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Traveling Barefoot – The Story of Indian Football

Arinjay Ghosh details the topsy-turvy tale of Indian Football through the years.

Arinjay Ghosh details the topsy-turvy tale of Indian Football through the years.

“In a galaxy of stars mixed with a sprinkling of royalty, the Indians took their bow in international football in the Summer Olympics of 1948. If there indeed was any stage fright, they were not willing to show it.”

The beautiful game has its roots etched deep in Indian folklore. Long before the hysteria of cricket took the Indian subcontinent by storm, the nation reveled in the glory of her proud footballers. The game was extremely popular; not just in Calcutta, but in every corner of the country. In fact, India’s first Olympic captain, Talimeran Aao belonged to the then Naga Hills district of Assam; and as a fitting reminder of the great footballing legacy, stands tall in front of the nation’s most iconic cricket stadium, the statue of India’s footballing pioneer, Goshto Pal.      

Initiation and Establishment

In the September of 1877, Nagendra Prasad Sarbhadikari was arguably the first Indian to kick a football, when he returned a stray ball to a group of British soldiers. This innocent act by a ten year old boy would eventually change the sporting, cultural and political history of an entire nation. Sarbhadikari’s initiative to form India’s first ever caste-inclusive football club, the Sovabazar Club, served as a precedent for a group of North Calcuttans as they formed the Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, a club that would become the vanguard of the Indian national movement.

In the years leading up to 1911, the British started using force to repress the Indian nationalist movement. A sense of anxiety and helplessness clouded the nation and the people were looking for a cathartic breakthrough. A nation in the process of unanimity found its voice on 29th June 1911 when 80,000 people from far corners gathered to witness Mohun Bagan dismantling all notions of British supremacy. The game itself was a circumstantial pandect of the freedom struggle. As Bagan trailed for most of the game, Captain Shibdas Bhaduri scored one and assisted one in the last ten minutes to set up the landmark victory that had impacts beyond sport, serving as a resounding blow to the raging British cultural imperialism. It further crushed all charges of effeminacy and physical inferiority levelled against the locals.

This unprecedented success was followed by two decades of disappointment owing mainly to the bias of the referees against Indian teams that progressed to the knockout stages of notable tournaments. Through this extended period of tribulations, India found its first ever national captain and a true leader, Goshto Pal. The stout stopper did not have many trophies in his cabinet but his unquantifiable grit and leadership kept football alive in the 1920s. Popularly called the “Chinese Wall”, it was his constant protests against the unjust refereeing that finally paved the way for the establishment and eventual glory of Indian football.

The ‘30s marked the initiation of Indian football’s ascent mainly through the Mohammedan Sporting team as they turned out to be the real nemesis of British domination in sport. Competing against every top British team in the country, they won five consecutive Calcutta League titles. The football on display was so breathtaking that it would attract spectators from all spheres of life. The impact of that would be felt beyond sport as at a time when the British were dividing on religion; football was uniting regardless of religion. The man at the center of the thrill was Mohammed Salim. His prowess led to global recognition as he was signed by Celtic FC in 1936 becoming the first Indian to play in Europe. A cult hero in Scotland to the day, it is said that Salim was so good on the ball that the club manager allowed him to play bare feet. Mesmerized by his skills, the Scottish Daily Express of 29th August, 1936 wrote, “Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic FC’s player from India, hypnotised the crowd at Parkhead last night. He balances the ball on his big toe, lets it run down the scale to his little toe, twirls it and hops on one foot around the defender.”

The seismic contributions of these legends inspired young boys across to take up the game. Football spread to the west and especially the south. Madras, Mysore and Hyderabad took the lead in producing players that matched the caliber of the Calcutta greats. An entire generation of upcoming talent would not just look up to the likes of Bhaduri, Pal and Salim; they wanted to wear the same jersey, play for the nation and make a difference. They took immense pride in being footballers from India.

The Golden Era

Unshackling themselves from the chains of tyranny, India’s independence and the subsequent rise in football earned them a call in the 1948 London Olympics. T Aao led independent India’s inaugural stride on European soil with France staring them in the eye. India went down 1-2 but their performance left an indelible mark on world football. It is said that weather, not France, was India’s biggest undoing that evening. Shivering in the cold of London, India missed two penalties as it became difficult for the players to run bare feet on the field. The 20,000 in attendance at Lynn Road were pleasantly surprised; even amazed by the Indian performance giving them a standing ovation at full time! This prompted FIFA to grant India an automatic qualification for the 1950 Brazil World Cup. That dream took nearly seventy years to be realized as for reasons varied and debated, the Indian team did not travel to Brazil.

In 1951, India took the lead in organizing the first Asian Games in a bid to strengthen diplomatic relations through the uniting power of sport. This meet established the legend of two contrasting greats, Sailen Manna and Sheoo Mewalal. The former, a lanky defender, hailed from mainland Bengal and was a vocal leader. The latter, a stout center forward, calm in demeanor, was born in Bihar. Their only similarity was that they were the greatest ever players for India in their respective positions. Armed with the brilliance of these two and the tactical nous of coach Rahim Saab, India went on to capture the Gold Medal in football, stamping their continental authority. It is believed that on the day of the final, the first Prime Minister of independent India personally asked Mewalal to win the gold medal for the country and the center forward didn’t disappoint. That evening in Delhi, Iran’s physical presence and dirty football caused the Indian backline nightmares. But Captain Manna stood firm – guarding India’s citadel – and midway through the second half Mewalal scored a spectacular back volley to earn India a 1-0 victory.

Sailen Manna was rated by the English association as one of the ten best captains in 1953. His contribution to football would be rewarded in 2000 when AIFF conferred the title of “Best Indian Footballer of the Millennium” upon him. An ailing Sheoo Mewalal, on the other hand, was insulted by the doctors of Railways, a club he represented for eight years. Two contrasting greats indeed.

In the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, India proved yet again that they were the undisputed kings of Asian football. India trumped hosts Australia on their way to a fourth place finish losing to eventual runners-up Yugoslavia. Neville D’Souza finished as the tournament’s joint top-scorer scoring a hat-trick against Australia. The Australian team invited the Indians to a friendly game later that summer vowing to avenge their Olympic reversal. That would be PK Banerjee’s turn to score three as India embarrassed the hosts 7-1. D’Souza sadly passed away in 1980 but his final few words, as told by his wife, still touches a nerve.

“There’s nothing like the Olympics; it’s something else! To be there and sing your national anthem as you see the world pay homage to your fluttering flag in the night sky.”

The 1960 Games in Rome would prove to be India’s last kick in the Olympics. On their way out, arguably India’s greatest team produced its most famous European performance holding France 1-1 courtesy a PK Banerjee goal. But the greatest achievement of this team came in Jakarta two years later in the Asian Games.  India’s campaign to glory was tougher and definitely more dramatic than 1951. That is perhaps why Jakarta places in history a rung above Delhi. A new generation of footballers led by Chuni Goswami met their nemesis from the previous Asian Games, South Korea, in the first match and suffered a 0-2 defeat. Stung by the reversal, India bounced back defeating Thailand 4-1; it was a lesson in football from India’s Holy Trinity, Chuni, PK and Balaram. This victory, though, came at a cost as defender Jarnail Singh slit his head and had to get six stitches. Within twenty hours, India took the field in a virtual quarter-final against dark horses, Japan, and came out comfortable winners. India faced Vietnam in the semifinal and within three days of his nasty head injury, Jarnail declared himself fit and coach SA Rahim started him at center forward. This move turned out to be a masterstroke as he caused great confusion in the opposition defense helping India sprint to a two-goal lead. Vietnam replied with two of their own before Chuni Goswami scored a memorable winner setting up a dream final against familiar demons, South Korea.

The final of the Asian Games was a special occasion and who was to know it would be India’s last. Football was the headlining act of the Games and it attracted 100,000 people to the Senayan Stadium. Throughout the Games, the Indian football team was heavily booed. On the day of the final, India’s bus was attacked and Jarnail had to be sneaked in to prevent further injuries on his head. India walked out to an extremely militant reception and perhaps that distraction neutralized India’s psychological disadvantage against an opposition that had the better of them. Unlike their group stage clash, India played football like only they could in their pomp. The fight of Jarnail, the grit of Arun Ghosh, the tactical genius of coach Rahim and the unbridled magic of the Holy Trinity combined to grant India a historic victory. In an act of throwback camaraderie, it was perhaps fitting that on India’s greatest day in a sport evoked by the British, their only supporters in the stadium were the Pakistan Hockey Team.

In this era of Indian football, the country saw many great individuals. The Captain of 1962, Chuni Goswami was offered a trial by Tottenham Hotspur. It is said he had the feet of a South American. Balaram was deemed India’s most complete player; on a wet pitch he was unplayable. Jarnail, in one simple word, was a lion. PK Banerjee’s genius can be gauged from the fact that he never played for a “big team” and yet played for India till he decided it was time. Yet the greatest individual of India’s golden era was coach, Syed Abdul Rahim. The man was a genius and the nucleus of India’s greatness. He revolutionized Indian football twice. He switched from the traditional back two of the ‘40s to a 4-2-4 in the 1956 Olympics, India’s most successful campaign. He changed the system again and played a back three when India lacked a center forward in the early ‘60s deploying PK Banerjee as a “false nine”. The pinnacle of his acumen came in the 1962 Asian Games. When Jarnail injured his head midway through the tournament, he switched from a back three to 4-2-4 playing the defender as a target man in semifinal and final. Jarnail scored in both matches as India won by one goal margins. Sadly, that would be Rahim’s final lap as he passed away shortly after and that would prove to be the quietus of Indian football. Rahim had taken with him the magic of Indian football.

The Last Dance

Rahim’s death resulted in chronic instability; coaches kept changing and the team was never allowed to settle down. This had a disastrous effect on India’s campaign in the 1966 Asian Games as they crashed out in the first round. The slide was quickly arrested by coaches PK Banerjee and GM Basha in the next couple of years molding a talented and skillful bunch of youngsters into a system. The 1970 Games was a happy memory for the country as India captured the Bronze medal losing to eventual champions Burma. The Bronze medal match remains memorable for Sudhir Karmakar’s man marking job on Japanese forward, Kamamoto, who was widely regarded as Asia’s finest in those days. This famously prompted Sir Stanley Rous, then FIFA President, to hail Karmakar as “Asia’s best defender”. This medal match would eventually turn out to be Indian football’s lap of honor.

The 1970 Games was a lesson India didn’t pay attention to. While celebrating the Bronze, India overlooked the yards they had lost on their contemporaries. While the skill set was still elite, they were convincingly behind in administration, both technically and professionally. This became further evident in the ensuing years as the team slumbered to humiliating losses often conceding in excess of five goals. In the Tehran Games of 1974, India made hardly a whisper as they lost 7-1 to China surmounting their misery. The football was uninspiring and unprofessionalism had taken over Indian football. Amidst this plight, the Indian junior team’s performance in the AFC Youth Championship of 1974 was rendered inconsequential despite finishing joint winners with Iran. The general public and more importantly the top brass of sporting hierarchy were clearly losing interest in the game.

The ‘80s proved to be the definitive end to football in India. The familiar dispute between club and country had spread its poisonous fangs as Indian football saw its darkest day on 21st February, 1981 when twenty one of the best national players walked out of the preparatory camp for the Asian Games to be held in New Delhi the following year. This incident caused a huge public outcry and augmented people’s falling belief in the game. India fell in the quarter final of the 1982 Games and by then everyone in the country was waiting for a new sport to give them identity. The very next year India miraculously won the Cricket World Cup, and that would be Indian football’s coup de grâce.

A Second Chance?

Football and cricket took contrary trajectories in the next three decades. While cricket’s success brought astronomical popularity and professionalism to the sport, football fell further into the debris of obscurity. Football cognoscenti and former players alike believe that the 1950 World Cup was India’s biggest missed opportunity at making football the primary game in the country, especially when India’s runaway victory in the Asian Games the very next is put into perspective. It is believed that while India may not have challenged for the trophy, they had enough in their tank to conjure a respectable performance on a world stage and that would have benefited the sport immensely.

Silverware in any sport is not the process, it is the end result. The 1950 World Cup could have given the Indian contingent propitious exposure to blue-ribbon facilities and world class opposition. That would have remarkably helped in improving quality in terms of matching the top brass of international teams. Furthermore, the Indian squad of the early ‘50s had Asia’s best players in every position and they would have attracted the attention of many top teams across Europe. The technical acumen and the tactical wits thus gained would have undoubtedly improved individual standards of the players and in turn that of the team which could have pushed the great Asia-conquering Indian team of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s close to world class stature.

The possibilities that remained unexplored due to one decision of not boarding the plane to Brazil shall forever haunt the mind of football lovers but as it stands out, 2017 stares Indian football with an opportunity of the same ilk. While the U-17 World Cup may not be the same occasion as a senior World Cup is, this is the tournament that has been the launching pad for numerous world stars and future World Cup winners. India does not necessarily need to win this tournament to benefit from the event. In fact, even prior to the first kick-off this tournament has served the nation immensely- it has directly resulted in a significant upgrade on infrastructure and now at least six cities can boast of truly world class facilities. The participating team from India is no pushover either having prepared for over a year constantly playing friendlies against competitive teams in Europe and Asia. This is undoubtedly India’s great second chance to undo the catastrophe of 1950. World Cups do not come around very often; this one took especially long.

Sixty-seven years is almost a lifetime; if 1950 was a dream, 2017 is the time to wake up.

Arinjay Ghosh

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