Football has been uniquely tied to the subcontinent’s history for more than a century and has closely reflected the social and cultural life of India. The rivalry between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal mirrored the regional conflict within Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting was perceived as a unifier of Muslims across the subcontinent. The Hyderabad City Police team was all the rage in Delhi and it is to their generous patronage that Karim’s in Jama Masjid owes its huge popularity. Poetry and music were composed to celebrate landmark victories and clever parodies of popular songs sung to encourage a favourite team at the stadium. Loyalty to certain clubs has run through generations amon-gst families, and could sometimes be deeper than religious identity.
The undisputed golden period of Indian football was from 1956-1962. During this era, India finished 4th in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, were gold medallists in the 1962 Asian Games, unbeaten runners-up in the 1959 Merdeka tournament in Malaysia and runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup in Tel Aviv, Israel.
The 1960 Rome Olympics team, with their venerable coach S.A. Rahim in the centre
In the past, loyalty to clubs could rival religious identity. Tickets to the 1963 Durand final were sold out a day in advance.
The paradox of Indian football has always been that from 1956-1964, when they had numerous talented players, several of whom were among the best in Asia, the physical conditioning and scientific inputs to develop strength, stamina and fitness were not so great. During the golden period of Indian football, players were not used to playing 90-minute matches. The duration of matches in domestic tournaments was increased from 70 to 90 minutes only in 1967. P.K. Banerjee had always maintained that “adjusting to ninety minutes football in international matches was always difficult, as players of my generation were only used to matches of seventy or sixty minute duration in the domestic circuit”. In the 1960s, Indian players were so highly rated that four of them were selected for the Asian All Stars XI that played friendly matches with first division clubs from England in 1966. They were skipper and central defender Jarnail Singh, goalkeeper Peter Thangaraj, left back Altaf Ahmed and midfielder Yusuf Khan. Jarnail was twice captain of the Asian All Stars XI, in 1965 and 1966.
In September 1962, India achieved their greatest victory in international football, winning the gold medal in the 4th Asian Games in Jakarta by beating mighty South Korea 2-1 in front of a hostile crowd. With that memorable win, India established itself as the best in Asia and there was an attendance boom in local tournaments in the country. When people of my generation witnessed the 1963 Durand final between Mohun Bagan and Andhra Police, we watched some of the best players in Asia and tickets were sold out a day in advance. Conversations at dinner tables, coffee houses and local buses were on whether Bagan’s Jarnail Singh and T.A. Rehman would be able to stop the rampaging Zulfiqar and Yusuf Khan, or whether Chuni Goswami and Arumainaygam would be able to penetrate the rugged Andhra Police defence. Indian football was the rage and the star players were like demi-gods. It was Indian football’s 1983 moment (the year India won the cricket World Cup, sparking a massive increase in sponsorship for the game in the country). India’s football team was considered the Brazil of Asia: skilful, entertaining and successful. The future was bright, but sadly, after the death of legendary coach Syed Rahim—who motivated the national team and players like no one else—in 1963, the national team stagnated.
Sadly, there is no footage to record India’s skilful display in the 1962 Asian Games, especially the brilliant trio of P.K. Banerjee, skipper Chuni Goswami and T. Balaram. Several stalwarts of that great team, goalkeepers Peter Thanagraj and Pradyut Burman, defenders Tarlok Singh and Jarnail Singh, midfielders Ram Bahadur, Prasanta Sinha and Yusuf Khan are no more with us. Many experts consider the 1962 Asian Games gold medal winning team as the greatest ever Indian football side. Noted coach and ex-international Subhash Bhowmick even says that with proper physical conditioning, India’s victorious 1962 Asiad squad could have played in the World Cup at Chile held that same year.
As mentioned, many of these successes were due to national coach S.A. Rahim, or ‘Rahim saheb’, as he was universally known, from Hyderabad. He instilled great team spirit and self-pride in the team. Subtle ploys by Rahim, India’s most successful coach, helped to motivate Indian players on the day of the 1962 Asian Games final. In the dressing room, prior to the final, he made the entire squad hold hands and sing the national anthem, Jana Gana Mana. This ploy he repeated at half-time also. Rahim had infused self-belief in the squad that had left Calcutta for Jakarta on Independence Day, 1962. It was considered a good omen and, given Rahim’s persuasive powers, they felt like freedom fighters. After Rahim saheb’s death in June 1963, Indian football stagnated. The gold medal at Jakarta remained a rare success. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) struggled to find a suitable replacement. In the next six years over six coaches were appointed, then replaced. The AIFF lacked vision and the national team gradually declined due to indifferent planning and limited exposure.
There was a brief flourish in the 1970s, when a new generation of talented players like Shyam Thapa, Sudhir Karmakar, Mohammed Habib, Subhash Bhowmick and Amar Bahadur arrived. Briefly, India’s football prestige was restored. India won the bronze medal in the 1970 Asian games and the 1970 Merdeka tournament, with Syed Nayeemuddin as captain. After that, it has been downhill all the way.
Every four years, a commonly asked question presents itself—when will India play the FIFA World Cup? Many are unaware that India’s tryst with World Cup destiny should have commenced a little over 67 years ago in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. India had qualified for it and was placed in group III and was to kick off against Paraguay on June 25, 1950. Their league fixtures would have finished by July 3. Italy and Sweden were the other teams in the group. The late Padma Shri Sailen Manna was slated to be the first Indian captain in the World Cup. But India withdrew from the tournament despite repeated requests by FIFA and the Brazilian Football Federation. Brazilian authorities even offered to pay the airfare for the Indian team.
There are many reasons for the 1950 World Cup withdrawal. Pace the popularly believed ‘barefoot’ theory, the AIFF worried that against professional teams, India would lose heavily and it would mar the reputation they earned in the 1948 London Olympics (lost narrowly 1-2 to France). Other factors, such as paucity of foreign exchange, inability to play 90-minute matches and the long journey by ship forced India to pull out.
So, hosting the U-17 World Cup is India’s second tryst with destiny and an opportunity that should not be wasted. India is the fifth Asian country after China, Japan, South Korea and UAE to host the U-17 World Cup. The other nations built on the momentum of having hosted a global football event and have all made the senior World Cup finals at least once. Can India emulate them and get a 1983 moment?
The great Jarnail Singh (third from left) with the 1964 Indian team
Some think India’s great 1962 Asiad gold-winning team could have held their own at the World Cup in Chile that very year.
Some steps have already been taken. The infrastructure has improved. Six world class all-seater stadiums are ready and can transform India’s football destiny. Leading European clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal can now play in one of the six cities in their pre-season summer tours. These clubs come to Japan, China, Malaysia and Singapore, but can now include India as the playing facilities are world class. This could lead to long-term TV and merchandising deals. India could also get to host the 2019 U-20 years World Cup.
Indian football’s 1983 moment will be qualification for the World Cup. But to achieve that is a stiff task. At present, India is a second tier nation in Asian football. Many steps have to be taken to ensure that Indian football has a bright future. In the second decade of the 21st century, academies and coaching centres for football are flourishing, along with visits to foreign countries by age-group teams. Corporate sponsorship too is increasing. The money for Indian footballers spiked even further with the advent of the ISL.
During 2014-16, Indian players who were not established stars but got contracts with teams in both the ISL and I-League, earned in the range of Rs 40 to 70 lakh. This was more than the average Ranji Trophy player, who earned about Rs 20-30 lakh per season. Though it cannot yet compare with cricket, money for Indian football players is on the upswing. Players in the national squad can comfortably earn a salary of Rs 50 lakh per annum.
Football academies are flourishing, corporate sponsorship is up and money for players has spiked. All this is good news.
However, long-term objectives and patience are required. Owners seem to think that success and crowd support can be obtained instantaneously. A classic example is Pride Sports of Madhya Pradesh. They joined the I-League second division with much fanfare in January 2017, but did not fare well and were bottom of the group before the penultimate round of matches took place in the last week of February 2017. Disappointed at the mediocre results, the club owners abandoned their team and did not fulfil financial obligations towards the players and Portuguese coach Paulo Pedro.
To take advantage of India’s diversity in population, the AIFF has to take steps like more systematic tournaments and local leagues to broadbase the game. States that do not conduct local leagues should be denied voting rights at AIFF elections. From the 1950s to the 1970s, there were over 125 domestic tournaments held annually in India. Now that number has dwindled. Unless millions from different states start playing, Indian football will struggle to improve. After all, from quantity comes quality. Able-bodied strikers, tall defenders and lanky goalkeepers can be found if structures are created that allows domestic football to flourish in many states. At present, it is confined to a few states only. The 21-member squad for the U-17 World Cup had eight from Manipur and ten overall from the Northeast.
From 2026 onwards, as many as 48 teams will participate in the World Cup. Asia’s quota will increase from four to eight. Competition in Asia will be stiff, but that is what India must aim for to get among the top dozen football playing nations in the continent.
(Novy Kapadia is the author of recently released Barefoot to Boots: The Many Lives of Indian Football)