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India’s first European footballer – Mohammed Salim

“When X fell ill due to old age, his son wrote a letter to Y about the illness and stated that he needed money for his father’s recovery. He admitted that he only wrote the letter to see if Y still remembered his father and not for any material gains. To his astonishment, the reply came with all sorts of reassuring help and also a cheque for £100. Identify X and Y.”

That is one of the trickiest questions I have come across in a football quiz. Also, it only adds to the drama when X is revealed to be the first Indian footballer ever to have played for a foreign club. Intrigued? X is Mohammed Abdul-Salim Bachi Khan and Y is Celtic.

Born in colonial India in 1904, Salim grew up in Calcutta. A lot of Indians were taking up the cause of independence, and were trying to take up sports and such to prove to the British that they were good enough to look after their own country. Indians were also a part of football, where they participated bare feet. Beating the English, who wore boots, was a clear exhibition of supremacy.

Mohammed Salim, too, was quick to pick the sport, and was an attacking winger/striker with Calcutta’s Mohammedan Sporting Club. By the mid 1930s, they had laid claim to five successive Calcutta League titles. Right after the win in 1936, Salim was invited to face the then Chinese Olympic side. Salim’s cousin from Britain, Hasheem, was visiting India then and witnessed the first of two friendlies. Extremely impressed by what he saw, he immediately got Salim to skip the next match, and pushed him to try his hand in Europe. They sailed for England soon after, before finally heading for Glasgow.

At Glasgow, Salim was surprised to witness the sea of difference between him and Celtic players, but he pushed his cousin to still have a word with the then Celtic manager, Willie Maley. A trial was finalized but Salim would only play bare feet. Maley was baffled, and didn’t really buy the fact that a bare footed player, just off the ship from India, could compete with Scottish professionals. Salim took to the field with over a 1000 people watching, in addition to three registered coaches. His ability found praise from all quarters, and he was selected to play against Hamilton.

Celtic won 5-1, after which he continued his form against Galston, where Celtic won 7-1. His performance led the Scottish Daily Express of Aug 29, 1936, to carry the headline: “Indian Juggler – New Style.” His bandaged feet did stand out against the well-equipped Scottish, but his talent spoke for itself. His dark skin was a topic too, which contrasted the traditional white and green of Celtic.

Just a few months down the line, Salim felt homesick and he headed back to India soon after. He rejoined Mohammedan Sporting Club and stayed with them until he retired.

Celtic had reportedly tried hard to hold on to his services, and organized a charity match in his honor. They promised Salim 5 per cent of the gate proceeds, who in turn vowed to donate it to a charity. The amount came to £1800, which did surprise the footballer, who had no clue what 5 per cent actually meant, but he kept his word. Most of the stories revolving around India’s first European footballer stem from his son, Rashid Salim. He also shed light on the question we started with. He has never cashed the cheque that came from Celtic, and till date is preserved at Parkhead along with a Celtic green and white.

“Inputs from a Boria Majumdar interview for theoffside, a Celtic Blog.”

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