In 1960, on the historic roads of Rome, Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon running barefoot. The concept of barefoot was not his first choice - his only pair of shoes had worn out leading up to the race and the fresh pair caused discomfort.
Years of training on the high pastures of Ethiopia had strengthened his barefoot running and that's what he relied on as he completed what has to be one of the 'iconic moments' in the history of running. He successfully defended his medal in the next edition - though this time, he ran with shoes.
Indian football too came agonisingly close to making history at the 1948 Olympics - before going down by a goal to France. A win there could have pushed India's football growth in a different direction. The reality is different and I wonder, on that relatively cool evening in London, if wearing shoes would have made any difference.
In the late 1940s, when India became an independent nation, Indian football too got a boost as the national federation All-India Football Federation (AIFF) wasted no time in applying for recognition from FIFA. FIFA granted official status to the AIFF, which paved the way for newly-formed India to play international matches as an independent country. The first such occasion was the 1948 Olympics.
A new nation with renewed hope
India after independence was still in its first year and the seventy-nine member strong Indian contingent (all men) had the honour of being the ambassadors of the country. This was India's first representation at the Olympics without any baggage of colonisation, and with that came very few expectations. Barring the dominant Indian hockey team (reigning Olympic champions in the lead-up to the 1948 Olympics), competitors from other sports were merely supposed to make up the numbers.
Like in other British colonies, football was introduced in India in the 19th century. Hundred years later, after playing thousands of matches, having established well-known clubs across India, it was time for this sub-continental nation to play with a new identity. Quick act from the AIFF officials ensured, India's name was included in the list of participating nations by FIFA for the 1948 Olympics.
How it all began
AIFF submitted their interest to take part in the 1948 Olympics along with 22 other nations. The lots for the Olympic tournament were drawn on 17th June 1948 in Zurich. Teams based on experience and membership status were put in two groups to play the preliminary matches.
The winners of these preliminary rounds would then take part in the first round against well established teams of that era. The twenty-three countries that initially expressed their interest were - Afghanistan, Austria, Burma, China, Denmark, Egypt, Ireland, France, Great Britain, Holland, Hungary, India, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Pakistan, Palestine, Poland, Sweden, Turkey, USA and Yugoslavia.
Out of these countries, fourteen teams would be part of the preliminary matches, Ireland-Holland; Burma-India; Luxembourg-Afghanistan; China-Turkey; Sweden-Austria; Yugoslavia-Pakistan and Egypt-Denmark. The rest of the nine countries were drawn directly to the first round – the countries being Great Britain, Palestine, France, Korea, Mexico, Hungary, Italy, Poland and USA. As of 17th June 1948, the winners of the preliminary matches would play one of these nine teams in the first round.
This was 1948, many countries were still new and a few nations opting out of the tournament at the last hour was common. Five teams withdrew and this prompted a change in the earlier draw. Burma, Pakistan, Palestine, Hungary and Poland were the five absentees. The fresh draw now had only two preliminary matches: Ireland-Holland and Luxembourg-Afghanistan - while the rest of the teams who were drawn in the preliminary matches earlier, competed directly in the opening round.
This was how the fresh draw looked: Ireland taking on Holland and the winner playing Great Britain, while Luxembourg took on Afghanistan with the winner then playing Yugoslavia. France-India; Turkey-China; Sweden-Austria; Korea-Mexico; Denmark-Egypt and Italy-USA made up the rest of the first round matches.
Fee or no fee
The repeated success of Indian hockey at the international level had given a lot of hope to replicate the success on the football field as well. This was a different ball game though (literally) and with an open mind, the eighteen-man squad sailed to London to take part in what would be the beginning of the international chapter of Indian football.
Unlike the Indian hockey team (which left India on July 13th), the Indian football team landed in London during the first week of July. AIFF, at that point, had not paid the membership fees to FIFA and were concerned if this non-payment would attract disqualification from the event.
Dutta Ray, the secretary of AIFF was with the Indian team in London, and he wasted no time in clarifying this matter with Stanley Rous, secretary of the Football Association (FA), responsible for organising the football matches at the Olympics.
The FA Secretary wrote a letter to the Secretary-General of FIFA, Dr. Ivo Schricker in which he stated the concerns of Dutta Ray and requested the secretary-general to clarify the matter with the Indian football secretary. Within a matter of three days, Dr. Schricker assured Dutta Ray through a letter addressed to his temporary accommodation in London - that non-payment of FIFA fees had no bearing on India's participation at the Olympics.
On most days in a year, the weather in England is definitely cooler than most parts of India. And this was seen as a challenge for the players without shoes from India. This was a decision the Indian players had to make and finally settled on wearing shoes if the conditions were wet (rainy) and if they had to play on soft grounds.
When the conditions were dry, most players opted to play without shoes and instead wore bandages to protect their feet. The question was not about affording shoes - it was a matter of Indian players finding it comfortable playing without shoes.
The Indian team played five preparation matches to get some much-needed practice leading up to the competition and to get a feel of playing international football, in conditions that were alien to most players. Between 13th of July and 28th of July, the Indian team played five warm-up games.
Teams like Department Store XI, Metropolitan Police FC, Pinner FC, Hayes FC, Alexandra Park FC played hosts and Indians amassed 39 goals in these five matches and conceded only five goals. Of course, the aforementioned clubs were small - but they provided a good foundation for the Indian players leading up to their big game against France.
The first International match
Ilford, a small town in East London occupies a special place in the annals of Indian football. It was here on a Saturday evening, that eleven-men from India took the field with eight of the players playing without shoes. Though it was played towards the end of July, which is the season of summer in Europe, the air was chilly for many of the Indian players. Out of the eighteen-player squad, the following eleven played the first international match for independent India.
Goalkeeper - Varadaraj, K.V
Defense - Saliendra Manna and Taj Mohamed
Mid-field - Basheer, A.S, Talimeran Ao (captain) and Mahabir Prasad
Forwards - Robi Das, B. Pareb Mahachandra, Sahu Mewalal, Ahmed Khan and Sarangapani Raman
The Swedish referee Gunnar Dahlner called for the play to begin as the eagerly awaited contest of shoes vs. non-shoes gave spectators of the Cricketfield stadium something to look forward to. Clearly, the Indians on the field were the 'underdogs' - as no one knew what to expect from these 'almost bare-footers'.
Both teams started with a 2-3-5 formation as it was quite popular back then. On the brink of thirty minutes, France scored the opening goal. Rene Courbin's goal remained the highlight of the first-half.
An equaliser for India
The Indian team had nothing to lose. However, as the game advanced, there was intent and Indian players displayed skills to upset the opposition.
Any team is dangerous when they have nothing to lose, and this approach created few opportunities for India - Ahmad Khan, known for his skills and passing abilities created a opening, he combined his play with Vajravelu (who came in as substitute), beat the French defense and passed the ball to Sarangapani Raman, who successfully managed to put it beyond the reach of Guy Rouxel, the French goalkeeper. India scored, they had equalised and the game burst into life.
This goal kept India in the hunt - an upset now seemed a reality. As noted by the referee in his match report, the French team were temperamental at times as they were frustrated at letting the match slip away in the second half. Two penalties were awarded - both of which should have been converted by the Indians, and these missed opportunities would come to hurt them at the end of the game.
The legendary Indian player Sailendra Manna, who took part in the game missed the first penalty and refused to take the second penalty (which was missed) because he feared he would miss that as well. This incident, he later recalled and termed it as 'regretful'.
The last minute goal
It was 1-1 and just few minutes to go for the final whistle. Indians were stretched at this point, as they had played close to twenty minutes more than what they were used to playing in the domestic matches (it took many years into the 1970's to create uniform playing conditions from 70 minutes to 90 minutes). However, this was never given as an official reason for losing the match.
The Indian players had to endure two minutes of French counter-attacking in order to play the repeat match. The clock was ticking towards the 90 minute-mark and with less than 120 seconds to go, Rene Persillon guided France to take the lead in the dying moments of the match. The Indians were heart-broken. There was neither the time nor do they have the energy necessary to make a comeback. Seconds later, Gunnar Dahlner blows the final whistle and India came agonisingly close to creating an upset.
End of tour wins
A few days after the first round exit, the Indian football team continued their European tour and played a further eight matches in Netherlands and in the United Kingdom. The highlight of these eight matches was beating Ajax Amsterdam 5-1 on their home turf. After the Holland tour, the Indian team played five more matches in England - winning three and drawing the other two.
What does one make of this first international tour by a Indian football team post-independence? Personally, from what I have researched within FIFA Archives and few books of repute, one fact is clear - Indians didn't play football 'barefoot'. Few of the players did play with shoes (as evidence from photographs suggest) and when conditions were rainy and soft - shoes were preferred.
There were in the section of British royal family who praised Indians and the way they played their football. Not all players played without shoes and not all players played badly. Indian football displayed their courage, skills and the roster filled with a lot of potential - which with proper nurturing could inspire the next generation of players and so on to compete at the international level consistently.