The latest FIFA rankings places India at the 165th position. This is India’s lowest ranking in a long time. There have been relatively very few highs for Indian football lately, and I feel the Indian team has largely regressed under the present manager, Savio Medeira. After the high of participating in the Asian Football Championships, managed by the journeyman Bob Houghton, and putting up respectable performances against the likes of South Korea, it has largely been downhill since then. Houghton was then unceremoniously sacked and Medeira was told to take over.
But that is not what I want to talk about. I want to take my readers back to the glory days of Indian football. How the seeds of Indian football were sown, and how the team was once a fearsome rival.
Kolkata is largely thought to be the nerve center of Indian football. Football’s popularity goes back to the formation of dozens of amateur football clubs in the city in the late 19th century, and the setting up of the Indian Football Association(IFA).
The defining moment came in 1911 in the IFA Shield tournament (considered to be the 4th oldest football tournament in the world), when Mohun Bagan defeated the British side, East Yorkshire Regiment, and took home the shield. This was Indian football’s ‘Lagaan’ moment. The 11 players who took to the field that day have since been immortalized in the Kolkatan footballing culture.
Mohun Bagan thus became the first Indian and also the first Asian team to beat a foreign team, in front of 80000 proud Bengalis. Since then, there have been movies, posters, postage stamps and songs published, celebrating that stupendous achievement.
Fast forward to 1950’s, India was regarded as an Asian footballing powerhouse. Few know that India had actually qualified for the 1950 Football World Cup that was held in Brazil, but weren’t allowed to participate because of their unwillingness to play wearing studs. Actually, India qualified automatically without playing a single game because other teams withdrew, citing the high costs in participating in the qualifiers. Despite repeated correspondence between FIFA and the Indian authorities, the Indian team were not allowed to play barefoot, thus were unable to participate.
The football tournament at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne was another high point for Indian football. Though only 11 teams eventually participated due to boycotts and withdrawals, India were able to make it to the semis and eventually finish fourth.
It got a walkover to the quarters because of the non-participation of the Hungarian football team. Hungary, at that time, were being oppressed by the Soviet Union. In the quarters, India met the hosts Australia, a great footballing team, which had the Australian Soccer Hall of Famer Ron Lord in its playing 11.
In one of the greatest matches in Indian footballing history, India managed to beat the Aussies, helped by a stunning hat-trick by striker Neville D’Souza. Thus, D’Souza became the first Asian to score a hat-trick in an Olympic football competition. The final score read 4-2 in favour of the Indians.
In the semis, India were paired against Yugoslavia, a team hoping to be in their third consecutive Olympic final. India again started brightly and took the lead, D’Souza adding another goal to his tally. But the Yugoslavs proved to be too strong for the Indian, and eventually won the match 4-1.
In the bronze medal playoff, India clashed against the Bulgarians and lost 3-0.
In 1977, New York Cosmos came to play an exhibition match against Mohun Bagan in Kolkata. The great Pele was once a Cosmos player and he started in the friendly match . That match actually ended 2-2! The Bagan great, Goutam Sarkar, was described as ‘India’s very own Beckenbauer’, by the Anand Bazaar Patrika.
Since then, Indian football has gone through a period of neglect and instability, a predicament which was brought upon the game by the neglect authorities.
Yes, Indian football had seen better days.