Talimeren Ao was the first captain of the Indian football team. Fondly known as T Ao, or Tay Ao, or Dr Tay, the Nagaland native has a story that is enriching and legendary.
A footballer and a doctor, he wore both hats with ease. Mohun Bagan Captain and Captain of the India Team, he was the flag-bearer of the Indian Olympic contingent at the 1948 London Games. With the FIFA World Cup fever hitting its zenith, let us remember this football legend who shined with the ball at his feet.
Perhaps one of the most famous Nagas, he was a figurehead of India’s football history, and his name is resonant in the collective memory of the people. In fact, he has two football tournaments in his name.
Today, we have the IFL, the high-profile Indian Football League, where a team called the NorthEast United dominates the points table. Well, Dr Talimeren Ao was the region’s first footballing hero.
Standing at 5 ft 10 inches, Dr Ao was an athletic–the perfect form for football. A dominating midfielder and defender for nine seasons at Mohun Bagan, from 1943 to 1952, he was a teammate of Sailen Manna and Taj Mohammed at the London Olympics. In photographs, one can easily make out Dr Ao, with his steady gaze.
Born in 1918 in Changki, an Ao village in the then Naga Hills district of Assam, and now in Nagaland’s Mokokchung district, his tribe, the Aos, are one of the 16 tribes of Nagaland. Dr Ao’s father was Subongwati Ningdangri, the first Reverend in the Naga Hills. Dr Ao was the fourth of his 12 kids.
Two or three years after T Ao was born, the family moved to the Impur mission compound, near Mokokchung town, to a house allotted by American missionaries. Near the house was a field where boys would play with a ball made of tightly-tied rags. This was where T Ao had his first brushes with the game.
During this period, the Reverend, his father, died of typhoid.
His last wish? To see Talimeren become a doctor, to serve the Naga people.
In 1933, T Ao was sent to the Jorhat Mission School where he was first exposed to proper football, his skills noticed by both students and teachers.
From Jorhat, Ao went to Guwahati, to join the Cotton College, in 1937. This is when his game levelled up. During this time, Assam’s largest football club, the Maharana Club, had players who trained at a maidan near the Cotton College, and T Ao joined them in their sessions.
Already playing for Cotton College as a striker, he went on to become his Alma Mater’s sports secretary. Ao asked to join the Assamese club, and they let him in.
At the club, Ao changed. From a striker, he was put into the defender/midfielder position, one which he would retain throughout his life. During his time at Maharana, Ao exhibited brilliant footballing skills and commendable sportsmanship. He kept improving his game, but his father’s last wishes stayed firm in his mind. He kept trying for medical seats in colleges, and in 1942, his second attempt secured one of two reserved seats for erstwhile undivided Assam, at the Carmichael Medical College in Kolkata.
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In Kolkata, T Ao’s old friend from Maharana Club, Sarat Das, who was then playing for Mohun Bagan, brought him over to the club’s tent. T Ao paid a joining fee and was inducted into the legendary West Bengal Club’s squad, as a defender.
He had amazing skills and a calm temperament–which led him to the captaincy of the Mohun Bagan squad. Glories at Mohun Bagan followed, after which Ao was inducted into the Indian National Team, where he was again chosen to be captain. During this period, he led the Indian squad to the 1948 London Olympics, which were held after a gap of 14 years due to the Second World War.
So, in 1948, T Ao, was the captain of the Indian football team, while pursuing his studies simultaneously at the Carmichael Medical College in Kolkata.
Thankfully, the Charmichael Medical College’s British principal, granted him a year’s leave, for he had to fulfill his duties as India’s captain.
At the Olympics, Talimeren proudly carried the flag for the Indian contingent. The team advanced till they met France, who beat them 2-1.
According to Scroll, Arsenal offered him a contract, but he chose to return home.
That same year, he rejoined his MBBS course and graduated in 1950. He bid farewell to Kolkata, and to Mohun Bagan, who had offered him a plot in the city which he refused. He joined the ENT department, at the Dibrugarh Medical College, Assam.
Talimeren finally returned home to Nagaland in 1953, when he joined the Kohima Civil Hospital as an Assistant Civil Surgeon. He stayed there and rose among the medical ranks to retire as the Director of Health Services in Nagaland in 1978.
He passed away in 1998 at the ripe old age of 80 and was buried at the Naga Cemetary in Khermahal, Dimapur.
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Dr Talimeren Ao played football when it was tough for players to make a living from the sport. He has been honoured with an outdoor stadium in Koliabor near Nagaon and an indoor stadium in Cotton College Guwahati named after him.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)