Buried under the self-rebuke is the moving story of an Indian football team that once reigned over all of Asia. Novy Kapadia recounts the glory years
EVERY FOUR years, with the arrival of the World Cup, scathing remarks are made about the state of the game in the country. This is followed by the inevitable query — when will India qualify for the World Cup? Beneath all this lies buried the story of a once-great football team that reigned over all of Asia, and could have played in the 1950 World Cup.
The wounds of the Second World War were still raw, and the Jules Rimet Trophy, precursor to the FIFA World Cup, had last been played in 1938. It was hoped that the World Cup in Brazil would provide an occasion for celebration and reunification after the gloom and trauma. India, recognised as the best team in Asia, was invited to join the party.
However the All India Football Federation declined, as the legend goes, because those days, Indians played barefoot and it was felt they would be out of depth, if as per FIFA rules they were made to play with boots on.
The reality was probably a concatenation of several reasons, boots being just one of them. India, as an impoverished, newly independent country, was unsure about the big investment that participation entailed, not to mention the long journey by ship to distant Brazil.
Besides, as was the case until the 1970s, matches in India’s domestic competitions used to be played over 70 minutes instead of 90 — implying that invariably the teams would tire towards the end and concede late goals. It is now felt that if India had taken part in the 1950 World Cup, it would have given an early impetus to the game in the country, and hastened professionalism in the setup — something we’re still struggling to imbibe.
India’s golden era, the decade-and-a-half starting from the London Olympics of 1948, is a story worth recounting. Under the stewardship of Syed Abdul Rahim, popularly know as Rahim Saab, India reached the quarterfinals, losing to European powerhouse France 1-2, having wasted two penalty kicks because they were playing barefoot in the biting cold. Admiring the skill of the barefoot maestros, King George VI invited them to the Buckingham Palace after the match.
India’s attractive style drew many fans. The 1962 Asian Games gold, achieved in hostile circumstances, remains the last great achievement of the golden era
In the inaugural Asian Games held in New Delhi in 1951, India stamped their authority with the gold medal. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, a bare-footed Indian team once again froze in the cold conditions and were trounced 1-10 by Yugoslavia — silver medallists in both the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. This led the AIFF to make wearing of boots compulsory from 1953 onwards.
The crowning glory came in 1956, when India finished fourth in the Melbourne Olympics — the first time an Asian nation had reached the Olympic football semi-finals. In the process, they beat Australia 4-2 in the quarterfinals with centre forward Neville D’Souza becoming the first and only Asian to score a hat-trick in the Olympics. They lost in the semi-finals to Yugoslavia after leading 1-0 till ten minutes before the final whistle.
India’s attractive style — dribble, pass and constant movement — drew many fans, including Willy Meisl, the coach of the interwar Austrian Wunderteam, and the then FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous.
So what made this team tick? The pantheon of Indian footballers — forwards Chuni Goswami, Tulsidas Balaram, PK Banerjee, Sahu Mewalal and Ahmed Khan; midfielders Noor Mohammed, Kempiah and Yusuf Khan; defenders Aziz, Latif and Jarnail Singh; goalkeepers T Ao and later Peter Thangaraj — were all considered gold standard in Asia during this period.
However, it was Rahim Saab, a former footballer from the erstwhile nursery of Indian football, Hyderabad, who had, with his meticulous strategising, pep talks and adaptability to modern thinking, transformed the team. Having watched the great Hungarian team of Puskas and Hidegkuti in Helsinki, and their innovation of the 4-2-4 system with the withdrawn centre-forward, he had modified and applied it to great effect with the Indian team.
The 1962 Jakarta Asian Games gold remains the last great achievement of the golden era, particularly because of the circumstances in which it was achieved. India’s chef-de-mission to the 1962 Asian Games had criticised the hosts for excluding Israel and Taiwan from the Games for political reasons.
Thus, right from the beginning, the crowds were hostile to India. To avoid the irate Jakarta crowds, Jarnail Singh travelled sitting on the floor of the bus, so that his turban was not visible and identifiable. Years later, in an interview, Jarnail said, “The capacity crowd of over 100,000 booed us and did not even pay respect to our national anthem. When the ball came in our half, such was the din that the referee’s whistle was not audible.”
THE INDIANS showed remarkable dedication and adaptability to win the final against South Korea, who had beaten India 2-0 in a earlier league match. Due to injuries, Rahim improvised with the playing eleven. Jarnail the burly stopper had a bandaged forehead (and was thus unsure in the air against the athletic Koreans) was deployed as a surprise bustling centre forward, while Arun Ghosh, the right back played as the stopper. The ploy clicked. Right winger PK Banerjee and Jarnail scored a goal each in the first half and India emerged 2-1 winners.
Motivation ran so high that some players overcame sickness and injuries to pay the final. Goalie Thangaraj ignored a bout of flu to play, because Rahim was adamant his height gave India an advantage. Trilok Singh, the right back, played in agonising pain because of a cut toenail. Towards the end, Jarnail’s forehead wound opened up, but he refused to come off — there were no substitutions allowed those days, and the inspired Sikh, blood flowing freely all over his face, was unwilling to leave his team short of manpower.
Rahim had imbibed great team spirit in the squad. The squad had earlier left Calcutta for Jakarta on Independence Day. Rahim used the opportunity to inspire the players in the mould of freedom fighters. The national anthem would be sung inside the dressing room before and during the break of each match. Not for nothing, ex-international and former coach of East Bengal, Subhas Bhowmick, feels that the Indian team, which won the 1962 Asiad, could have played in the World Cup in Chile that year. Several players in that team were nearly six-foot tall, and many possessed superb dribbling and passing skills. But what really set them apart was their motivation to play for India.
Kapadia is a sports journalist and commentator