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Football at the Olympics: Remembering India's day of glory in Melbourne

On December 1, 1956, India achieved a memorable win in Olympic football. They destroyed the hosts Australia 4-2 to enter the Olympic se ...

60 years ago, on December 1, India achieved a memorable win in Olympic football. They destroyed the hosts Australia 4-2 to enter the Olympic semi finals and became the first Asian nation to reach the last four. Centre forward Neville D’Souza scored a hat-trick (the first Asian to achieve this feat in the Olympics).

The Indian playing eleven in the 3-5-2 formation on that historic day at Melbourne was as follows:

Goalkeeper: Peter Thangaraj (Hyderabad/Services)

Defenders: S.K. Azizuddin (Hyderabad), S.A. Salaam (Hyderabad), SA Latif (Hyderabad).

Midfielders: Kempiah (Bengal), Noor Mohammed (Hyderabad).

Forwards: P.K. Banerjee (Bihar/Railways), Samar ‘Badru’ Banerjee (Bengal), Neville D’Souza (Bombay),

J. Kittu (Bengal) and Kannayan (Bengal).

Except for P.K. Banerjee (originally from Bihar), skipper Samar Banerjee and Neville D’Souza, the remaining eight players were from either Hyderabad or Bangalore. The indefatigable midfielder Kempiah, the dashing winger Kannayan (arguably the fastest winger ever produced by India) and the crafty Kittu had all started their football careers in Bangalore but shifted to Calcutta.

Of the 11 that played in Melbourne that day, only Salaam, P.K. Banerjee and Samar Banerjee are still alive. The baby of the team, 19 year-old Tulsidas Balaram was supposed to start on the left flank.

Even on the eve of the match, it was confirmed he would start with vice-captain Kittu on the left flank. But on the morning of December 1, Rahim felt that it would be risky to expose an untried youngster in such a crucial Olympic match and so opted for the experience of Kannayan. In the semi finals, Balaram replaced Kannayan and from then onwards became irreplaceable. Till he retired in 1963, due to illness, Balaram was always in the playing eleven for India and a first choice selection.

The 17 member Indian squad, which finished fourth in the Melbourne Olympics, had eight players who learnt their football in Hyderabad: goalkeeper Peter Thangaraj, defenders Aziz, M.A. Salam, Ahmed Hussain and Latif, left half Noor Mohammed, and forwards Zulfiqar and Tulsidas Balaram. This was not surprising as in 1956, Hyderabad had won the National championships for the Santosh trophy trouncing Bombay 4-0 in the final at Trivandrum.

Hyderabad was so dominant in the replayed final that they scored four goals in the opening quarter of the match and at the behest of the organisers did not further humiliate their opponents. From runners up Bombay, the duo chosen were goalkeeper S.S. Narayan and centre forward Neville D’Souza. Narayan played in the semi finals and bronze medal match (from the semi finals onwards, football matches were played on the historic lush green Melbourne Cricket Ground) as Thangaraj picked up a severe ankle injury in the victory against Australia.

D’Souza who played for Caltex, Mumbai became the first player to score a hat-trick in his maiden appearance in Olympic football. The fourth goal was scored by Vice-captain J. Kittu in the 80th minute. The diminutive Kittu, who played his club football for East Bengal, scored after a 25 yard solo dash and a curling shot from the edge of the box.

On a hard and dry ground and against robust opponents, D’Souza, noted for instinctive ability to drift into scoring positions opened the scoring in the 9th minute with a firm header. Skipper Samar Banerjee took a stiff shot that rebounded off the bar and following up D’Souza headed in. Australia equalized eight minutes later when Morrow headed in a free kick. In the 33rd minute India scored again.

P.K. Banerjee sped down the right and whipped in a low cross, which an onrushing D’Souza tapped in. Morrow again equalised for Australia three minutes later. But the second half belonged to India. Accelerating down the left, Kannayan cut in and was foiled by goalkeeper Lord. But an onrushing D’Souza, following up, bundled the ball into the net to complete his hat-trick.

Neville D’Souza was very motivated for the match due to an off the field incident. Before the Olympics started, he was travelling by the local bus, on a sight-seeing trip in Melbourne. When some bus passengers learnt that he had come from India to participate in the Olympics, they thought he was a hockey player. They were astonished when he told them that he was a football player, as they believed that India did not play this game. They also laughed when he said that India could beat Australia in football. Ultimately D’Souza had the last laugh on the Aussies.

The versatile D’Souza had an uncanny game sense and was always in the right position at the right time. With his deceptive speed, sudden acceleration and close dribbling D’Souza, resembled a Brazilian forward with his superb control. During his student days in St. Xavier’s, Bombay he played both football and hockey.  But later he opted for football and joined Tatas for a few years before switching to Caltex in the mid-fifties.

Casual in his approach to fitness, D’Souza’s international career lasted only for a few years. But many experts consider him as India’s finest goal poacher. In the 4th Quadrangular football tournament in Dacca, Neville D’Souza helped India overcome a tenacious Pakistan 2-1 with a delectable winning goal.

India’s performance in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics should be evaluated within the perspective of Asian football during that era. The other two Asian countries made no impression in these Olympics. Japan lost in the first round 0-2 to Australia. Thailand was routed 1-9 by Great Britain. Compared to other Asian nations, India performed creditably and coach Rahim fielded the team in an embryonic 4-2-4 formation with Samar Banerjee and later Nikhil Nandy playing as withdrawn forwards.

Renowned soccer critics and officials like Dr. Willy Meisel and Sir Stanley Rous appreciated India’s performance and said the display was a revelation. They congratulated coach S. A Rahim for making India play modern football. The Duke of Edinburgh also witnessed this match and the subsequent 1-4 loss to Yugoslavia in the semi finals. He also conveyed his message of appreciation on the grand performance of the Indian players.

Ironically the Indian football almost did not make it for the Olympics due to several controversies in the country. The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) initially refused to sponsor India’s entry for the Olympics. It was a typical personality clash. Several IOA big wigs did not like Mr. Pankaj Gupta, who was then the All India Football Federation (AIFF) President and who was initially selected as the Chef-de Mission of the Indian contingent for the Melbourne Olympics.  Under pressure the IOA was forced to send India’s entry but refused to pay the national football team’s expenses for the Olympics.

In 2009, six members of that legendary team were felicitated by the government for their achievement so many years ago.

Instead the IOA demanded a deposit of Rs. 33,000 from the AIFF by a certain date otherwise the entry would be cancelled. Mr. K. Ziauddin, secretary of the Western India Football Association used his contacts in Bombay, including football loving actors like Dilip Kumar, to collect the sum of Rs. 33,000 and deposited it at the IOA office. The AIFF was also forced to make its own transport arrangements for the airlift to Melbourne.

The AIFF President Mr. Pankaj Gupta arranged credit facilities from Messrs Mercury Travels by hypothecating his house in Calcutta. The Indian team left Bombay by air on November 18 and played some practise games in Melbourne before their opening match on December 1.

The selection of the captain Samar “Badru” Banerjee also caused a controversy. The nimble footed Samar Banerjee was from Mohun Bagan. Due to their 1911 IFA Shield win over East Yorkshire Regiment, Mohun Bagan had a nationalist appeal among the common people so it was customary that in the early post-Independence years, the captain of India was from this historic club. Thus in both the 1948 Olympics and the 1952  Helsinki Olympics, the captain of the Indian team was from Mohun Bagan namely T. Aao and Sailen Manna. There was no controversy on their appointment, as they were established internationals.

However the nimble footed Samar Banerjee was a newcomer to the side, which included seasoned internationals, defender Azizuddin and left half back Noor Mohammed who had both played in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Due to Mohun Bagan’s pressure and certain communal feelings within the AIFF, Azizuddin was denied the captaincy.

Some disgruntled AIFF officials commented that with K. Ziauddin as manager and S.A. Rahim as coach if Azizuddin was chosen as captain, it would resemble a team from Pakistan instead of India. Thus Samar Banerjee became a compromise captain for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Aziz declined the offer of vice-captaincy which was then given to J. Kittu. Samar Banerjee played only one match in the Olympics and then was unable to participate due to severe cramps.

Another controversy was the inclusion of the precocious teenager Zulfiqar (a couple of months older than Balaram) in the Olympic squad. He was the 17th member and due to financial constraints the AIFF wanted him to be dropped. Rahim was adamant that Zulfiqar, renowned for his powerful shots and crisp volleys, should travel to Melbourne. Rahim made the ultimate sacrifice and offered to drop out from the squad to accommodate Zulfikar. He said that the captain, manager and senior players knew his tactics and they could choose the playing eleven at the Melbourne Olympics.

Pankaj Gupta was aghast at such a suggestion and agreed to let Zulfiqar travel to the Olympics. It would have been a travesty to drop Zulfiqar that year as he was in sparkling form. He had excelled in the training camps held that year, two in Calcutta and the final one in Bombay. Also in the final trial match between Hyderabad and Bengal, which the former won 3-0, Zulfiqar had excelled.

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