It’s never an easy task to handpick the best XI footballers that India has produced. There are so many greats, you do not know whom to include and whom to leave out. I would pick only those whom I have seen in the prime of their careers.
Peter Thangaraj would be the first name on the team-list. I’ve seen a wide range of superb goalkeepers — Sanat Shet, SS Narayanan, Bhaskar Ganguly, Tarun Bose. The list is endless, but to guard India’s goal, you cannot find a better goalkeeper than Thangaraj. He was like Lev Yashin, the legendary USSR goalkeeper. When he spread his hands, he looked like a full-fledged eagle in the sky. His ability to pick up players almost 40-45 metres away was also unmatched.
Sudhir Karmakar, at rightback, is India’s greatest ever, and you cannot look beyond him. At the 1970 Asian Games in Bangkok, Fifa officials could not believe their eyes and wondered how a player of Sudhir’s ability was playing in India.
Yousuf Khan and Tulsidas Balaram would be my picks for central midfield. Picking Yousuf over Sudip Chatterjee is a tough call, but Yousuf is a complete footballer. I have seen him play stopper back for India, midfield and centre forward as well. Many would say Balaram was an attacker but he is another complete footballer. He could defend, and attack, and when the ball was at his feet, you couldn’t really figure out his next move.
PK Banerjee on the right wing and Chuni Goswami in the hole behind the lone striker are choices which I don’t even need to explain. And Sunil Chhetri is the lone player from the current generation who makes my best XI on the left wing. Surprised? Don’t be.
For the last 30-35 years, he is easily the best Indian footballer that I have seen. Since returning from Portugal and joining Churchill Brothers, where I was the technical director, there is an amazing transformation. His approach has changed. At 32, can you really tell the difference between Sunil and any foreign player? I am amazed. He is technically sound, blessed with speed, can score with both feet and is not found lacking with headers too.