Come July 23 and boxing legend MC Mary Kom will lead the Indian contingent along with men’s hockey team skipper Manpreet Singh as the flag bearers at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. A matter of great pride and probably one of the greatest achievements by a North-East Indian sportsperson. However, a little over 7 decades back, another North Eastern had achieved a similar feat. Dr Talimeren Ao, born in Changki, in the then Naga Hills district of Assam had represented India at the London 1948 Olympics as the captain of independent India’s first soccer team in the Olympics and was also the flag bearer of the Indian contingent.
An exceptional sportsperson who also became a doctor later, Talimeren Ao’s accomplishments, due to various reasons, have not been celebrated enough.
His first stint as a professional footballer began at Assam’s largest football club then, the Maharana Club, where Dr Talimeren Ao started playing as a defensive midfielder, which was not his usual position. Dr Talimeren Ao was also a student of the prestigious Cotton College at that time.
In the early 1940s, a scholarship to study medicine helped him relocate to Kolkata, where he eventually played for the legendary club, Mohun Bagan. He stayed with the club till the end of his football career and went on to win two IFA Shields, three Calcutta Leagues and several other titles. He even captained the team.
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His temperament played a key role in his appointment as not just a player but the Captain of the Olympics bound team in 1948.
According to various media reports, his statement on being asked why Indians played barefoot, where he had said, “In India, we play football, whereas you play bootball!” had won over the British media and made headlines. The original Captain Cool, huh?
Some even say that he was offered to play for Arsenal which he had turned down to fulfil his father’s wish to see him become a doctor. In 1950, he became the first Naga doctor. An international football captain and a doctor, I wonder how many in the world can claim this feat.
Dr Talimeren Ao played 6 matches for India and later quietly returned to his homeland and started practising medicine. He went on to become the Director of Health Services in Nagaland. He passed away in Nagaland at the age of 80.
Maybe Dr Talimeren Ao could have achieved a lot in Indian football had he continued playing. He was never duly recognised, but he was beyond this. North East India continues to produce exceptional sportspersons, including many footballers who went on to represent the country. Probably they all owe to the one who started it all.