This is the first in a series of articles on the Indian football national team in connection to India@75. The writer will cover various aspects of the game during the period between 1948-2022.

The death of Rustam Akramov, the former national coach, has been condoled by a wide range of people associated with Indian football – it includes former footballers, coaches and officials. The Uzbek soccer guru, who passed away on February 15, 2022, had been India’s coach for two years between 1995 and 1997. He was the man behind inducting Bhaichung Bhutia into the national team.

But those in the know of Indian football would remember Akramov for a different reason. He was also the man responsible for dropping IM Vijayan from the squad in two consecutive international meets – perhaps the poorest decision by a national coach in India’s soccer history.

Vijayan, at the peak of his form then, was playing for Mohun Bagan, and was by far the country’s finest striker. His exclusion from the squad for the Nehru Cup in Kolkata and SAARC Cup in Colombo created a stir, but Akramov remained adamant. He preferred to include Tausif Jamal for the Nehru Cup and brought back ageing striker Kuljit Singh while travelling to Sri Lanka. India courted disaster in both meets.

Finally, a couple of practice games in Kolkata forced the Uzbek to change his mind. He was then coaching the under-23 pre-Olympic side, which had some upcoming players like Bhutia, Carlton Chapman and Jo Paul Ancheri. Now let us hear what Vijayan himself has to say.

“I was included in a selection side to play the pre-Olympic team. Luckily for me, the match was played at the Mohun Bagan ground, which I knew like the back of my hand. For being dropped from the national team, I was upset and very angry. I wanted to show the coach what I was capable of. I think alone I scored four or five goals.

“Next day, another match was schedule at the SAI ground. Akramov came to me before the match and warned I would be tightly marked. I scored three goals that evening. When the coach announced the team for the next tournament, I was back in the squad,” said Vijayan with a laugh.

Well, to Akramov’s credit, he bore no grudge. When India travelled to play pre-World Cup matches, he handed over the captain’s armband to Vijayan. By that time, he was convinced the mercurial striker was the best player India had then.

Selecting controversy

Unfortunately, things didn’t happen this way always. Disputes over selection matters in the national team were rarely settled amicably, grudges were often carried to sideline the deserving players, coaches and officials regularly joined hands to lobby for their favourites.

For 75 years now, ever since India played their first official international tie on July 31, 1948, at Cricklefields Stadium during the London Olympics, the shadows of doubt over the selection of players have regularly raised their ugly head. There were times when things were done blatantly, having no fear of backlash. The trend, fortunately, has undergone a change for good in recent times – there are too many watchful eyes around, after all – but not entirely. The modus operandi has changed, not the mindset.

To put it straight, it began from Day One. When India made their maiden international appearance at the London Olympics, it was immediately alleged the starting line-up was compromised. BN Vajravelu of Mysore (now Karnataka) was expected to be a natural choice in the forward line, but he had to make way for Rabi Das of Bengal. Das, who was an equally good hockey player and represented India in a few exhibition matches, was the favourite of a senior official of Kolkata’s Bhowanipore Club. The official not only reportedly paid for Das’s passage money to London, but also made sure he made the first eleven.

Four years later, when India went to the Helsinki Olympics, another bizarre controversy rocked the team. Samir Roy of East Bengal, popularly known as Poltu, was picked and then subsequently dropped. The midfielder was suffering from pleurisy, it was alleged by the officials.

The real story was different. The All-India Football Federation then was having a running battle with East Bengal strongman Jyotish Chandra Guha and Roy was discarded to teach Guha a lesson. Guha took it up as a challenge and took Roy to then West Bengal chief minister Dr BC Roy, also a famous physician to have a thorough check-up.

Dr Roy found nothing wrong with the footballer’s health and issued him a fitness certificate. By then, the national team had already left for Helsinki and Roy had to go with the athletics squad. The AIFF, however, had the last laugh. Roy did reach Helsinki, but his name was never registered by the officials. As India lost to Yugoslavia 10-1 in the only match they played, Roy’s name could never be recorded in the annals of Olympic history.

The Chuni Goswami episode

In the early part of the Indian national football team chronicle, blatant nepotism and downright unfair selection of players was rampant, almost as an accepted norm. The officials were regularly busy making adjustments on many fronts; the balancing acts on regions, clubs and even religions. Clearly the priority was to keep the voters in the federation elections happy rather than pick the best team. Otherwise, how can one justify the exclusion of Chuni Goswami from the 1956 Melbourne Olympic side.

A former player once told this correspondent: “Yes, Chuni was sacrificed, but not without a cause. Mohun Bagan wanted the captain to be one of their players. To allow that to happen, Chuni was dropped in favour of a Hyderabad footballer. Chuni was a teenager then, the selectors felt he was left with enough time to don the national colours.”

Thankfully, the selectors were right, for a change, perhaps. Chuni went on to become the finest attacker in Indian football history and led the team to the gold medal in 1962 Asian Games.

Coaches often resisted the pressure, but only to an extent. Even a legendary coach like SA Rahim had to make so-called “adjustments”. That he rarely compromised with his first eleven was his biggest plus point. Apart from being the national coach, he was also the secretary of the Hyderabad Football Association (later Andhra Pradesh Football Association) for nearly 25 years. It proved to be an advantage since he commanded a vote in AIFF elections.

Rahim, too, wasn’t without blemish. His preference for Hyderabad footballers was well-known, but it wasn’t easy to raise a voice against him. After all, under Rahim, Hyderabad City Police and Hyderabad state team were considered the country’s best.

In the later years, things turned chaotic at times. Subhas Bhowmick was adjudged the best player in the 1975-76 Santosh Trophy, but his name didn’t figure in the list of 40 probables for the national team. He reportedly antagonized an AIFF official during India’s tour of Russia in 1971.

In 1977-77 season, Striker Shyam Thapa was in roaring form, but he was dropped for the 1978 Asian Games squad. An incensed Shyam Thapa announced his retirement from international football.

The Dasmunshi years

The situation improved in the 1990s after Priyaranjan Dasmunshi became the first career politician to take over as AIFF president. Despite several deeds which didn’t make him the most popular man in football circles, he would never interfere in the selection of the national teams.

Sukhwinder Singh, who twice became the national coach and also worked with age-group teams during Dasminshi’s tenure, said: “Whenever I handed him over the list of probable players, he would never even look at it and would instruct one of his aides to pass it on to general secretary’s office.

Dasmunshi would never interfere, something that I won’t be able to say about all the general secretaries he had,” recalled the former coach, now settled in Canada.

Indian football has changed over the years, so has its style of functioning and its preferences. Votes are no more important in maintaining an iron grip over the parent body – the need of the hour is the corporate support and to keep them happy so that the financial backing remains intact.

If the rumours in the corridors of power are to be believed, then the selections of various national teams now have many layers – the approval of the corporates, the might of the franchises and the clubs, the particular league the footballers play for, the agents they are being represented by and even the academies they come from make a difference.

In November 2019, during the launch of the season’s I-League, national coach Igor Stimac said I-League players shouldn’t think they are not eligible for a national call.

“I am here to give my support to all the players who are going to participate in the upcoming season of I-League and I am here to send them a message that all those who are having Indian passports are the possible candidates of the senior Indian national football team,” the Croatian coach said.

Three years have passed since then, not one I-League player has made the grade. But the selection of a team is a hugely subjective issue and they’ll tell you it is never wise to question the judgment of the national coach.

It has rarely been done in the 75-year history of the Indian national football team.