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Forgotten Legends: First Malayali footballer to represent India in the Olympics

Forgotten Legends: First Malayali footballer to represent India in the Olympics

Sayan Chatterjee

Published: 16 Feb 2021 9:01 AM GMT

Of all the players of yesteryears who are still celebrated by fans for being a part of India’s golden generation of footballers in the 50s and 60s, one name is often lost in the milieu. That name is Thenmadathil Mathew Varghese, the first Malayali to represent India in the Olympics during the 1948 London games. Also known as Thiruvalla Pappan, he is still considered to be one of the most resolute defenders the country has ever produced. Pappan also featured in the 1951 Asian Games, where he heroically played with a bloody and broken nose in the final against Iran, preserving India’s lead to eventually clinch the gold medal.


Born in Thiruvalla town in Kottayam district, Pappan’s love-affair with the game started when he was just 16 and playing for Thiruvalla Town Club. He moved on to represent the Travancore State Police before being spotted by officials from Tata Sports Club in Mumbai (then Bombay) who offered him a chance to ply his trade at the club. And there was no looking back for the youngster. Pappan became an integral part of the Tata squad and forged a distinguished career spanning 13 years, including a successful tenure as captain. He also represented Bombay in the Santosh Trophy in the late 40s and early 50s.

A technically sound defender and extremely intelligent reader of the game, Pappan was considered to be at par with the great Sailen Manna at his peak. He was called up to the team for the Olympics where India went down to France after missing two penalties. It was one of the most historic as well as the most disappointing moments in Indian football at the same time but that team showed the world that we had the talent to excel on the biggest stage. They also defeated the mighty Ajax 5-1 at their home ground, and it probably remains India’s biggest victory till date.

A keen observer of the sport, Pappan was a regular at the Cooperage stadium in Mumbai even after his retirement. He eventually passed away at the age of 59 in January 1979. His family moved abroad soon after and very little has since been done to honour his legacy and contribution towards the game, even in his own state. Although that isn’t a first for players from that era, someone who had such a big hand in one of India’s biggest claims to footballing fame does deserve a lot more.

(with inputs from an article on The New Indian Express)

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