We all know India as a cricket crazy nation
but it’s very hard to believe that there was an Footballer by name of Sailen Manna
who nearly took the country to 1950 FIFA World Cup only to be withdrawn at the last moment
by the Indian football Governing body (AIFF). Sailendranth Manna also known as Sailen Manna
was an Indian footballer born in Kolkata on 1st September 1924. He represented and captained
Indian football team in Olympics and Asian games, at club level he represented one of
India’s biggest club “Mohun Bagan” [MO-HUN BAH-GAAN]. One of his biggest achievements as a Football
player was representing a newly independent India at the London Olympic Games in 1948
where India almost beat France 2-1, as the saying goes they might have lost the match
but they won the hearts of the people for their effort. The Indian team was also the
only team to play the tournament with bare feet (which was allowed until 1950 World Cup).
One of the main reasons why the team played barefoot was because they couldn’t afford
boots; Manna himself played for free at Club level and paid all of his own expenses. After the glorious 2-1 loss to France the
Indian team was invited to the Buckingham palace by Princess Margaret in celebration
of their fearless performances. The princess asked Manna the reason why they play barefoot.
He wouldn’t mention the true, financial reason, and instead he said that their ball
control was much better barefoot. One of his biggest achievements on the international
stage was leading the Indian team to Gold in the 1951 Asian Games held in New Delhi. Manna-da as he was fondly called by his team
mates and fans alike was a specialist at free kicks and set –pieces, apparently King George
VI applauded his set piece speciality and asked him if his legs were made of steel. In a 20 year football career he was never
booked or sent off, and never raised his voice at a team mates or opponent. This gives some
indication of why he is considered a saint of Indian football. In 1953 the England Football Association rated
Manna as the 10th best captain in the world, a rare distinction and something considered
an incredible honour. He was awarded Padma Shri (one of the highest Indian civilian honours)
for his services to Indian Football. For a man who always did the right thing,
Manna faced an unfortunate set back in form of the 1950 FIFA world cup. FIFA categorically
ruled out the ability to play barefoot at the tournament. With only one spot left for
Asian countries, Philippines, Burma and Indonesia withdrew due to the cost expenses that can
be incurred, which left India with automatic qualification to the world cup. However, they didn’t attend the tournament. There were reports suggesting that the Indian
football Governing body (AIFF) couldn’t afford the expenses to travel from India to
all the way to the tournament, which was held in Brazil but this was not the case as organizer’s
were prepared to pay India half of their expenses.One of the most popular reasons cited for India’s
non-attendance was the issue of playing barefoot, but Manna himself has said that this has bee
used as a scape goat. The real reason was that the AIFF did not take the World Cup Seriously
as like they did with Olympics (those days Olympics were considered to be the pinnacle
of sports). Ultimately, they thought the world cup wasn’t as big a deal as the Olympics. This decision has affected Indian football
ever since and is regretted by most of the Indian footballers and fans alike. In the
67 years since, India has never once qualified for the WC. What could have been one of Sailen Manna’s
greatest moments, representing the Indian team at the biggest footballing stage, turned
out to be a sad tale of misconceptions and conspiracy theories. Manna died at the age of 87, his death has
mourned by then FIFA president Sepp Blatter and footballers around the world. He is a
footballer who didn’t earned much money playing but he left the beautiful game having
earned a lot great memories, which can be passed down through generations. His soul
lives in Indian football forever.