Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles on the Indian football national team in connection to India@75. The writer will cover various aspects of the game during the period between 1948-2022.

India’s qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup was a big boost for the game in the country in recent years.

While the team played cohesive football, the man who stood tall during qualifiers was skipper Sunil Chhetri. He led from the front in the truest sense and scored crucial goals against Myanmar and Kyrgyzstan to take India to the final rounds for the fourth time in the history of the Asian Cup.

Yet, when the team for the UAE meet was announced, Chhetri, to everyone’s surprise, lost his captain’s armband. The British coach, Stephen Constantine, argued that instead of having a permanent captain, he would like to have a new skipper for each match. So, Chhetri lost his position and was reduced to being an ordinary member of the squad.

Part 1: The many selection controversies of the Indian football team

Nothing was said officially, but those in the know of things, were convinced that Chhetri had to pay the price for his reported disagreement with the coach on more than one issue. In 2017, a bunch of senior players in the national team met a top All India Football Federation (AIFF) official and expressed their strong reservations about the coach and his style of training. It was rumoured that Chhetri probably had to pay the price for his ”disobedience”.

The actual truth will never come out – the architects behind the move are not expected to reveal the inside story. But this certainly wasn’t a unique incident in the history of Indian football.

In the 75-year history of the national team, such things had happened many times previously – sometimes the deserving had to make way for someone having the blessings of the powerful lobby; sometimes the club, state and religion of the footballer played crucial roles in deciding the captain. Chhetri wasn’t the maiden victim.

When Talimeren Ao was appointed the country’s first football captain for the 1948 London Olympics, there wasn’t any controversy. But old-timers say Ao was never the first choice – in fact he was appointed after two other names were discarded.

The preparatory camp for the London Olympics was held in Shillong and barring small hitches, the selection of the team was fair and satisfactory to all stakeholders. However, there was one issue which was settled long before – the captain should be someone from Mohun Bagan, India’s oldest and most prestigious club.

Initially, the name of Anil Dey was making rounds as the possible captain. The handsome midfielder was the darling of the local crowds and he also had an additional qualification – Dey was an active participant in 1942 Quit India movement.

Unfortunately, Dey could never make the cut in the final squad. The name of defender Sailen Manna came up for discussion next, but finally they decided on Ao. He was an educated man and a practicing doctor; the AIFF officials felt the midfielder should be the right choice for the Olympics.

But then, logic didn’t always play a major role in deciding the captain. For three consecutive Olympics, between 1948 to 1956, someone from Mohun Bagan led the side. The tradition was broken in 1960, when PK Banerjee of the Railways was named the skipper, but it didn’t happen without controversy.

SA Lateef of Bombay (now Mumbai) was expected to be the natural choice as he led India in pre-Olympics and Merdeka tournament the previous year. Yet, the mantle fell on Banerjee.

It is said that some AIFF officials felt it won’t be wise to have the manager, coach and the captain from the same community. So, they set out to restore “balance”. The manager and the coach stayed in their positions, but Lateef suddenly found himself out of favour. Denied being the Olympic captain, Lateef was deeply hurt – it was probably one of the reasons why he migrated to Pakistan next year.

True, the captain of a football or hockey team doesn’t enjoy the importance of a cricket captain; after all, he is just one of the players once the match starts and strategy and tactics of the team are being decided by the coach. Still, to skipper the national team is always a matter of huge prestige and automatically takes the player to the next level.

In that sense, Sailen Manna and Bhaichung Bhutia are definitely the two biggest names in Indian football. Both had the longest stints as the national captains and enjoyed the privilege of leading India to two back-to-back Asian Games.

Manna was luckier as he was fortunate to lead India in the inaugural Asian Games in 1951, which India hosted and won the gold medal with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru watching from the stands. Despite a long and successful career, Manna always said it was the biggest moment of his life.

From the point of view of successes at the international level, Chuni Goswami remains matchless in Indian football – both as a player and as a captain. Under his leadership, India won the Asian Games gold medal (1962), finished runners-up in Asian Cup and Merdeka tournament (1965). He was a dazzling footballer and a charismatic captain, who led by example. He was fortunate to have some exceptionally talented players as teammates, like Peter Thangaraj, Jarnail Singh, Arun Ghosh, Yusuf Khan, PK Banerjee and Tulsidas Balaram.

But Manna would still go down in history as the best captain till date. Starting from the tour of Kabul in 1949, the tall Mohun Bagan defender led India till 1954, and undoubtedly remained the most respected man in Indian football. There were players, which included T Ao, who always addressed Manna as the “captain” in their later days too.

The other players, who could be compared with Manna in terms of popularity among teammates, are Bhutia and Chhetri. Bhutia led India for a dozen years or so since 2000 (barring a few occasions when he opted out of the team because of various reasons) and became a role model in Indian football. In the later years, Chhetri did exactly the same; currently, he is more a mentor to his junior teammates than a captain.

But what about those, who missed the opportunity to engrave their names in the hall of fame of greatest captains? The most unfortunate among them was Inder Singh, the finest Indian forward once the era of Chuni-PK-Balaram was over.

From the late 1960s, Inder was regarded as one of Asia’s greatest forwards. He was in roaring form in 1970, but missed the Asian Games because of an injury. India won the bronze medal, but Subhas Bhowmick, a member of the team, later said: “Had Inder bhai been there, we would have won the gold. That we were forced to leave our best player behind and still won a medal was our biggest achievement.”

In the 1974 Asian Games, the post of captain was certainly to be his, but another injury prevented Inder from going to Tehran. “The luck was not with me,” rues Inder, 77, who now lives in Phagwara.

The issue of captaincy had always been a sensitive one in Indian football. When famous Yugoslav coach Ciric Milovan became India coach in the mid-1980s, he soon realised the problem and invented a novel way to overcome it. He was the first national coach to appoint a new captain for every match.

In the 1983 pre-Olympic qualifiers, India had seven captains in eight matches – Shabbir Ali (twice), Prasanta Banerjee, Parminder Singh, Brahmanand, Pem Dorji, Bishwajit Bhattacharya and Manoranjan Bhattacharya, all had the chance to lead India.

However, the next year, Milovan discarded the “rotating captains policy” and stuck to Sudip Chatterjee as the leader for the Asian Cup qualifiers and final rounds. India did exceedingly well in the qualifiers and made the final rounds for the first time since 1964.

Not every coach had been as strong as Milovan, even the foreign coaches sometimes succumbed to pressure and lure of brighter future prospects. One foreign coach once called a particular footballer to his room and told him to prepare himself for leading the team for a tour outside India.

The next day, the owner of a reputed company, who ran a team, visited the Indian camp and had a meeting with the coach. A few days later, the team was announced and a footballer, who played for that’s company’s club, was named the captain. The story didn’t end there. Once the foreign coach ended his tenure as the national coach, he joined the said company’s side as the chief coach. Not that the AIFF officials weren’t aware of it, but they probably didn’t bother much.

Part 1: The many selection controversies of the Indian football team