Mahesh Gawli is not just one of the best defenders in Indian football since the turn of the century, but also quite easily among India’s best defenders of all time. The Cuncolim-born central defender has won the NFL title with three different teams – East Bengal, Mahindra United and Dempo – and had it not been for an unfortunate red card against Mohun Bagan in the decider when doing duty for Churchill Brothers in 2002, the Varca-based club would have won and Gawli would have become the first player to win a record four NFL titles with four different clubs. A former Tata Football Academy alumnus, Gawli formed a rock solid partnership with Deepak Mondal there, something that he carried over to the national team as well; but even with different partners at different clubs, he was just as reliable. What he lacked in height, Gawli made up by sheer quality and consistency, elegance and anticipation, winning India’s best defender award for a record four years in a row between 2005 and 2008. Injuries, at times, pegged him back but he always returned stronger, like in 2012 when he was voted India’s best defender for the fifth time. Right through his career, Gawli was always in demand with clubs falling over themselves to procure his signature. Just out of TFA, FC Kochin, India’s self-styled first professional club, enrolled his services, before Churchill Brothers broke the bank and handed him a lucrative three-year contract. East Bengal was his next destination, Dempo being his last port of call with whom he ended his career after eight successful seasons, winning three national league titles and the Durand Cup and Super Cup. Although Gawli rarely got to captain India, he was nevertheless a huge inspiration for his teammates and enjoyed remarkable success with the national team. Dubbed the ‘Great Wall of India’ Gawli was comfortable both as central defender or a rampaging left-back, particularly under Bob Houghton. Since making his international debut in 1997, Gawli has been crucial to India’s success in important tournaments like LG Cup (2002), SAFF Cup (2005, 2011), Nehru Cup (2007, 2009) and the AFC Challenge Cup (2008) which helped India qualify for the Asian Cup 2011 after 24 years.