Great managers are a rare breed in football. Nowadays, if a manager has a good season, he is considered as the next big thing in football. But, if, and when, he slips away into footballing mediocrity, people forget the man they considered the answer to all their problems just a year ago.
In a country where cricketers are given demi-god status, very few athletes from other sports manage to break the norm and be remembered forever. Hockey magician Dhyan Chand and the Flying Sikh, Milkha Singh are two examples out of a very small bunch to enjoy this legendary status. Football, however, has failed to produce an Indian who is counted in the same breath as Sachin Tendulkar is by the cricket fans.
As hard as it is to believe, there was a time when India were considered a force to be reckoned with in football. Some people, who claim to be “in the know”, will tell you Indian Football died the day we were refused entry into the 1950 World Cup because the team wasn’t comfortable playing football in shoes while others will come up with an explanation that the travelling cost to Brazil was considered too immense by the football federation.
What they (the people in the know) will not tell you is that the most successful team India ever produced was active after the 1950 World Cup. India ruled Asian football for almost two decades under the leadership of just one man, Syed Abdul Rahim. Born in 1909 in Hyderabad, Rahim was a school teacher who changed the way India approached the game of football.
Having been under British rule for more than 200 years, football in India was influenced by the British style of football that mostly revolved around dribbling the ball. Rahim introduced the concept of passing the ball more and ambidexterity while playing. He used to organise football tournaments for youngsters to play futsal where the colts could harness their skills and techniques.
A strict disciplinarian by nature, Rahim commanded respect and diligence from his players and the players responded to his approach to such a level that Jamal and Noor Mohammad played a match for him on the day after their mother passed away. Known as a motivational speaker, Rahim could pick up his team from a heavy defeat and make them achieve incredible things in the very next match.
He was handed the reins of the Indian National team in 1950 along with the responsibilities of managing the Hyderabad City Police team as well. With the Hyderabad club, Rahim won five consecutive Rovers Cups which remains a record to this day. He also reached five Durand Cup finals with the team winning three of them.
In the Hyderabad team, there were players who played five years for him without missing a single game. The ever-present Noor Mohammad recalling the training session years later said, “Often at practice we had just one football and for refreshments afterwards just a cup of tea but our hard practice, a will to succeed and excellent coaching from the late Rahim Saheb enabled us to become a successful team”.
With the national team, Rahim’s first major assignment came at home when India hosted the 1951 Asian Games. Being at home, a lot was expected from the team and they didn’t disappoint. Riding on Sahu Mewalal’s three goals in two matches, India made it to the finals with consummate ease without conceding a single goal.
India met Iran in the final, who had prominent players such as Masoud Boroumand and Parviz Koozehkanani, who later went on to represent Washington University Bears and Bayer Leverkusen respectively. India dominated the final winning the game 1-0, with the man of the tournament Mewalal coming up with yet another winner.
Rahim’s team, then, travelled to Finland to take part in the 1952 Olympic games. India suffered a 10-1 defeat at the hands of eventual runner-ups Yugoslavia. The fallout due to the result was incredible as many of the Indian players played without boots. The AIFF released a statement that players would have to wear boots while playing for the country.
1954 Asian Games and the 1960 Olympics
After a disappointing result in the 1954 Asian Games, where India were knocked out in the group stage, India headed Down Under to the participate in the 1956 Olympics where they would face some of the best teams in the world. Their first match was scheduled against arguably the best team in the world at the time, Hungary. The Hungarians boasted of players such as Sandor Kocsis and Ferenc Puskas, but due to the Hungarian Revolution, India were given a walk-over in the first match.
Next up was the home team – Australia. India started the game in style with Neville D’Souza shocking the home crowd with a goal in the ninth minute. But Australia were not going to let the Indians steamroll them into submission and when Bruce Morrow scored eight minutes later, the Indian contingent knew they had a game on their hands.
India took the lead again with D’Souza scoring again in the 33rd minute, but Morrow restored parity eight minutes later. Within five minutes of the restart, D’Souza completed his hat-trick and with Krishna Kittu’s goal in the 80th minute, the Australian resilience was finally laid to rest.
India faced Yugoslavia next in the semi-finals. After a very competitive first half, both teams headed into the break with the scores level at 0-0. In the second half, India shocked their illustrious opponents by taking the lead through the man of the moment Neville D’Souza. But, it took Yugoslavia just 5 minutes to take the lead and they made India chase the ball for the final half an hour, during which they scored 2 more goals to make the scoreline 4-1 in their favour.
In the 1958 Asian Games, Rahim did not manage the squad but returned for the following international tournament. At the 1960 Rome Olympics, India were placed in the group of death with Hungary, France and Peru. They started the competition against the mighty Hungary, losing the game 2-1 with Tulsidas Balaram scoring the consolation goal in the 79th minute. Despite the loss, this result added credibility to India as the Hungarians beat Peru and France 6-2 and 7-0, respectively.
France offered a different type of threat to the one offered by the Hungarians in the first match. The French had finished third in the 1958 World Cup and had already beaten Peru in the first group game and needed a win to keep up with Hungary. India played one of the greatest games in their history picking up their first points in the Olympics drawing 1-1 after leading till the 80th minute of the match. The draw ended India’s chance of qualifying for the next round, but they were praised by the media for their gritty performances.
The 1962 Glory
Having outperformed themselves at the Rome Olympics, India were one of the favourites to win the gold at the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. According to Franco Fortunato, Rahim setup a two-month preparatory camp in Hyderabad. India started the campaign with a 2-0 loss to South Korea, who had won the inaugural Asian Cup in 1954. But under the expert guidance of Rahim, India shrugged off any dark memories of the loss, with a dominating 2-0 win over Japan in the very next game.
After an even first half, where the game was tied 0-0, Rahim gave one his most inspirational team talk. As the team walked out for the second half Rahim spotted PK Banerjee vomiting in a corner. The legendary manager walked upto him asking him what was wrong. On hearing Banerjee was not feeling well, Rahim, instead of consoling him, started shouting at him for not informing the management he was unwell before the game had started. He told Banerjee to “go out and play at the top of his game”.
Needless to say, Rahim’s talk inspired Banerjee, who broke the deadlock within five minutes and when Balaram scored the second, Japan knew their time was up.
In the final group game, India thrashed Thailand 4-1 with Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram scoring a goal each while PK Banerjee scored a brace. India were pitted with South Vietnam, who had scored eight goals in two matches after a surprise loss to Indonesia in the first match, in the semi-final.
In the big game, India thrived with a double from Chuni Goswami and a Jarnail Singh goal earning the Indian contingent a place in the finals where they would square off with the South Korea. The victory, however, came at a cost with Jarnail Singh picking up a head injury during the match.
Due to various political reasons and with the final being held at the end of the Games, most of the Indian athletes had flown back and the Indian football team found itself without many fans for the gold medal match. However, as Novy Kapadia recalls, India found an unlikely ally in the form of the Pakistan hockey team.
The final was where Rahim showcased his brilliance, playing the injured Jarnail Singh as a striker. According to PK Banerjee, Jarnail used to play as a centre-forward in his college days and Rahim’s research helped the team surprise the Koreans.
PK Banerjee handed India the lead in the 17th minute before Jarnail added gravitas to Rahim’s decision by putting India 2-0 ahead before half time. The South Koreans, backed by the crowd lay siege on the Indian goal, but the defence stood firm. Even though the Koreans scored late in the second half, India went on to win the Asian Games gold, which to this remains the greatest achievement by the Indian football team.
As the story goes, the entire team was unable to sleep the night before the final. As the team gathered in the hotel, they saw Rahim, who had been diagnosed with cancer, smoking a cigarette. The entire team along with Rahim strolled the streets of Jakarta and before coming back he just said, “Kal aap logon se mujhe ek tohfa chahiye....kal aap sona jitlo,” which loosely translates to, “I want a gift from you tomorrow....the gold medal.”
He sadly passed away a year later and according to his player Franco Fortunato, “With him (Rahim), I personally think he has taken (Indian) football to the grave.”
Rahim was a revolutionary and had the rare gift of far-sightedness. He changed the British long-ball football and played to his players’ strengths by training them to play shorter passes and making sure they were in the pink of health to play that style. Unfortunately, over 50 years later, India continues to play the style of football Rahim had worked so hard to change.
He was one of the first people to play the 4-2-4, a system that the great Brazil sides of 1958 and 1962 used during their World Cup triumphs. In 1964, Alberto Fernando famously said, “What I learnt from Rahim in 1956 is being taught now in Brazil. Verily, he was a football prophet.”
It wasn’t that Rahim was a one-trick pony, the futuristic manager, frequently, used a system where the team would play with the striker falling deep into midfield bamboozling opposition defenders. This system was very similar to the Barcelona system under Pep Guardiola where Messi would drop deep into midfield confusing defenders. Talking about the system, Rahim’s son Syed Shahid Hakim said, “Critics talk about the Spanish playing with six midfielders and no forward. Rahim, in those days, had a withdrawn forward that was flexible. No country in the world had even attempted that formation then.”
“He was a master at work. He made the Indian football team a formidable unit. He had the uncanny ability of spotting talent and turning them into solid players. But he was a strict disciplinarian,” according to Zulfiqaruddin, who was coached by the legendary coach.
Balaram, one of the greatest players India has produced, commemorates Rahim as a great strategist stating, “There were no computers then, but Rahim Sahib was a genius. His mind worked faster than a computer. With simple observations, he would plan his strategies.”
Asian Games winning captain, Subimal Goswami recalling Rahim said, “He was a visionary. He had tremendous intelligence and knew could read the players and he knew which player was good for which position.”
This article is aimed at informing people about the great man, who did his best to change Indian football. 60 years have passed since his sad demise, but his contribution to Indian football remains unparalleled.