The 1950s and ‘60s are widely regarded as the Golden Era of Indian football.
While a barefoot Indian national team making France work for a victory in the 1948 Olympics kicked off a memorable era, stellar performances over the next 16 years by the Indian football team scripted the most glorious chapter in its history.
The period saw the Blue Tigers win two Asian Games gold medals, finish fourth in the 1956 Olympic Games, play their first Asian Cup, and earn many more accolades along the way.
Here’s a glimpse of the Indian football team players who spearheaded the proverbial Golden Generation.
PK Banerjee – the goal machine
PK Banerjee, along with Tulsidas Balaram and Chuni Goswami, constituted the holy trinity of Indian football’s Golden Era.
After his international football debut in 1955, the enigmatic attacker played a huge role in shaping India into an Asian powerhouse.
PK Banerjee was part of India’s semi-final run at the 1956 Games and went on to captain India in the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
In Rome, he scored a memorable goal which earned India a famous 1-1 draw against France – still considered among India’s biggest results.
PK, as he was fondly called, participated in three Asian Games, and played a pivotal part in Indian national football team’s gold at the 1962 edition, emerging as the team’s top scorer.
Primarily a right-winger, PK Banerjee had the ability to drift into any attacking position and score from almost anywhere on the pitch.
“He had a tremendous burst of speed. His main asset was that he could score particularly from an angle, from inside the box or outside,” said prominent Indian football historian Gautam Roy to Olympics.com.
“He also had a good header and was a good passer, setting his teammates up from the wing with accurate crosses.”
PK's game sense was also extraordinary, which helped him stand out on the pitch and become a successful coach post-retirement. Banerjee, who passed away in 2020, was also a mentor to the likes of Bhaichung Bhutia during his managerial career.
A FIFA Centennial Order of Merit recipient, PK Banerjee was recognised as the Indian Footballer of the 20th Century by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics (IFFHS).
Chuni Goswami – the poster boy who turned down Tottenham
Subimal Goswami, popularly known as Chuni, came into the international fray a year after Banerjee.
He was India’s captain during the 1962 Asian Games campaign and led the team to a gold medal finish after famously beating Asian giants South Korea. He was also the Blue Tigers skipper at the 1964 Asian Games, where India finished runners up.
Chuni Goswami didn’t quite possess the physical presence, aerial ability or the finishing prowess PK Banerjee brought to the table. But what set him apart was his penetrative ability on the field and range, which helped bring his teammates into play.
“Chuni Goswami was the poster boy of Indian football. He was a top-class player with dribbling, passing, his ball control was better than anybody else.
“His passing and his through passes were excellent. He could assist strikers like Neville D’Souza and make them score with his beautiful passes,” Roy explained.
Chuni Goswami was blessed with exceptional sporting aptitude and excelled as a cricketer later in life as well, captaining Bengal to the final of the 1971-1972 Ranji Trophy – India’s premier domestic state-level competition in cricket.
He was reportedly approached by English top tier club Tottenham Hotspur for trials after his accomplishments at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, but he turned the London club down to stay loyal to his club Mohun Bagan.
Tulsidas Balaram – the total footballer
Mentored by legendary national football team coach Syed Abdul Rahim himself, Tulsidas Balaram was, perhaps, the pivot Indian football’s Golden Era revolved around.
Like PK Banerjee and Chuni Goswami, Tulsidas Balaram played a crucial role in India’s Asian Games gold in 1962, whilst impressing at the Rome 1960 Games as well.
Though primarily an attacker who excelled on the left flank, the Hyderabadi dynamo had the unique ability of dropping deep, collecting the ball and driving forward while dribbling with pace, much like a Thierry Henry or a Lionel Messi.
“Tulsidas Balaram was a complete player and could’ve fitted very well into today’s total football. He could dribble, he could score and he had a brilliant header. Balaram was probably the best in Asia in his days,” Roy observed.
Balaram had an industrious presence on the pitch, never afraid to lend a hand in defence and was particularly lethal in the six-yard box. His off the ball movement, too, was sublime.
His all-round abilities made him India’s go-to man for the big matches and he rarely let the team down whenever called upon.
Jarnail Singh – the Punjab strongman in India’s defence
Two of the most memorable moments of the Punjab legend's career came at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta when he scored both in the semi-finals and the final playing as a striker.
But it was as India’s defensive rock that Jarnail Singh truly earned his right to be considered among Indian football’s greats.
An uncompromising tackler, the Hoshiarpur-born stopper back could go toe-to-toe with even the toughest of European players during his heydays.
Apart from his physical prowess, Jarnail could also read the game well, which helped him intercept and affect crucial clearances when needed.
“It was very difficult to get past him in a one on one situation. He was a tough player at nearly six feet,” Roy opines.
What set Jarnail apart from everyone else was his unwavering mental strength to scale any wall for the sake of his team. Time and again, he proved that, putting on dogged performances breaking through the pain barrier.
At the 1962 Asian Games, he reportedly sustained a head injury and had to get six stitches. Despite that, he stepped out undeterred when called upon to play as a striker against South Vietnam in the semis and then South Korea in the final.
Jarnail also played a sensational role during India’s maiden Asian Cup venture in 1964.
The 1964 Arjuna awardee was also chosen to lead the Asian All Star Team in 1966 – an unprecedented feat for any Indian.
Peter Thangaraj – India’s last guard
The Indian team’s goalkeeper during the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, Peter Thangaraj was a staple between the sticks for the team during his international career.
Thangaraj also featured in the 1958, 1962 and 1966 Asian Games and was adjudged the best goalkeeper in Asia back in '58.
His lightning-quick reactions and leaping ability made him a formidable last guard, particularly from aerial balls.
“As a goalkeeper, he was simply unbeatable. He had a little weakness with ground shots but in the air, he was superb. He used to pluck the ball in the air from attacks or corner kicks.
“Even from penalties, at point-blank range, he would pull off miraculous saves,” Roy described the ace goalkeeper’s key attributes.
The army man was also good with his feet with his long accurate goal kicks often initiating the team’s attacks.
Sailen Manna – the first captain, leader, legend
Captain, leader, legend might be a very recent moniker coined for current Indian captain Sunil Chhetri, but the attributes fit Sailen Manna like a glove.
A part of India’s maiden Olympics venture from 1948, Sailen Manna grew into one of the greatest captains the Indian team has ever had.
In 1951, he led India to its first-ever Asian Games gold and laid the foundation for the next batch, comprising PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami and Co. to take it a step further.
A solid-left back, Manna was also the team’s designated set-piece taker and had an accurate shot on him. But it was his composure on the pitch which made him into a great leader and an inspiration to his other teammates.
In fact, Manna was in line to captain India at the 1950 FIFA World Cup before the All India Football Federation (AIFF) opted out at the last moment.
Barring these, the generation also included some fine players like Yusuf Khan, Neville D’Souza, Ram Bahadur and others.