It is not surprising to find that a large number of the current generation of Indian football fans are unaware of the fact that India was once a footballing powerhouse in Asia. India boasted of the best football team in the continent during the 1950s and early 1960s. During this period, they won 2 gold medals in the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962. They finished 4th in the Melbourne Olympics held in 1956, thereby becoming the first Asian nation to reach the semi-finals in Olympic history. India was also ranked among the top twenty nations in world and was awash with talent including high-quality players like Sailen Manna, P.K. Banerjee and Chuni Goswami.
India had qualified for the World Cup finals in Brazil in 1950, exactly 65 years ago. However, the team failed to make the trip, thus squandering the best shot they’d ever have at featuring on the biggest footballing stage in the world. Innumerable Indian fans will know the reason of this to be that the Indian Football team was unable to afford shoes and it is against the rules of the Fifa World Cup to play barefoot. It is as hilarious as is pathetic. Sounding like a plot point in a Shakespearean tragicomedy, it is also a work of fiction like Shakespeare’s tragicomedies. The laughable “barefoot” story is one believed by majority of current Indian football fans but it is just that, a story; the real reason being slightly more sinister in nature.
Indian football is governed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), established as early as 1937. However, for the first decade since its inception, there were no real signs of evolvement, although this can primarily be attributed to the two World Wars in that period. In 1948, India was in the limelight for the first time in the field of sport as an independent nation, when its football team participated in the London Olympics. They were narrowly defeated with a score line of 2-1 by the superior France in the very first round. Despite their early exit, the Indian players won the hearts of innumerable football fans for their gritty showing.
In the same year, the AIFF gained affiliation to FIFA, making India the most recent addition to the world football federation at the time. It was, therefore, no surprise that an invite to the following World Cup (to be held in Brazil) was sent to the AIFF. In the preliminary stages, India, along with their Asian counterparts – Burma (Myanmar), Indonesia and the Philippines, formed Group 10 of the qualifiers. However, these three teams were forced to withdraw as they found the long trip to Brazil economically unfeasible. This was a momentous opportunity for India as it meant they’d walk straight over to the group stages.
AIFF considered the Olympics to be the greatest sporting event and was solely focused on preparing the team for it. They did not consider the trip to Brazil to be worth it. Not wanting to “waste” money, they declined FIFA’s offer and circulated the “barefoot” story as the ‘real reason’ we all know so well now. All in all; the All India Football Federation can be held largely responsible for the debacle. As the country got more and more immersed in the sport of cricket, AIFF has continued to be the greatest enemy to the betterment of Indian football.
Sailen Manna, one of India’s greatest ever footballers, who would have captained the team in Brazil had it not been for AIFF’s mismanagement, said in an interview to Sports Illustrated:
“We had no idea about the FIFA World Cup then. Had we been better informed, we would have taken the initiative ourselves. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger.”
1951-1962 was regarded as the Golden Period of Indian football. But the lack of football culture and ignorance of AIFF has paved the way to India hit rock bottom and never recover. Despite our growing economy, our lack of adequate infrastructure has ensured a steady drop in rankings, up to a record-low of 171 in March 2015. It is disheartening to see that with a population of 1.2 billion and counting, it is not possible to get a squad of 23 players good enough to take us to the World Cup.
Participating in the World Cup 65 years ago would have aided in the evolution of the sport at a time when there were very few hurdles to hinder it. For all we know, it could have become the dominant sport of the country ahead of cricket and maybe, just maybe, we would have even been one of the top countries in this most prestigious sport. This process is going to consume a lot more time and resources than it should have, given it has over six decades of catching up to do. Every 4 years, Indians including myself bow our heads down with shame when the question inevitably pops up:
“(When) Will India qualify for the World Cup?”
For now, however, we can just wait for the time where we can truthfully and confidently (rather than just hopefully) answer that question:
“Soon. We are going to qualify for the World Cup, Soon.”