Click here to read other articles in Legends Of Indian Football series.
The 1975 IFA Shield final has gone down in history as one of the most infamous matches in the history of East Bengal – Mohun Bagan rivalry. After Bagan’s 5-0 loss their fans caused rampage in the club premises. Some footballers were so scared to come in front of the angry mob that they sought refuge on a boat in nearby Ganges River. In such an explosive situation only one man had the power and popularity to calm fans down. He was Sailen Manna, a man who was above all reproach and criticism. Indeed, Manna, then an official with Mohun Bagan, came to the rescue of these footballers and managed to escort them safely. This is just one of the hundreds of famous stories surrounding Sailen Manna, a footballer like none other.
Born on 1st September, 1924 Sailen Manna was brought up in Howrah, West Bengal. He grew up in a family which had a strong link with Mohun Bagan and Manna would develop an affinity for the Green & Maroons from his childhood. Along with Mohun Bagan, Gostha Pal’s name would become firmly embedded in his psyche and would inspire Sailen Manna to play in defence.
Manna began his career as a teenager playing for local Discipline Football Club and would later go on to participate in district level tournaments. His talent was soon noticed as he was recruited in Howrah Union club in 1940, in second division of Calcutta Football League. In this period he would also represent Rippon College where he was studying IA. Interestingly, his university had an extremely strong team in that era and included Chanchal Chatterjee, Sarat Das and Somana, who would become stars in their own right later.
While representing his college Sailen Manna was spotted by Gostha Pal and the “Chinese Wall” was impressed by the young defender. On Pal’s recommendation Sailen Manna was soon given the offer to join Mohun Bagan, by Anil De (Mohun Bagan captain from 1942 to 1945). Sailen Manna had realized his boyhood dream of wearing the Green & Maroon jersey – this was the beginning of a wonderful love story.
Mohun Bagan Icon
Sailen Manna joined Bagan in 1942 with the country going through tumultuous times. He would reunite with his college team-mate Sarat Das, who would act as a mentor during his initial years. Manna had barely reached adulthood at that time and it took a while for him to become a regular first team player but once he cemented his position in the starting XI he would not relinquish it for rest of his career. Playing barefeet, Manna would be inspired Gostha Pal’s legendary bravado against booted British players.
Playing as a left-back in classical 2-3-5 or Pyramid system Sailen Manna was known for his ability to tackle cleanly. Despite playing against five strikers Manna was never sent off in his long career and was a revolutionary in his era in Indian football. In those days defenders usually relied on brute force but Sailen Manna was a stark contrast with his elegance, anticipation and ability to cover multiple defensive positions. In many ways Sailen Manna was possibly the first “modern” defender in Indian football.
Trophies soon began to follow. A year after Manna joined Mohun Bagan lifted their second Calcutta Football League crown, defending the title successfully in 1944. Legend has it, after Mohun Bagan’s historic triumph in 1911 a Brahmin asked captain Shibdas Bhaduri, “Today you have defeated the British but when will you bring down the Union Jack”. Bhaduri had replied, “When we win IFA Shield again”. Coincidentally, Mohun Bagan’s second IFA Shield triumph came the same year India became independent, with Sailen Manna playing a major role. Another Shield would arrive in 1948.
After playing under club legends like Sarat Das, T Ao and Anil De, Sailen Manna was handed the captain’s arm-band in 1950 – his career and his club’s history would enter a new phase after this. Inspired by his impeccable leadership Mohun Bagan broke their barren run in two of India’s other Blue Ribbon tournaments, winning their first Durand Cup in 1953 and first Rovers Cup two years later. In 1954 Mohun Bagan became the first club ever to do IFA Shield-Calcutta League “double”.
The first half of 1950s is often remembered for being the peak time of East Bengal’s legendary Five Pandavas side. Compared to East Bengal, Mohun Bagan’s team was considerably weak so they struggled to accumulate enough silverware. Yet, despite the disparity in strength it was Sailen Manna’s leadership abilities that would enable Mohun Bagan to defeat East Bengal time and again in that period. These victories included a 3-0 win in 1951 and a “double” in Calcutta League in 1949. Ahmed Khan, Sailen Manna’s rival on the field but a dear friend off it, credited Manna’s defensive and leadership skills for Mohun Bagan’s form in derby. He said that Manna had the ability to inject his own fighting mentality into his team-mates during clashes against East Bengal.
Sailen Manna captained Mohun Bagan for six straight seasons – a record only matched by his idol Gostha Pal. He was not just a great defender but he was also arguably the first set-piece expert in Indian football. His free-kicks, some of which were taken in bare-foot have been etched deeply into the history of Mohun Bagan. Two such free-kicks have become particularly famous – first came in 1944, helping Mohun Bagan defeat Mohammedan Sporting 1-0 in a match to decide the league champions. The second came 1952 IFA Shield final against Rajasthan Club. With Mohun Bagan trailing 2-0 at half-time it was Manna’s 30 yard long free-kick which sparked off a tremendous fight-back and helped Bagan tie the game. By the time he retired as a player Manna had won eight league titles and four IFA Shield titles along with solitary Durand and Rovers Cups.
Like Santiago Bernabeu and Real Madrid, Sailen Manna also didn’t leave Mohun Bagan after he retired. Instead he became a part of the club management in several roles for next three decades. As a recruiter his influence and presence would be enough to sign a player for Mohun Bagan, money notwithstanding. As an official his larger than life image would act as a positive catalyst to keep players in the club (later club legends Prasun Banerjee and Subrata Bhattacharya rejected a Rs. 1 lakh offer from East Bengal thanks to their respect for Manna). Shishir Ghosh, a striker who found success for both Kolkata giants, had almost signed for East Bengal in 1980s but finally decided to join Mohun Bagan, for lesser money, just because Sailen Manna had visited his house personally to request. Even the great Sayeed Nayeemuddin signed for Mohun Bagan because of Manna’s initiative.
Sailen Manna retired from football related activities in early 1990s after a five decade association with the Green & Maroon.
Triumphant with the national team
Sailen Manna’s successful club career was replicated while playing for the national team. Led by T Ao, Manna was an integral member of the Indian national team that travelled to London for 1948 Olympics. His experience in the Games was a mixed back, though. India staged a heroic fight against France in their first ever international match but had to narrowly lose 2-1. Sailen Manna’s famed set-piece skills seemed to have deserted him that day as he missed a penalty kick.
The exploits of bare feet Indians did manage to stoke the interest of British royality as the team was invited to have tea with Princess Margaret. Sailen Manna had a conversation with the Princess in that party which has become a thing of legends. It is said that when Princess Margaret asked him how he managed to shoot so hard despite playing with bare-feet, Manna replied “strength is in the mind”. Some versions of the story also say that Geroge VI reportedly asked Manna to roll up his trousers and show his feet!
Things would get even better three years later when Manna captained Indian team to their first ever major football title by winning gold in Asian Games. Owing to Sheoo Mewalal’s goals and Manna’s stout defending India overcame teams like Iran and Afghanistan to win the gold medal.
Later, he would coach India in two Mardeka Cups.
Sailen Manna: Leader, Captain, Legend
Any discussion about Sailen Manna would remain unfinished without an analysis of his leadership abilities. As a defender Jarnail Singh or Arun Ghosh were more successful, Chuni Goswami was undoubtedly a more successful player for Mohun Bagan. Yet, none of these players have commanded the respect especially reserved for Sailen Manna. His record as a captain is exemplary. He led Mohun Bagan for an unsurpassed record of six straight seasons. In Santosh Trophy he represented West Bengal eleven times and captained them six times, another record. Under Sailen Manna’s captaincy West Bengal captured Santosh Trophy four times in what was easily the most competitive era of the tournament.
Under his stewardship India underwent one of its most productive eras in International football. It is worthy to note that India lost rarely under Manna’s captaincy, though there was an embarrassing 10-1 defeat against Yugoslavia in 1952 Helsinki Games where Indian players struggled to cope with a frozen pitch thanks to their inexpensive boots. Sailen Manna’s trophy haul while captaining India remains second to none – an Asian Games gold medal along with Quadrangular Colombo Cup titles in 1952, 1953 and 1954.
But Sailen Manna’s leadership skills cannot be merely measured in terms of silverware. The unequivocal respect from his team-mates, seniors and juniors alike was his biggest asset. As a footballer Manna was free from any vice or blemish and led by example. After Manna’s death Tulsidas Balaram recollected how Manna used to place the ball before a free-kick “as gently as placing books in a book-rack”, just another instance of his general approach to football. Such was his image that footballers all over India used to refer to him as just “Captain”.
Always eager to help junior footballers, Sailen Manna would always have dinner after his team-mates had finished eating, a habit he maintained as manager later. Manash Bhattacharya, an eminent winger of 1980s recalled how Manna had not had his meal till 1 AM at night just because he, along with another team-mate, was out of the team hotel till late night. Kolkata football fans, infamous for their post-match anger were mollified by Manna countless times; he was one man against whom no one could say an insulting word.
Thanks to his record as a player and an almost pristine image as a person, Sailen Manna is one of the most decorated footballers in India. He was awarded Padma Shree by Indian Government in 1970, the second footballer to get this honour after Gostha Pal. AIFF conferred the title of “Best Indian Footballer of Last Millenium” to Manna in 2000. Manna was also awarded Mohun Bagan Ratna in 2001. International acclaim came when he was selected as one of the best captains in the world by English FA in 1953, the only Asian footballer to get this recognition. Incredibly, he never charged money from Mohun Bagan for his services, earning a total of Rs. 19 in 19 years with the club, for travelling expenses.
Sailen Manna passed away on 27th February, 2012 due to old age related ailments. His universal popularity once again came to the forefront as condolences poured in from all corners, a message from FIFA president Sepp Blatter among them. Over 2000 people, including footballers across generations gathered for his last rites. A procession of his fans included West Bengal chief minister who walked along for over four kilometers to the crematorium. Sadly, there was some unneeded controversy after his death as his family, miffed by attitude of current club officials, didn’t allow his body to be taken to Mohun Bagan club tent.
Sources: History of Indian Football by Nirmal Nath, Stories from Indian Football by Jaydeep Basu, East Bengal – Mohun Bagan Reshareshi by Manas Chakravorty, articles in Ganashakti, Anandabazar Patrika, Bartaman, Sangbad Pratidin and Khela.