Kuala Lumpur: On the day the legendary Bhaichung Bhutia celebrates his 41st birthday, the-AFC.com takes a look at some of the players to have graced the game in India.
In a country of 1.25 billion, Bhaichung Bhutia’s impact on the beautiful game in India stands out above all others.
Famously described as “God’s gift to Indian football”, the AFC Hall of Fame striker played more than 100 international matches his country, a national record, and inspired his nation to the AFC Asian Cup in 2011 ending an absence of 27 years.
A trailblazer who became the first Indian footballer to sign a contract with a European club and the first to play professionally in England, Bhutia also helped India to the win the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup as well as multiple South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) titles.
It wasn't for nothing that Sailendra Nath Manna came to be recognised as India's 'Footballer of the Millennium'.
In addition to being a part of the first Indian football to go on a tour abroad in 1948, Manna was also the captain of the Indian team when they won gold at the first-ever Asian Games in 1951.
The talented defender also led India at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.
While it was Howrah Union who gave Manna his first chance in football, he spent most of his club career at India's oldest club Mohun Bagan, where he became a fan favourite during a 19-year stay.
Indian football flourished during the 1950s and 1960s, making waves at home and abroad. One of the most notable individual performances of this period took place at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Neville D'Souza's feat may not be common knowledge in Asia today but fact is that he was the first player from the continent to score a hat-trick in the Olympics football tournament. He achieved this in the quarter-final against hosts Australia.
India went on to lose the subsequent semi-final but D'Souza did end up as the joint top-scorer with four goals.
One-club man Chuni Goswami is still revered by fans of Mohun Bagan for his years of devotion to the team.
After joining the Kolkata club at the tender age of eight, Goswami rose through the ranks to finally captain the team.
At the international level too, Goswami was to show his quality. He skippered the national team to Asian Games gold in 1962 before adding a runners-up place in the 1964 AFC Asian Cup.
The latter achievement remains India’s best ever showing in the continent’s premier tournament.
After the heydays of the 1960s, football in India suffered a gradual decline until the 1990s when a host of young stars broke on to the scene and a new nationwide league was launched.
Among them was I.M. Vijayan, a forward of extraordinary skill. Starting out in his native state of Kerala, he soon started attracting the attention of big clubs from around India.
This led to Vijayan donning the jerseys of clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, JCT and Churchill Brothers.
Vijayan also starred for India, scoring over 40 goals, including a strike against Bhutan that came within 12 seconds of kick-off.