Past Masters of Indian Sports: Jarnail Singh Dhillon, the hard tackler who many consider the all-time best Indian defender

Jarnail survived the horrors of partition and played through pain to become a giant of the sport. Largely considered the best defender ever to play for India, Jarnail's heroics on the pitch for both India and Mohun Bagan remain one of the biggest treasures of Indian football.

Ujwal Singh August 12, 2020 11:19:08 IST
Past Masters of Indian Sports: Jarnail Singh Dhillon, the hard tackler who many consider the all-time best Indian defender

Jarnail Singh is the only Indian player to captain All Star Asian side. Image: Mohun Bagan website

Editor's Note: Football icon Jarnail Singh represented India at the 1960 Rome Olympics. This piece is being republished to honour his Olympic journey.

All great footballing teams are built on the back of great defenders. To sight recent examples, the relentless all-conquering Liverpool have the towering Virgil van Dijk to keep the opposition at bay. Fabio Cannavaro was critical in Italy's World Cup win in 2006. Indian football was at its peak in the 1950s and 60s. Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Tulsidas Balaram wreaked havoc on the opposition with their attacking prowess under the tutelage of coach Syed Abdul Rahim, but it was stopper-back Jarnail Singh Dhillon who marshaled the Indian defence, mopping up the oppositions' attacks with utmost authority.

O Chandrasekhar, SA Latif, Arun Ghosh, Syed Nayeemuddin, and goalkeeper Peter Thangaraj, all great players in their own right, played the supporting role to perfection as India forged one of the best defence in Asia in the '60s but it was always Jarnail who emerged head and shoulders above his counterparts. He was an integral part of the Indian side that gave nightmares to European giants Hungary and France in the 1960 Rome Olympics. He also played a decisive role in India's gold medal win in the 1962 Asian Games and won the prestigious Arjuna Award in 1964. Besides leading India from 1965-67, he captained the Asian All-Star team in 1966, the only Indian to do so.

In fact, very rarely we see such a consensus within a sporting community that exists for Jarnail, where a majority of former players, journalists, experts, and fans believe that the former captain remains the best defender that India have ever produced.

"Jarnail Singh is the best defender in India in the last 60- 70 years. He is a giant of Indian football and I have a lot of respect for him. I have seen him playing also, his skills, tackling, sliding tackle, the timing of it, volley clearance, it was unmatchable," says former Indian footballer and Mohun Bagan icon Subrata Bhattacharya.

What made Jarnail so good and better than other defenders was his strong built and endless stamina that allowed him to foil any moves that the attackers would make. We are talking about an era where teams generally played with only two or three defenders and focus mainly remained on playing attacking football. Jarnail was not known as a player who would run out of gas midway through the match, something which has been common with Indian defenders. His defensive skills were also of the highest order.

"He used to play as a central defender and in those times only two defenders used to be deployed, later three defenders were used. Those two defenders have to cover the area of 55 yards against five attackers. It was almost impossible to beat him in a one-on-one situation, not even Chunni da (Chuni Goswami) could do it," adds Bhattacharya.

"Without doubt, he is the best defender that India have ever produced. There’s no comparison. Jarnail Singh was the most intimidating defender in Asia, forget about India. His tackling, interception and man-to-man marking were immaculate. He was somebody who intimidated his opponents," says football historian and veteran journalist Novy Kapadia.

"He was absolutely outstanding for both India and Mohun Bagan. He played mostly in the three-man defence system and he was a very hard tackler, who had long accurate clearances and he could raise his feet till the chest of a man. In the beginning, he was not very good in the air, so when he use to go home in the off season, he used to tie a football to a branch of a tree and keep jumping and heading the ball till he improved on that aspect. Above all he was fearless. He never cared for the opponent."

The 1962 Asian Games gold medal win has been the biggest highlight of Jarnail's career, as has been the case for his teammates. But the most remarkable moment from the final against South Korea which saw India conquering the continental championship remains the goal from the bandaged Jarnail. The prolific PK Banerjee scored the opening goal for India but it was Jarnail who put the ball in the back of the net for the decisive goal as India emerged 2-1 winners.

Jarnail, a defender, was deployed as a striker in the semi-finals and the final of the tournament due to his head injury. He had suffered an awful cut on his forehead during the tournament in a group match and it required six stitches. Those stitches compromised his heading ability and that led to the decision of him playing as a forward. He would go on to score in the semi-finals and the final. Jarnail's inclusion in the playing XI despite him not being fit to play his usual role speaks volumes about his calibre. He was unexpendable for the team and coach Rahim.

"In 1962 Asian Games, he got injured in the match against Thailand with a severe cut on his forehand. Due to the stitches and bandage, he could not play as a central defender but such was his reputation that captain Chuni Goswami convinced Rahim that Jarnail must be played because Jarnail caused fear among the opposition players. It was like bowling to Vivian Richards. So he (Rahim) played Jarnail as a centre forward. In the final against (South) Korea when the opposition were attacking, India played with just two forwards; Jarnail and Balaram came back and we (India) played in a 4-4-2 formation. Jarnail defended with blood streaming down from his forehead," recalls Novy.

The steely, determined, and fearless nature of Jarnail was mostly a result of the wounds of partition that he carried with himself. Born in 1936 in undivided Punjab, Jarnail had to escape for his life to Punjab side in India after the partition. He and his family would later settle in Panam village near Hoshiarpur. The horrors that he went through forged a mentality that saw no fear.

"Jarnail was a victim of partition, he crossed over in a truck. Many of his family members were killed during that period. So definitely that had an impact on his psyche which made him a very determined person. He used to practice very hard. He was in Khalsa College in Punjab and there he would practice for hours and that made him a complete player. To his credit, he never had any hatred for any community," says Novy who shared a very good friendship with the Jarnail.

As Novy writes in his book Barefoot to Boots, Jarnail's footballing career began with Khalsa Sporting Club of the Shri Guru Gobind Singh Khalsa College from the Hoshiarpur district of Punjab. He first made a name in the DCM Trophy while playing for Sporting Club and later with help of his friend Darshan Singh made the move to Calcutta (now Kolkata) - the 'Mecca of Indian football'.

At first in 1957, he played for the Rajasthan Club and it was only in 1959 that he joined Mohun Bagan. His move to The Mariners was down to him being scouted by coach Arun Sinha who wanted a solid player for his backline. Jarnail got off to a poor start in the green-and-maroon jersey. His initial matches were full of mistakes and hooting from the crowd but soon he found his feet and that also in the Kolkata derby against East Bengal. That was the start of a legendary club career where he combined excellently with Chuni to form one of the most memorable partnerships of Indian football.

"He first went to Kolkata and played for Rajasthan club. He wasn’t a very sophisticated player, in Kolkata fans like players who play like Brazilian stars. Jarnail was not like that, he was a hard man. The credit goes to coach Arun Sinha who spotted Jarnail and convinced people at Mohun Bagan that you need someone to block the goal and there he developed as a player," says Novy.

"With Mohun Bagan, he achieved everything, they became the first Indian team to win Durand Cup three years in a row from 1963 to 65. He helped Bengal win Santosh Trophy. Mohun Bagan won IFA Shield and Calcutta league, Rovers Cup. He won every trophy."

Past Masters of Indian Sports Jarnail Singh Dhillon the hard tackler who many consider the alltime best Indian defender

Jarnail Singh is the only Indian player to captain All Star Asian side. Image: Mohun Bagan website

His India debut also came in 1959 and he would go on to play for the national side till 1970, during which he was part of the legendary 1960 team that lost narrowly (2-1) to Hungary in the summer Olympics, against a side that had brought its best players to the tournament, the players who would go on to represent their team at the 1962 World Cup in Chile.

India also held France to a 1-1 draw, a performance that had the Italian media write eulogies for Rahim's team. He also played for the Bengal side and captained all three teams, India, Mohun Bagan, and Bengal, on different occasions. After finishing his Kolkata tenure, Jarnail returned to Punjab in 1968. This was the start of a new revolution as he guided the Punjab team to their first Santosh Trophy in 1970.

After hanging his boots, Jarnail dabbled in coaching. He was at the helm at Mohun Bagan, Punjab state team, and also the Indian national team. On the field, Jarnail was an intimidating character who wore size twelve boots and was always ready for a hard tackle, but off the field, he was known for his jovial nature, as someone who loved his food and conversations over football.

"He was a very easy going man off the field, one who loved his food and drinks. He would often call me over for dinner, we would often have it at Kaka Da Hotel at Connaught Place in New Delhi. He loved talking so he would call me over to meet and of course he loved his food, his butter chicken, butter naan. The death of his son saddened him a lot and it made him upset," says Novy.

Jarnail's son Jagmohan Singh, who also played for India as a defender, died in 1996 and it is said that the setback made the former Indian captain depressed, something from which he never recovered. In 2000, Jarnail passed away after a heart attack in Vancouver where he had gone to visit his family.

Jarnail survived the horrors of partition and played through pain to become a giant of the sport. Largely considered the best defender ever to play for India, Jarnail's heroics on the pitch for both India and Mohun Bagan remain one of the biggest treasures of Indian football.

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