Sailen Manna: He Played The Game With A Difference

Submitted by aurora on Tue, 20-Mar-2012 - 14:25

We see and hear of leaders everywhere. Perhaps being a leader in sport is even more challenging because when you play the game, you are always in the spotlight, your every decision as a leader is debated and discussed and before you even know the whole world would have termed you as a successful one or a failure. Whether all that analysis is right or wrong is a different thing to debate upon, perhaps the greatest certificate that you get as a leader, specially in sport is from your own teammates (including coaches, back room staff etc). India has produced many such great leaders in sport, be it in individual or team games. This blog space would fall short if all were to be listed. For now, here is the story of one tall leader - Sailen Manna. He was awarded the Padmashree in 1971 by Indian Government. He was also awarded the "Footballer of the Millennium" by All India Football Federation in 2000A mere 20-25 days ago, India lost this gem in soccer. When Sailen Manna died, 2,000 people followed his body to the Keoratala burning ghat in Kolkata, on the banks of the Hooghly river that flows out of the Ganges. They acknowledged they had lost rather more than a decent player.

Sailendra Nath Manna (September 1, 1924 – February 27, 2012), known popularly as Sailen Manna, was an Indian International Footballer and is considered to be one of the best defenders India has ever produced. He has represented and captained India in different international competitions including Olympics and Asian Games. He also has a record of playing for Mohun Bagan, one of the best clubs in India, for a continuous period of 19 years. He is the only Asian Footballer ever to be named among the 10 best Captains in the world by the English FA in 1953.


Manna started his playing career for Howrah Union, then a club in the 2nd Division Kolkata Football League, in 1940.After turning out for the club for a couple of seasons, he joined Mohun Bagan in 1942 and continued playing for the club for a period of 19 years, till his retirement in 1960. During this period, he was the Captain of Mohun Bagan from 1950 to 1955. It is to be noted that during his 19 years career in Mohun Bagan, he reportedly earned only Rs.19!!

Statistically his achievements were great, he was India’s captain in five tournaments, 1951 and ’54 Asian Games and Quadrangular tournament (1952-54). Except for the 1954 Asiad, India became champions in the other four competitions.Overall, he played just 14 international matches, losing only twice, 1-2 to France in the 1948 London Olympics and 0-4 to Indonesia in the 1954 Asiad.

“Manna was easily the most popular player of his time. The boisterous Mohun Bagan supporters would go ballistic each time the ball touched his feet, or when he took a free-kick. He was a great defender, with one of the best tackles in business. His man-marking was perfect and it was a tough task for any striker to go past him,” later-day Olympics custodian SS Narayan, recalls.


With Manna-da tall and strong in defence, newly independent India almost beat France at the London Olympic games in 1948. Under his captaincy, it won its first international football gold medal at the Asian games in 1951. For a very short while, in his time, it walked in the sun as a world-class footballing nation. And it walked barefoot, because, in those years, that was how Mr Manna and his colleagues played. Yes, he acknowledged later, it often hurt. Bare feet were all very well on the thin, baked surface of the vast Maidan at the centre of Kolkata, where his club, Mohun Bagan AC, had its playing field, and where the worst hazards were straying goats and glass. The reasons for the naked feet varied, even in his own mind. Like most Bengali boys, he could not dream of affording boots. There was no money in football then; Mohun Bagan did not pay him, and he had to buy the maroon and green strip with his own hard-earned cash. But when pretty Princess Margaret asked him whether he wasn’t afraid to play that way, as he balanced a sandwich and a cup of tea at Buckingham Palace after the team’s glorious 1-2 Olympic loss to booted France, he would not mention poverty. They just preferred it, he told her. It was easier to keep the ball under control.

Some said Manna-da had told the princess that “Strength is in the mind.” Others said that the king, George VI, had made him roll up his trousers to see if his legs were made of steel. Later versions said that he had played in snow, and certainly he remembered he had at the next Olympics in Helsinki, where ice flakes had been shifted from the field before they played. By then, boots were compulsory; but several players still got frostbite as they lost 1-10 to Yugoslavia, even though it was July. And to his fans Manna-da seemed to play barefoot—agile, skilful and deadly on the free kicks—all through his career.


But more important than the statistics is the fact he was a fabuluous leader and an apt representation on how to always play the game with fierce competition yet gentleman like grace. He admonished team-mates who indulged in abusive language or rough play but was a much admired captain. When Mohun Bagan first won the Durand Cup in 1953, Manna suffered an ankle injury in the semi-final against the great Hyderabad City Police team. He could not play the final against surprise entrants National Defence Academy. His replacement Purnendu Barua and the other full back Sushil Guha bottled up the NDA forwards and Bagan won 4-0.Such was his team-mates’ respect for him that acting captain Mohammed Abdus Sattar, insisted that Manna receive the coveted Durand Cup from the then President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad.

Legend has it that once Bagan’s rivals Calcutta Football Club coach employed a marker for Manna with a clear brief of forcing him to limp off the field. The marker, a sturdy Anglo-Saxon, was delighted to be assigned the nasty job. He targeted Manna’s knee and had a crack inside the first 10 minutes. “Manna da almost fainted, was taken out of the field. But within a few minutes he was back, wearing a knee-cap, and scored the equaliser from a free kick,” former India captain Badru Banerjee, who watched the game from the terraces, recounted. “Manna da never retaliated and remained a perfect gentleman. He was never booked during his very long career!” Banerjee added.

His feet were a metaphor for other virtues. He played carefully, like a gentleman. In a 20-year career he was never booked, never swore, and fouled no one. As captain, he did not raise his voice to players. He disciplined by example, and would refuse to take food before they had eaten theirs. Though he seldom let opponents past him, he was good friends with them off the pitch—even if they played for MB’s great local rival, East Bengal. He had no enemies. On one occasion the Border Security Force team so hobbled Mohun Bagan with vicious tackling in the drawn semi-final of the Durand Cup that MB could not take the field for the replay. Manna was the manager of the team and wanted to protect his team from the crazy slur. Manna first calmed them down and insisted that they make no comments about BSF’s rough tackling. He next went to the Ambedkar stadium and apologised to the large crowd who had gathered there that his team would be unable to play and even wished BSF good luck for the final. Manna’s stature and personality helped restore harmony.

Manna was instrumental in shaping careers of many footballers of his generation. One among them was former Olympian striker Shew Mewa Lall who died in 2008. In an interview before his death, Mewa Lall had said "we have learnt many things from him. He was a leader per excellence." "But at the same time, he was very friendly," said Mewa Lall, who scored the match winning goal against Iran in 1951 Asian Games.

Source: The Economist, Indian Express, Deccan Chronicle, Wikipedia