped player in the team's history. However, India failed to progress beyond the group stage of the continental finals. According to many football pundits and fans, Sunil Chhetri remains one of the best Indian football players of all time.

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