North East India’s first footballing hero, Talimeren Ao was the captain of independent India’s first football team and led the side to their maiden Olympic sojourn in 1948. Ao was born in 1918 in a small village called Changki which falls under modern-day Nagaland. He holds the distinction of being the first Naga Olympian at a time when Nagaland’s struggle for sovereignty was taking shape.
First steps in a glittering career
The gifted midfielder was good at both academics and sports from a very young age. However, his late father’s dream of making him a doctor was always something that he wanted to fulfill. This saw him join Guwahati’s Cotton College where, as luck would have it, he had his first tryst with competitive football. He joined the college team and helped them win all the local trophies before shifting base to Kolkata.
While studying at Carmichael Medical College (renamed R.G Kar Medical College) in the city of joy, he happened to visit Mohun Bagan’s club tent with an old friend one day. Little did he know then that he would go on to win a number of trophies for the legacy club between 1943 and 1952, as well as help Bengal win the Provincial Santosh Trophy in 1945. The national team captaincy followed soon after and he was given the honour of being the flagbearer for the Indian contingent at the London Olympics in 1948.
English exploits and an Arsenal snub
India earned rave reviews for their performance at the Olympics, with many of the first team members playing barefoot. The largely unheralded and unknown team almost caused an upset in their first match against France but had to bow out after conceding a last minute goal. After the match, Ao was asked why some of the Indian players preferred playing barefoot to which he had famously replied, “In India, we play football whereas you play bootball!”
#Flashback | 7⃣1⃣ years ago on this day, India 🇮🇳 played its first ☝🏻 official international football match after Independence – narrowly losing 2⃣-1⃣ to @equipedefrance 🇫🇷 at the 1948 @Olympics in London 🙌🏻👍🏻
— Indian Football Team (@IndianFootball) July 31, 2019
His wit became the talk of the town which eventually resulted in Princess Margaret inviting the Indian team to a dinner at Buckingham Palace. India then played a few exhibition games in England, Wales, the Netherlands and Ireland, the highlight of which was their 5-2 victory over legendary Dutch club, Ajax Amsterdam. It is also believed that he had received an offer from English giants Arsenal which he rejected, choosing to come back to India instead.
Fulfilling his father’s last wish
In 1950, two years before he hung up his footballing boots, Ao completed his MBBS degree. After his retirement from football, he joined the ENT department at Dibrugarh Medical College. He was then appointed as the medical superintendent at Kohima Civil Hospital in 1953 before becoming the first Naga Director of Health Services a decade later. It was a position he held till 1978. He finally passed away in 1998 at the age of 80.
A legend in his own right, Talimeren Ao is someone who had the strength of character to pursue his interests whole-heartedly and not compromise on his dreams. With his body of work in two diametrically opposite domains, Ao was one of the first people to dispel the notion that one cannot pursue sports and academics simultaneously. In a country where parents still discourage children from taking up sports because it will hamper their studies, he is an example that should be cited more often.