The current flavour making rounds in India is that of the Indian Super League, the first tournament in India to gain significant international exposure. With football’s rising popularity in a the world’s second most populated country, often questions are asked about the ability of Indians to play in a foreign environment. Conor Heffernan throws light on a tale of the past, that of the first Indian to play in the British Isles, Mohammed Salim.
Name the first Indian footballer to play in Great Britain. It’s not an easy question but the answer brings up a fascinating story of a barefooted superstar who briefly set Scottish football alight. That man was Mohammed Salim and the club was Glasgow Celtic.
Born in Calcutta in 1904, Salim was interested in football from an early age. Shunning the comfort of academia, the young man displayed a remarkable talent for the beautiful game. His love of football also coincided with perhaps the most important period of Indian football. Spurred on by the great Mohun Bagan IFA Shield victory over English teams in 1911, many Indian nationalists took up football in an effort to prove to their British colonial masters that they were capable of governing themselves. Football means all things to all people. Salim’s first team, the Chittaranjan Club of Bowbazar, Central Calcutta was managed by one such group. Whilst there, Salim became infected with the Indian desire to show the Europeans that not only were Indians not inferior, they were equals.
His time with Chittaranjan proved to be brief as Salim was quickly on the move around idea. From 1927 to 1934, he plied his trade with several Indian clubs before settling with Calcutta’s Mohammedan Sporting Club. For Salim it was a familiar setting, as he had briefly played in Mohammedan’s B Squad in the late 1920s. His second spell with Mohammedan proved far more profitable for both player and club. Deployed as a free roaming winger, Salim was a key component in the Mohammedan side that won five consecutive Calcuta League Titles.
After the 1935/1936 title, Salim was selected as part of an All India XI to face off in two friendlies against the Chinese Olympic football team. It was a momentous moment for both Salim and Indian football in general as the friendlies marked the first international matches organized by the Indian FA. Salim would prove devastating in both games. Despite the fact that India lost, so impressive had Salim been that the first match, Chinese official Dr. Chi Chao Yung praised Salim
“It was most unlucky that they did not come out the winners. The forwards, Salim, Rahim, Bhattacharjee and Abbas were exceptional in their display.”
Dr. Yung wasn’t the only person impressed with Salim’s performance. Salim’s relative, Hasheem had been visiting Calcutta from England and was so impressed with his performance, persuaded him to come to England to play football. Hasheem must have been very persuasive, as Salim actually left India before the second friendly against China. His departure led to a brief police search and pleas emerged in newspapers for Salim to return. Such efforts were futile however, as Mohammed Salim was about to before the first Indian player in the British Isles.
Having spent a few days in London with his relative, Salim soon travelled to Glasgow in the hope of securing a trial with Glasgow Celtic. Celtic’s players were all professionals, but that did little to dent the Indian’s confidence in his own ability. Hasheem spoke to Willie Maley, then Celtic manager about the possibility of a trial. In Hasheem’s words there was “a slight problem. Salim plays in bare feet.” Unsurprisingly, Maley’s first response was to laugh. How could a bare-footed amateur footballer from India compete against Scottish professionals. Hasheem was adamant however that Salim could play and reluctantly Maley acquiesced. Salim was given the opportunity to demonstrate his ability before three coaches and a thousand club members. They weren’t to be disappointed. Despite his bare feet, Celtic were keen to try out their Indian recruit in a professional game. Salim was selected to play against Hamilton Accies.
Salim’s first game for Celtic saw him score two goals for the Glasgow side in a five-one victory over Hamilton, thus becoming the first Indian player to score for a European club. His second match for the Hoops, saw him set up three goals in Celtic’s seven-one victory over Galston. By this time, Salim had captured the heart of the Scottish Press. The match report of the Scottish Daily Express was glowing in its evaluation of Salim’s performance.
“Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic FC’s player from India hypnotised the crowd at Parkhead last night in an Alliance game with Galston. He balances the ball on his big toe, lets it run down the scale to his little toe, twirls it, hops on one foot around the defender, then flicks the ball to the center who has only to send it into goal. Three of Celtic’s seven goals last night came from his moves.”
Whilst the Glasgow Observer noted,
“Salim, Celtic’s Indian International trialist, tickled the crowd at Celtic Park on Friday with his magnificent ball manipulation. In his bare feet he was a conspicuous figure but this was further emphasised by his dark skin against the white and green of the Celtic strip. His play was top class. Every ball he touched went exactly to the place he wanted it to.”
Despite his success with the Glasgow Club, after only a few months Salim decided to return to India. Willie Maley was distraught and tried everything in his power to keep his new Indian star in Scotland. It is alleged that Celtic even offered to organise a charity match for Salim with five percent of the gate money given to him. Charitable to a fault, Salim said that whilst he would play in the match, his five per cent would be donated to orphans. The donation came to a remarkabley large £1,800. Soon after Salim left Celtic for his home country to re-join Mohammedan Sporting Club. He would spend another two seasons with Mohammedan before calling time on his remarkable career.Whilst the wider world may not know the story of Mohammed Salim, his legacy lives on at Celtic Park. In the late 1970s, Salim had fallen on hard times and was in need of money to pay for much needed medical treatment. His son Rashid wrote to Celtic, explaining the situation in a ploy to see if the Glasgow Club still remembered his father. Rashid later explained
“I had no intention of asking for money. It was just a ploy to find out if Mohammed Salim was still alive in their memory. To my amazement, I received a letter from the club. Inside was a bank draft for £100. I was delighted, not because I received the money but because my father still holds a pride of place in Celtic. I have not even cashed the draft and will preserve it till I die.”
It was a fitting tribute to a remarkable career.
Written by Conor Heffernan
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