Cricket is the most popular sport in India, as a result football always had to take the backseat in the country. Once there was a golden age (1950’s and 1960’s) for the Indian football team. But due to lack of investment and proper planning, the standard of Indian football decreased.
However, the love for football in India, which was mostly confined to some states in the past, is now becoming national. Football in India is slowly coming into the conscience of an average sports fan after a spell in the wilderness. On India’s 73rd Independence day, let us throw light on greatest Indian footballers ever.
Here are the greatest Indian footballers ever –
10. Climax Lawerence
The Goan born midfielder is one of the finest to play for India. In a wide-ranging career, Climax has played for clubs like Salgoacar, East Bengal and Dempo among others.
Climax Lawrence was an exemplary servant for the Indian national team for nearly a decade. On the field, the attacking midfielder used to be very pumped up, but outside the field, he is considered to be very humble and patient player because he was never seen complaining about Coaches.
He made his international debut in 2002 under Stephen Constantine (during his first stint as Indian coach). The finest moment of his career came in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup final, where he scored a 91st-minute winner against Afghanistan.
9. Gostha Pal
This legendary player is one of the most famous players in the history of Indian football. He was born in Bhojeswar, Faridpore, Bengal Presidency (currently located in Bangladesh). He moved to Kolkata when he was an infant and lived there till his very last days.
He was one of the best defenders of contemporary Indian football. He started playing for Kumartuli A.C. aged 11, and joined Mohun Bagan at the age of 16. In 1921, Gostho Paul was honored with the captaincy of the Mohun Bagan football team, and he remained as the club captain for next 5 years. In 1924, he was also appointed as the captain of the Indian national football team. He retired in 1935.
He was the first Indian footballer to be honoured with the Padma Shri, on 27 April 1962. A statue was erected In his memory in 1984 on the Gostho Paul Sarani in Kolkata, in honour of one of the greatest Indian footballers ever.
8. Peter Thangaraj
Peter Thangaraj is undoubtedly the best goalkeeper India has ever produced in its history. The tall and wiry custodian was often considered one of the best in the continent, let alone the country. Born in erstwhile Hyderabad state, Thangaraj started his career as a centre-forward at the Madras Regimental Centre (MRC) before finding his feet between the goalposts.
With Peter Thangaraj, Madras Regimental Centre won the Durand Cup in 1955 and 1958. Thangaraj captained the Services team for its first-ever triumph in the Santosh Trophy in 1960.
After leaving Services, Thangaraj played for Kolkata giants Mohammedan Sporting (1960–63, 1971–72), Mohun Bagan (1963–65), and East Bengal (1965–71) and was a huge fan favorite at the time. He was part of the Bengal team, which won the Santosh Trophy in 1963.
Later, he led the Railways in 1965 and won the Santosh Trophy for them. Along with the likes of Chuni Goswami and P. K. Banerjee, Thangaraj was one of the mainstays of the Indian team in 1960s and 70s.
Thangaraj had an illustrious international career. His first stint with the Indian team was the Quadrangular Tournament held at Dacca in 1955. He played for India both at the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, and represented India at 1958 Tokyo, 1962 Jakarta, and 1966 Bangkok Asian Games.
India won the Gold Medal at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games. He represented India at the Merdeka Cup tournament held at Kuala Lumpur from 1958 to 1966. He also represented India at the 1964 and 1966 Asian Cup held in Israel and Burma respectively.
He was named the Best Goalkeeper of Asia in 1958 and awarded the Arjuna Award in 1967. He twice played for the Asian All-Star team and was adjudged the Best Goalkeeper in 1967.
7. Jarnail Singh Dhillon
The indomitable Jarnail Singh Dhillon is certainly one of greatest Indian footballers ever, having been a part of the country’s finest ever victory in the 1962 Asian games at Jakarta where he made telling contributions. He was one of the best defenders ever to play for India but also occasionally played as a striker.
Hailing from Punjab in 1936, Jarnail came to Kolkata to pursue his footballing dreams. He played for Rajasthan Club and then switched over to Mohun Bagan where he would leave an imprint on the unstoppable Green and Maroon brigade of the 1960s.
Also, the coach Syed Abdul Rahim asked him to play as a centre-forward. The unfazed Jarnail Singh would go on to score a goal with his head. He showed his power and skill in defence in the 1964 Asia Cup at Tel Aviv where India became the runner-up.
He was an absolute superstar in India at that time and was the only Indian chosen to lead the Asian All-Star Football team. He was given the prestigious Arjuna Award in 1964.
6. Subimal Chuni Goswamy
Subimal Chuni Goswamy, known as just Chuni Goswamy, was a gem of a footballer known for his versatility. He was the captain of the Indian team which won the 1962 Asian Games at Jakarta and the silver medal in Asia Cup Soccer tournament (1964) held in Israel.
He only played for one club, Mohun Bagan. When he joined the Mohun Bagan Junior Team in 1946, he was just an eight-year-old boy. In 1954, he was then selected in the Mohun Bagan senior team and continued playing for the club till his retirement in 1968.
Besides playing football, he was also well known as a first-class cricketer. He made his first-class cricket debut for Bengal in Ranji Trophy in 1962-63.
He achieved many awards because of his services to the game. He was given the Best Striker Award of Asia in 1963, the Arjuna Award in 1963, the Padma Shri 1983, the Padmashree in 1983 and the Mohun Bagan Ratna in 2005.
5. Sailendra Nath Manna
Sailendra Nath Manna is undoubtedly one of the greatest Indian footballers ever. He is commonly known as Sailen Manna or Manna da to his fans. The former captain of Indian football team is considered as one of the best defenders to have been produced by India so far. He got name and fame for his powerful free-kicks.
He was an integral part of the team that took part in the 1948 Olympics. Under the leadership of the mercurial defender, India won the Gold Medal in the 1951 Asian Games and also won the Quadrangular Tournament for four successive years from 1952 to 1956.
He started played for Mohun Bagan in 1942 and made a record of playing for this reputed football club for 19 years continuously till his retirement in 1960. He was given ‘Mohun Bagan Ratna’ in 2001.
In fact, his fame as a leader spread so wide that he became the only Asian footballer to have been selected in the list of the 10 best captains of the world by the English Football Association. A really high honour indeed.
In 2000, All India Football Federation paid him honor giving the ‘Footballer of the Millennium’ award. Even, he was awarded the Padmashree in 1971 for his contribution to Indian football.
4. IM Vijayan
In the late nineties and early twentieth, IM Vijayan along with Baichung Bhutia made a successful partnership for the Indian football team.
He played for a number of clubs including Mohun Bagan, FC Kochin, East Bengal etc and was at one point the highest paid footballer in India.
He has scored around 40 goals in 79 appearances for India, a record any striker would be proud of. He made his international debut in 1992 and was a regular fixture in the Indian team until he retired after the 2003 Afro-Asian games.
IM Vijayan also holds the distinction of being the first player to win the AIFF Indian Player of the Year award multiple times. He won it in 1993, 1997 and 1999. It does justice to his footballing skills that Vijayan was often termed the Pele of Indian football.
3. PK Banerjee
PK Banerjee is one of the greatest Indian footballers ever. There is no confusion about his greatness. If readers look at his record then they will accept him as great player without any argument. Appearing in 84 matches for his country, the striker scored 65 goals.
The greatest achievement in his career is perhaps that FIFA named him Indian Footballer of the 20th century. He became the first-ever footballer to receive the Arjuna Award in 1961. He also received the prestigious Padma Shri award in 1990. He is also the only Asian footballer to have received the ‘FIFA centennial order of merit’ in 2004 and to have been awarded the Fair Play Award by the International Olympic Committee.
P K Banerjee played for Mohun Bagan and Eastern Railway clubs. He started playing for the Indian football team in the 1955 Quadrangular tournament in Dhakaat the age of 19. He then represented his country in three Asian Games, two Olympics, and three Merdeka Cup tournaments. He retired. in 1967.
2. Baichung Bhutia
Baichung Bhutia is undeniably one of the most famous football players of India. The Sikkim-born striker was called the Sikkimese Sniper. About his skill, I. M. Vijayan’s quotation described him as “God’s gift to Indian football”.
In 1999, he joined an English club, Bury, and became the first Indian footballer to sign a contract with a European club. Not only that but also he became the second Indian footballer to play professionally in Europe after Mohammed Salim. He also played for Malaysian football club, Perak FA, on a short loan basis.
He has very good record for both club and national team. Appearing in 107 matches for India national football team, he scored 43 goals. He announced his retirement from international football in August 2011. On 10 January 2012, he played against Bayern Munich at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Delhi which was his farewell match.
1. Sunil Chettri
Born on 3 August 1984, Sunil Chhetri is one of India’s best product in the world of football. The Secunderabad-born striker has been the flag-bearer of Indian football in recent times.
He is second in the list of active International goal-scorers behind Cristaino Ronaldo and ahead of Lionel Messi with 71 goals.
He began his professional career with Mohun Bagan before moving to Punjab-based JCT in 2005. His goalscoring exploits for them brought recognition for the forward who was snapped up the USA’s Major League Soccer (MLS) side Kansas City Wizards in 2010. Chhetri was given another opportunity to play abroad when Sporting Portugal’s B side signed him.
After a tough 2-year spell, he returned to India and has led Bengaluru FC to 2 I-League titles, ISL title, 2 Federation Cup titles and a Super Cup in 2018, while also maintaining his goalscoring prowess for the national team. Chhetri has also been named AIFF Player of the Year six times in 2007, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2019.