Watching Brazil decimate Spain in the recent Confederations Cup final at the Maracana stadium and seeing the engrossing semi final between Italy and Spain, memories flooded back to the 1950 World Cup at the same venues. It was in Brazil in 1950 that India should have made their World Cup debut. Many of the current generation are unaware that World Cup participation was offered to India on a platter. In the days before rankings, India was then recognized by FIFA as the best team in Asia and so was invited to participate in the 1950 World Cup at Brazil.
In the 1950 World Cup draw, India was placed in Pool III with Sweden, Italy and Paraguay. India would have started their campaign against Paraguay on June 25 and their league fixtures would have finished by July 3. Paraguay was not a formidable team then and India could have held their own against them. Italy fielded a weakened side as their brilliant club side Torino, flying back after a friendly in Lisbon, crashed into the wall of a hillside monastery.
This accident took place in May 1949 and all the players, including eight from the Italian team, died. The Italian team was unsettled, did not have a proper coach as Vittorio Pozzo had resigned. They had travelled by ship to Brazil and were not in proper physical condition. So considering the circumstances, India could have matched the Italians in their second match. Maybe Sweden would have been too fast and physical for India but overall it would have been a great exposure for the national team.
If only India, or rather the All India Football Federation (AIFF), had accepted the challenge in 1950, it would have been a major boost for the game in a newly independent country. The international media exposure would have made our footballers household names. Instead, various reasons, like inadequate foreign exchange reserves, the long journey by ship and the problem of bare-footed players forced India to pull out of this tournament.
The Brazilian organizers wanted to make their tournament more representative and were keen to have a team from the land of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru and so even offered to pay most of the expenses. Scotland, France and erstwhile Czechoslovakia withdrew from the 1950 World Cup and it was reduced to a thirteen team tournament. So Brazil again contacted the AIFF and asked them to participate and promised to look after their expenses by ship. India’s entry remained in the draw till the tournament started and no other team from Asia was invited. When India did not turn up, Pool III became a three team group with the winners Sweden qualifying for the final round robin league phase.
There is no clear-cut reason as to why India did not participate in the 1950 World Cup. The Government of India never discouraged such participation. In fact, Prime Minister Nehru realized the value of sports in both nation building and developing an international identity. From whatever evidence is available from those years, it seems AIFF procrastinated and let this opportunity slip by. “Never look a gift horse in the mouth” is an old adage and Indian football is still paying the penalty for missing this once in a lifetime chance.
This withdrawal from the 1950 World Cup was a major setback for Indian football. Till the mid-sixties, India was amongst the top three in Asian football. In both, the 1951 Asian Games at Delhi and the 1962 Asian Games at Jakarta, India won the gold medal in football. In a regional competition known as the Quadrangular tournament, India was unbeaten champions for four successive years.
The late S.A. Rahim of Hyderabad, a highly respected tactician, was India’s coach during this successful era. Due to his coaching prowess, India was one of the first Asian countries to play in the then modern 4-2-4 formation. In the inaugural 1964 Asia Cup at Tel Aviv, India finished runners up, narrowly losing 0-1 to Israel in the final at Tel Aviv. India also won the gold medal in the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games football competitions.
In the 1950s, India had numerous talented footballers. There was depth of talent and fierce competition for each position. So India could have fared well in the 1950 World Cup. Above all, many of the Indian forwards in 1950 were skillful dribblers and relied on body feints and subtle passes upfront. Players like Ahmed Khan, S. Raman, MA Sattar and S. Mewalal would have been adored by the Brazilian fans who always cheered teams which relied on intricate passing and dribbling.
However the AIFF 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. Also, in 1950, the World Cup lacked the glamour and universal appeal that it has nowadays. So the AIFF probably wanted to concentrate on the Olympic football tournament. There was also the needless apprehension that if India took part in the World Cup, then their players would be branded as professionals and prevented from taking part in the Olympics. In those days, only amateur sportspersons could participate in the Olympics.
Lack of clarity about rules probably prevented India as a newly independent country from taking part in the 1950 World Cup. In football, this distinction between professionals and amateurs existed only for countries like England, Spain, Italy and Brazil where organized professional leagues existed. The socialist bloc of nations, particularly the East Europeans, openly defied such distinctions.
All their legendary players like Ferenc Puskas, Josef Boszik and Nandor Hidegkuti (Hungary) and Lev Yashin and Igor Netto (USSR) took part in both the Olympics and World Cup. The East European nations claimed that their players served in the Army and so were not professionals. Hungary’s meticulous coach Gusztav Sebes arranged for all their top players to have sinecures in their Army and play in the local league for Honved FC. Thus Puskas, who could barely handle a gun, came to be known as the “Galloping Major.”
India would, similarly, have had no problems if they had opted to take part in both the 1950 World Cup and the Olympics. The top Indian players, especially those who played for the Kolkata clubs, got monetary rewards but it was a mere pittance. Hence, all of them worked for a living. Mohun Bagan’s Sailen Manna, India’s likely captain in the 1950 World Cup, worked in the Geographical Survey of India. Midfielder Talimeran Aao was a medical student. Ace striker S. Mewalal was in the Railways. Stars like Ahmed Khan, MA Sattar, PBA Saleh and Sunil Nandy, who played for either East Bengal or Mohun Bagan, all had jobs.
The Hyderabad-based players – S.K. Azizuddin, Noor Mohammed and Moin – were all employed in Hyderabad City Police, though they did little work and focused on football. Also, the duo likely to be selected from erstwhile Mysore, goalkeeper K.L. Varadaraj and S.A. Basheer, were also employed. The Hyderabad and Mysore-based players regularly wore boots during matches. So they could have easily adjusted in the 1950 World Cup, where playing in boots was compulsory. Many of India’s star players like Ahmed Khan, Sattar, S. Raman and Manna were comfortable playing barefoot. However, the AIFF had been given ample time to prepare the team and so could have got these players accustomed to play with boots.
Another excuse offered for the withdrawal was that Indian players were not used to 90 minutes football. 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. With some physical training, this hurdle could have been crossed.
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. Also, we would then have missed the inevitable query that arises every four years, — 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.