Sitting with his team for an official photo at the 1948 Olympic Games, Talimeren Ao makes for an imposing and distinctive figure. Arms crossed at the waist, he looks squarely at the camera with a quiet assuredness becoming of newly independent India’s first captain.
While an elegant player in defensive midfield renowned for his ball control and passing range with both feet, the off-field anecdotes that accompany the legend tell more of a story. During that tour to England and the Netherlands, where India beat Ajax Amsterdam 5-1, Ao did not let condescension from the hosts slide. After an English club manager maintained that he would eat his hat if the Indians defeated his team (which duly happened), the captain insisted that he would only speak after the manager made good on his words.
After his excellent display at the Olympics, he was offered a one year contract by Arsenal, which he declined. He had made a promise to his deceased father that he would become a doctor and serve the Naga people back home, and he needed to get back to India and complete his medical studies.
He had already been a Mohun Bagan player since 1943 and was captain of the club when India set sail for England. He returned to Carmichael Medical College in Calcutta and graduated in 1950. He made the last of his six international appearances in 1951 and quit football and Mohun Bagan for good the following year.
After spending two years working with patients in Dibrugarh, Talimeren Ao finally made it home to the Naga hills in 1953. He spent the rest of his life serving his people.
During the Naga insurgency in the 1970s, he treated both soldiers and rebels. Baffled soldiers asked him why he was treating those classified as ‘undergrounds’. He replied, “I am a doctor. I have taken an oath and I have to operate on all human beings, whether they are overground or underground.”
He died on 13th September 1998, largely forgotten by Indian football. While the NorthEast of India today contributes a third of players to the ISL and I-League, Talimeren Ao was the first player from this region to leave his imprints on the Indian game. India’s flag bearer at her inaugural appearance at an Olympics backdated the footballing revolution here by a few decades.