Talimeren Ao, more than just independent India's first football captain

Talimeren Ao turned down the opportunity to join English club Arsenal because he had promised his dying father he would become a doctor.
By Utathya Nag

Question: Who was the first captain of the Indian football team?

Answer: Dr Talimeren Ao captained India against France at the London 1948 Olympics – the Indian football team’s first international match after the country’s independence.

The simple Q&A, perhaps, is enough to cement an ever-lasting legacy for most. Dr Ao’s legend, however, has a lot more to it.

Though never a household name in the league of PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Tulsidas Balaram, Sailen Manna or even modern greats like IM Vijayan, Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri, Talimeren Ao occupies a glorious chapter in Indian football history.

Talimeren Ao (centre, bottom row), at the 1948 London Olympics, became the first captain of the Indian football team. Picture: AIFF/Twitter.

Here’s a glance at the legend’s life and accomplishments, on and off the football field.

A national record in long jump

Born in Changki village in Nagaland (formerly undivided Assam) in the northeastern part of India near its border with Myanmar on January 28, 1918, Talimeren Ao was perhaps a born athlete.

His father Subongwati Ningdangri was the first reverend of the region and Talimeren Ao was the fourth of his 12 children. Ao’s exceptional aptitude as an athlete and footballer was evident during his days at the Jorhat Mission School and then Guwahati’s famous Cotton College.

Ao recorded a 23 ft (7.01m) long jump in a college meet – which stood as the unofficial national record for several years. He was also an exceptional volleyball player, but it was in football where Ao truly shone.

In fact, he used to win so many trophies and medals in athletics that carrying them uphill during treks to his ancestral home in Changki was a task. Talimeren Ao used to distribute his trophies among friends and carry only his medals and certificates home!

Even as a college student, Ao joined the Maharana Club – Assam’s biggest football club at the time. Though he used to play as a striker in school and college, he was converted into a defensive midfielder during his stint at the club.

Talimeren Ao would go on to excel as a defender for the rest of his career.

Ao was a hardworking player with a superb sense of timing in his tackles and a great team-man - the legendary Sailen Manna said about Ao.

True sportsman and a fierce competitor

The most interesting snippet of Ao’s early days, however, came during a college match against a local club in 1938. During the tie, he met with a cynical challenge from an opposition player and suffered a horrific jaw injury.

Unperturbed, Talimeren Ao got up, helped the opposition player, who had just crushed his jaw, to his feet and walked off. The injury was severe and Ao was hospitalised for a month. He was unable to play football for almost a year.

This incident reflected Ao's sportsmanship, a virtue that was to define this graceful man both on and off the field.

Dr Talimeren Ao (extreme left) was known for his sportsmanship and gritty performances on the football field. Picture: FIFA/Twitter.

Talimeren Ao was a fierce competitor with an iron-will to win. If anyone took his gentleness as a weakness, he would be badly mistaken.

“Be it on a badminton court or a football field, the instance it was a contest, we are no longer his sons. We are his opponents,” Ao’s son Talikokchang recollected during an interview with ESPN.

“He would try to defeat us as badly as he can so that we'll be demoralised for the next game,” Ao junior pointed out.

That mental disintegration which the Australian cricket team used to talk about? He used to follow that principle in those days.

Mohun Bagan and the Indian football team

It wasn’t long before Ao’s talents reached Kolkata – the mecca of Indian football. Talimeren Ao joined Kolkata giants Mohun Bagan in 1943 and within a year, became the club captain.

Led by Ao, Mohun Bagan’s formidable defence was nicknamed ‘the Great Wall of China’. Talimeren Ao spent the rest of his club career in West Bengal at Mohun Bagan, helping the iconic Green and Maroons win two IFA Shields, three Calcutta Leagues and several other titles.

He was soon selected for the Indian football team travelling to London for the 1948 Summer Games.

1948 Olympics: Football vs bootball and an Arsenal snub

Not only did Ao captain the Indian football team against France at the 1948 London Olympics - India’s first-ever international match as an independent nation - he was also the flag bearer of the Indian contingent.

Despite losing the match narrowly to France 2-1 in the final minutes, Talimeren Ao’s Indian team, with most players playing barefoot, managed to win over the local crowd through its gritty display.

The result of the contest, in fact, could have been very different if not for two missed penalties by the Indian football team.

At the post-match media interaction, when asked why Indians played barefoot, Talimeren Ao famously replied, “In India, we play football, whereas you play bootball!” The comment didn’t only win over the hard-to-please British media but made headlines in several London newspapers.

After the match, the Indian football team, on the insistence of Princess Margaret, was invited to a dinner at Buckingham Palace to meet King George VI and the Queen. As legend has it, Talimeren Ao was offered a contract with English club Arsenal but the Indian politely turned it down.

After the Olympics, Talimeren Ao led the Indian football team in several exhibition matches in England, the Netherlands, Wales and Ireland. The highlight of the tour was a famous 5-2 victory over Dutch giants Ajax.

A captain on and off the field

Leading a young team in London and as one of the very few members of the Indian contingent who spoke fluent English, Ao was the ambassador of a country that had just won independence from the colonial powers who ruled for centuries.

Amidst a tricky socio-political scenario, Talimeren Ao ensured the team conducted itself admirably and even stood up for them whenever required.

For instance, preceding their match against France, the Indian football team played several preparatory matches in London against English club sides. The manager of one of these clubs stated to the press that if the Indians could beat his team, he would eat his hat.

India won the match. Asked for his reactions after the match was over, Ao insisted he wasn’t going to speak unless the club manager 'ate' his words. All this of course was in good humour!

Talimeren Ao retired from football in 1952, even though he was at the peak of his game. He had some big promises to keep.

Doctor Talimeren Ao: A man of his words

While football won him the Talimeren Ao legacy, it wasn't everything about the man.

Talimeren Ao belonged to the Naga community - a group of ethnic tribes indigenous to Nagaland and a few other states of northeast India. The community with its own cultures, traditions, way of life was somewhat isolated from the mainland.

In 1950, while he was playing for Mohun Bagan and India, Ao completed his MBBS degree -- an undergraduate degree required to become a doctor -- from the famous Carmichael Medical College (presently RG Kar Medical College) in Kolkata. He was the first Naga to get an MBBS.

He also had a B.Sc degree in physics.

It’s believed that Talimeren Ao turned down the offer to play for Arsenal to continue his medical studies. Although football was his life, he was a man who knew the meaning of the word 'commitment.'

As a teenager, Ao lost his father to typhoid. At his deathbed, the reverend asked his son to become a doctor and serve his people.

Having played his part for Indian football, Ao moved back to his homeland as a surgeon and was appointed the medical superintendent at Kohima Hospital. After Nagaland attained statehood in 1963, Ao became the state’s first director of health services and held the post until his retirement in 1978.

Talimeren Ao died on September 13, 1998, at the age of 80.

As a footballer, Ao had the uncanny ability to use both his feet with equal proficiency. In life, too, the charismatic person that he was had little trouble juggling two separate dreams.

Ao’s achievements -- including being the first captain of the Indian football team -- ushered in a silent football revolution in the northeast, which is often considered the nursery of modern Indian football.

Northeast India has produced several Indian international footballers, including stars like Bhaichung, Renedy Singh, Gouramangi Singh, Udanta Singh and Jeje Lalpekhlua.

Talimeren Ao's legacy lives on.