It was the last week of November, and Dimapur was dry, dusty, and chilly in the mornings and evenings. The 19th Dr T. Ao inter-district football tournament had got under way the day I reached this crowded commercial hub at the foothills of Nagaland, and I watched Phek district beat a somewhat overconfident Mokokchung district (the previous year’s champions) 2-0 in the opening match at the Dimapur District Sport Council stadium. At the venue were several black-and-white hoardings, blown-up from old photographs, of the late Dr T. Ao taking to the field at the 1948 Olympics as the captain of independent India’s first national football team.

I met Akok Tally, the second of the late Dr Talimeren Ao’s four children, two days later at his residence in a large, tree-filled compound on the outskirts of Dimapur, to talk about his father’s life. The plot was allotted to his father by the Nagaland government in 1970, when it was unclassified forest land. Tally, 56, runs a school started by his father in the compound, and named after his grandfather, the Reverend Subongwati Ningdangri.

Talimeren Ao was born in 1918 in Changki, an Ao village in the then Naga Hills district of Assam and now in Nagaland’s Mokokchung district. The Aos are one of the 16 tribes of Nagaland. The First World War had just ended, and as the members of the Naga labour corps who had been recruited by the British for service in France returned home there were the first stirrings of change: a greater awareness of the outside world and the vexed question of Naga identity.

First brushes with football

The Aos were one of the first tribes among whom Baptist missionaries started working in the Naga Hills in the second half of the 19th century, and T. Ao’s father Subongwati Ningdangri was the first Reverend in the Naga Hills. T. Ao was his fourth-born child (there were 12 children in all – six boys and six girls – but the girl born before T. Ao died).

Two or three years after T. Ao was born, the family moved to the Impur mission compound near Mokokchung town, where the Reverend had been allotted a house by the American missionaries. Near the house was a field where boys would play football after school with a ball made of tightly-tied rags. The Americans played volleyball, but the British influence meant football was played too. This was where T. Ao picked up the game, learning to dribble those low-bouncing balls and shoot them with both feet. Being one of the younger brothers, T. Ao also had to help chop firewood, carry water, and herd the family’s cows.

In 1933, the Reverend sent his son to the Jorhat mission school (now the Eastern Theological College) in Assam. This was T. Ao’s first exposure to proper football, and his skills were soon noticed by students and teachers alike. The Reverend Ningdangri passed away from typhoid at the Mokokchung Civil Hospital in 1935, aged about 45. His last wish for his son Talimeren (“a lot of glory” in the Ao language) was for him to become a doctor and serve the Naga people. T. Ao was the last person to see his father alive as the only other attendant, his cousin brother Oungthang, had trekked down to Mariani in Assam to buy medicines.

From Jorhat, T. Ao went to Guwahati in 1937 to join Cotton College. Here his game moved up another level. The biggest football club in Assam in those days was the Maharana Club. Their players would train at a maidan near Cotton College, and T. Ao was soon joining them in their drills. He asked to join the club and was taken in. He was already playing for Cotton College as a striker then, and later became its sports secretary.

Leading the Indian team

At Maharana, however, T. Ao was made a defender/midfielder, a position he would retain thereafter. At a game in Guwahati versus a visiting Calcutta side, a combined tackle by two frustrated opposition strikers fractured T. Ao’s jaw. Ever the sportsman, he helped one of his attackers to their feet. At another match in Calcutta, the young T. Ao managed to mark and block the famous striker Noor Mohammed, a feat that got him noticed at the national level. Even as he worked at improving his game, T. Ao had not forgotten his late father’s wishes. In 1942, on his second attempt, he secured one of the two seats then reserved for undivided Assam at the Carmichael Medical College in Calcutta.

When T. Ao got to Calcutta, his old friend from Maharana Club, Sarat Das, who was then playing for Mohun Bagan, brought him over to his club. After paying a joining fee, T. Ao was inducted into the Mohun Bagan squad as a defender. His skills and his unruffled temperament soon led to T. Ao being made captain of Mohun Bagan. In 1948 he was asked to join the Indian national team, where he was again the unanimous choice for captain. He led the Indian team at the 1948 Olympics in London, the first to be held after a gap of 14 years on account of the Second World War.

He was then, as always, playing barefooted, like most other players of his time. “My father at some point tried the leather football boots available then,” Tally said, “but soon discarded them.” A story narrated by a referee at the inter-district tournament in Dimapur had a journalist at the 1948 games asking T. Ao why he did not wear football boots, to which the Indian captain supposedly replied, “Because it’s football, not bootball.”

The British principal of the Carmichael Medical College granted him a year’s leave on account of his duties as India captain. The national football team trained for a few weeks in Shillong, after which there was an exhibition match in Guwahati against a combined Guwahati XI. Gopen Chowdhury, 80, of Uzan Bazar in Guwahati, was present at the match, and must be among the few people alive today who had seen T. Ao play. He remembers the Indian captain as a tall, well-built midfielder who seemed to have plenty of time whether he was receiving or distributing the ball.

Career as a doctor

At the Olympics, T. Ao was the flag-bearer for the Indian contingent. The Indian team had a walkover in the first round against Burma, then went down 2-1 to France in a close contest where the Indians missed two penalties. T. Ao was reportedly offered a season’s contract by the club Arsenal, whose management also offered to get him admission into a medical school, but he just wanted to get back home.

In the same year he rejoined his MBBS course at the Carmichael Medical College, graduating in 1950. He was 30 years old at the Olympics and at the height of his game. After he finished his MBBS and was to bid farewell to the city and to Mohun Bagan, his club offered him a plot of land in Calcutta, but T. Ao politely refused. Coming back to North East India in 1951 he joined the ENT department at the Dibrugarh Medical College in Assam. The same year there was a Far East tour with the national team to countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Japan. Back in Dibrugarh, his work among tuberculosis patients led to him to contract the disease himself. His old club Mohun Bagan offered to take him to Vienna for treatment, but T. Ao, now a doctor, told them that the availability of drugs like penicillin meant he could get cured where he was.

Dr T. Ao finally got back to the Naga Hills in 1953, as an Assistant Civil Surgeon at the Kohima Civil Hospital. He met his future wife, Deikim Doungel, while she was a staff nurse at the hospital. The Naga independence movement had by then turned into an armed insurgency, and the Indian army was conducting operations in the Naga Hills. Dr T. Ao ended up treating injured combatants from both sides. He then become Civil Surgeon, and retired as the Director of Health Services of Nagaland in 1978. He passed away in 1998, at the age of 80, and lies buried at the Naga Cemetery in Khermahal, Dimapur. He is survived by his wife, who is 84, four children and eight grandchildren (two of whom are medical students).

Honoured across region

Unlike today’s players, T. Ao was never a professional in the sense that he was never paid, apart from expenses. In fact, he had to pay Rs.5 to register as a member at Mohun Bagan. Later, the club made him a life member (besides posthumously awarding him the Mohun Bagan Ratna in 2002). “My father played for the love of the game,” Tally said, “and had the drive to keep bettering himself.” The Kolkata-based football historian Subhransu Roy said, “In those days football players had to support themselves with other jobs. For example, Sailen Manna, the defender and captain of the 1951 team that won gold at the Asian Games, worked with the Geological Survey of India.”

Listening to this remarkable story made me wonder about the legacy the man had left behind, as well as the current state of football in Nagaland. Anjan Mitra, longtime secretary of Mohun Bagan club, had one word to describe T. Ao: “genius”. People from various tribes and communities I spoke to in Nagaland all recalled T. Ao’s name, if not his exact achievements. He is the closest Nagaland may have had, given the traditional tensions between the various tribes, to a truly “national” hero.

Dr T. Ao’s achievements stand testament to what people from the margins of the nation can achieve. Baichung Bhutia also rose from a village in the hills of Sikkim to become captain of the Indian football team, but that was many years after India’s independence. Subhransu Roy points out that T. Ao led the Indian football team at a time when a new nation was being created, and stood as a symbol of moral character, especially in his later work as a doctor. Roy said, “Dr T. Ao is still remembered by the football fraternity in Kolkata. When he was posthumously awarded the Mohun Bagan Ratna in 2002, there was a lot of coverage.”

In Assam, an outdoor stadium at Koliabor near Nagaon and an indoor stadium at Cotton College in Guwahati have been named after Dr T. Ao, and there is a North East inter-state football tournament in his name (as well as the Nagaland state inter-district tournament), but Tally said, “nothing fitting has been done for him in his home state.”

Poor infrastructure in Nagaland

Anjan Mitra says 20% to 25% of India’s professional football players come from the North East, a region that comprises roughly 8% of India’s land mass with about 3% of the country’s population. The states of Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya supply the majority of those players. Mohun Bagan’s under-18 football academy’s North East recruits are mostly from Manipur and Mizoram, with only a few from Nagaland. Why doesn’t the state which produced T. Ao have more players at the national level?

Dominic Sutnga, owner and managing director of the Royal Wahingdoh football club from Shillong, which has qualified for the I-League’s 8th season, said, “Lack of sports infrastructure and the absence of a state league for a long time prevented players from Nagaland making a mark at the national level. There have been a few Naga players, but mostly from the hill districts of Manipur.” The Nagaland Premier League started only two years back and is fast gaining popularity in the state.

The chief guest at the Dr T. Ao inter-district football tournament, the parliamentary secretary Khriehu Liezietsu, said the Nagaland state junior football team had won the Subroto Mukherjee football tournament in 2008, 2012 and 2014, but the state had not been able to shine at the senior level mainly due to poor sports infrastructure. This lack of infrastructure is something people in Nagaland have gotten used to. An official of the Nagaland Football Association said, “Funds do not reach where they are supposed to.”

On December 1, at the DDSC stadium in Dimapur, the late Dr T. Ao’s home district of Mokokchung beat Kohima 3-0 to win the Dr T. Ao inter-district tournament. There was a sizeable crowd present, and Mokokchung’s Sakutemjen Ao, the player of the tournament, scored all three goals for his side. In February 2015, the sixth Dr T. Ao Memorial Football Championship, a North-East inter-state tournament organised by the Department for the North East Region, will be held in Arunachal Pradesh.

Love of the game

Thangboi Singto, head coach of the I-League side Shillong Lajong FC, says the older generation of football players from the North East (the likes of Baichung Bhutia and Renedy Singh) do remember T. Ao, but not so much the new generation of players, possibly due to a lack of coverage about the man. He said, “Dr T. Ao was someone who established the North East in the map of India, and served society as well.” Singto says all I-League and Indian Super League teams have players from the North East, mainly from Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya, where a football culture is boosted by competent administrators and popular, professional state leagues.

The sports commentator Novy Kapadia says Dr T. Ao, like all Indian footballers of his generation, has been largely forgotten. “He was a competent, hard-working centre half in the old-fashioned 2-3-5 system.” According to Kapadia, after T. Ao stopped playing, football in the North East was largely marginalised till the discovery of players like Kiron Khongsai (who played for JCT, East Bengal and the Indian team) and Jewel Bey from Assam by the special area games scheme of the Sports Authority of India in the late 1980s. “T. Ao’s career, while being noteworthy and inspirational, did not lead to anything for football in the North East,” he says. “The real impetus came from the special area games scheme, teams from the North East reaching the finals of the Subroto Mukherjee Cup regularly from 1978 onwards, and the Tata Football Academy in Jamshedpur.”

The player of the tournament Sakutemjen Ao, 29, and a constable in the Nagaland Police, turned out to be the hardest to track down. Ao is posted at Chumukedima near Dimapur, and is married with two children. He comes from Salulemang village near Mokokchung, where he started playing football. He plays for his district, Mokokchung, as well as for Nagaland Police and the state football team. He said, “Our state produces good players, but they do not like going elsewhere to play football, they are happy to be where they are.” What were his future plans? To simply keep playing football, he said. A sentiment the former Indian captain from his district might have agreed with: playing for the love of the game, while recognising that there is more to life than football.

Ankush Saikia is the author of the noir thriller The Girl from Nongrim Hills.