The 1950 FIFA World Cup: A missed opportunity for India
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.