Sailen Manna - a genteel footballer and natural leader (Obituary)February 27th, 2012 - 11:52 pm ICT by IANS
Kolkata, Feb 27 (IANS) A natural leader, Sailen Manna was like a banyan tree in Indian soccer, who led the national team to international glory in the early years of independent India when the country’s braveheart footballers played barefoot against booted opponents.
According to Manna’s contemporaries, he combined on-field toughness of a defender with dignity and ability to intimidate the opponents without ever being rough.
A perfect gentleman both on and off the field, Manna was never booked during his long playing career. But his keen game sense, fine anticipation, strong physique, excellent covering and power-packed canny free kicks were enough to make him a legend in Indian soccer.
Known for being firmly rooted to the ground, Manna’s death at a city private hospital Monday snaps yet another crucial link with a genteel generation - honest, simple men who looked up to sport as a mere passion and not as a medium for making fast bucks.
One of the best defenders the country has ever produced, Manna was adjudged the country’s footballer of the millennium by the All India Football Federation in 2000.
After making his international debut against France in the 1948 London Olympics, Manna led India to the gold in the inaugural Asian Games in New Delhi and also captained the country in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and the 1954 Manila Asian Games.
Under his captaincy, India emerged champions in the Quadrangular tournament - also featuring Burma (now Myanmar), Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Pakistan - consecutively in 1952, 1953 and 1954.
Manna’s performance as national team skipper drew wholesome praise and the England Football Association named him in its 1953 Yearbook as one of the 10 best captains of the world. To this date, he remains the only Asian to have been thus honoured.
Indian soccer players then played barefoot, as they lacked the funds to buy boots. In the London Olympics, where India bowed out after losing to France 1-2, Princess Margaret of the British royal family asked Manna whether the players did not feel frightened to take on their opponents who wore boots. “We could not say that there was no funds for buying boots,” Manna said later. Manna had then replied that his team felt more comfortable without boots.
In the inaugural Asiad, hosted by New Delhi only four years after independence in 1951, the Manna-led Indian team beat Iran 1-0 in the final to claim the gold, leading to festivities across the nation.
Yesteryears’ stalwart P.K. Banerjee said Manna was a player of allround ability. “He was a thorough gentleman. Even his opponents loved him. But on the ground, he did not give an inch to the rival forwards. He had excellent anticipation, covering and was wonderful in setpieces.”
“To all of us, he was the captain. Legends like Ahmed Khan always addressed him as captain,” said PK.
Apart from his 14-match international career as player, Manna coached the national team in the 1961 and 1968 Merdeka Cup.
Born on Sep 1, 1924, Manna joined Mohun Bagan in 1942 at the young age of 18 after a short stint with the local league’s second division side Howrah Union, and continued to don the green and maroon jersey till his retirement in 1960. In local football circles, Mohun Bagan and Manna have been synonymous with each other.
After calling it a day as a player, Manna joined as Mohun Bagan coach in 1961, and in later years served the club administration as football secretary and assistant secretary. The club acknowledged its gratefulness by conferring on him its highest award Mohun Bagan Ratna in 2001.
Till a few years before his death, Manna remained an enthusiastic participant in social and charity programmes. He regularly took part in walks organised for a cause. While other celebrities would board their cars after obliging shutterbugs, the fit-as-fiddle Manna always walked the whole stretch, and always with a smile.
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Tags: asian games, banyan tree, consecutively, england football association, football federation, footballer, footballers, free kicks, helsinki olympics, independent india, indian soccer, international debut, international glory, keen game sense, london olympics, natural leader, perfect gentleman, private hospital, simple men, soccer players