Editor’s note: This is the fourthin 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 Devicos was a fine dining restaurant in the heart of New Delhi that always attracted the cream of society in the immediate years after Independence. Its patrons included politicians, bureaucrats, members of royal families, businessmen and eminent sportspersons.

Things have changed with the passage of time. Devicos, like many other conventional restaurants in the city, has closed shop some years ago making way for trendy joints. Now, it only lives in the memory of traditional Delhiites and connoisseurs of food.

Few, however, are aware that this restaurant occupies an important place in the history of Indian football. Here, on 21 March 1950, the All India Football Federation held its annual general meeting that had a crucial item on the agenda – should India participate in the 1950 Fifa World Cup in Brazil, for which they had already qualified?

In current day and age, that seems unthinkable. No football playing nation in the world would have a second thought about participating after qualifying successfully for the greatest show on earth. But in 1950, the World Cup was still at its infancy.

The inaugural World Cup in 1930 was played without qualifiers – only 13 nations played the final rounds. Things were no better four years later as only 36 teams participated in the qualifiers for 16 spots. In 1938, 37 teams fought for 16 places but Austria withdrew after qualifying. For the football world, competing in the Olympics was still the ultimate glory those days.

The next two editions of the World Cup in 1942 and 1946 could not be played because of World War II. It was revived in 1950 but faced too many problems. In the aftermath of the war, much of Europe lay in ruin. To find a host was a difficult job till Brazil presented their bid in 1946 Fifa Congress.

British home nations, whose apathy towards the World Cup those days was well known, agreed to participate but there was no Germany or Japan. Only 34 nations agreed to take part in the qualifiers for 16 places. Ultimately, only 13 countries reached Brazil. Scotland and Turkey withdrew too.

So, when the AIFF met in Delhi and failed to reach a decision on participation, it didn’t create a stir. The meeting chaired by AIFF president Moin-ul-Haq, revolved more around expenses to be incurred for going to Brazil than the importance of the tournament. The honorary general secretary Manindra Dutta Ray informed the house that the visit to Brazil for the World Cup would cost around Rs 1 lakh and the federation didn’t have the money. It was decided that efforts would be made to raise the money required. India had then already qualified for the final rounds as two other teams in the Asian qualifiers, the Philippines and Burma (now Myanmar) withdrew.

So, why exactly did India withdraw?

Finally, India didn’t go for the World Cup. As the AIFF remained evasive on the reason why the trip was not made and issued a press release that revealed little, too many theories have been floated over the years. It was said in some quarters that Fifa was reluctant to allow the Indians play barefoot. It is difficult to believe since wearing boots was not mandatory in Fifa equipment regulations before 1953. In 1952, when India played the Helsinki Olympics, many of their players played without boots and the world body did not object to it.

Paucity of funds was cited as another reason – the passage money to travel to Brazil could have cost the federation dearly. South America was a faraway place; in fact, no Asian team took part in the 1950 World Cup. Though it was believed that Fifa was ready to bear the cost, AIFF issued a press release saying the team would not play the World Cup because of “disagreement over team selection and insufficient practice time.”

The release further said: “India will not participate in the World Cup or the Jules Rimet Cup. Due to late information reaching India, the team will have to be flown to Rio resulting in cancellation of team selection. Since there is not much time, the Indian team will not be able to prepare and hence it will not be correct to send the team.”

What was said in the press release was a half-truth. A look at the chain of events that began in January 1949 and ended 16 months later when India decided not to send the team, would clearly reveal that there was no specific reason behind the move except the lacklustre attitude of the AIFF officials. There was no question of Fifa objecting to Indians playing barefoot – it’s a fancy theory generated much later.

Raising money for making such a long trip was of course a headache. But the problem actually was solved as three state associations came to AIFF’s rescue. Fifa too promised to help. A camp was also organised for a short period in Calcutta. But what finally resulted in the trip failing through was the indecisiveness of the AIFF top brass. They dilly-dallied over decisions till the last moment, held a series of meetings, but still couldn’t reach a decision.

At the last moment, when the World Cup was only a couple of weeks away, they took refuge behind lame excuses to cancel the trip. The decision was hardly criticised as the World Cup was yet to reach its pinnacle of glory then. But looking back at things six decades later, it can easily be described as one of the worst decisions in AIFF’s history.

Sequence of events

Now, one can have a look at how things unfolded since January 1949 when the AIFF decided to enter India’s name for the 1950 World Cup. The media was informed that a cable was already sent to Fifa expressing India’s willingness to participate in the World Cup qualifiers.

On March 27, 1949, the annual general meeting of the AIFF was held in Calcutta’s Great Eastern Hotel. The meeting lasted five hours – among several items, the participation in the World Cup was discussed at length. The members were informed that the Philippines had already withdrawn from the qualifiers leaving India and Burma as the only two teams in the group. The match versus Burma was to be on home and away basis. Calcutta was chosen as the venue for India’s home match to be played on September 17, 1949.

The meeting also deliberated on whether India should embrace professional football. While some members said a change of status would help Indian football develop, Moin-ul-Haq expressed his reservations. He said India had earned a name after their good showing at the 1948 London Olympics and shouldn’t lose the advantage. Professor Haq wasn’t sure whether India would lose their amateur status if they participate in the World Cup where European and South American nations fielded the professionals.

ile photo taken 16 July 1950 at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro, when Uruguayan Juan Alberto Schiaffino (C) scores the first goal of his team against Brazil, during the 1950 FIFA World Cup final. AFP PHOTO FILES / AFP

It was evident from the outcome of the meeting that the AIFF was not talking in one voice. There were some in the federation who were not keen on playing the World Cup though another wanted the team to go. Nevertheless, it was decided India would play the qualifier against Burma and in April 1949, a team would be sent to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for a preparatory tour.

Burma, too, withdrew. On August 28, 1949, the then AIFF honorary secretary Pankaj Gupta informed the media of receiving a cable from the Burmese federation about their decision not to pursue the World Cup dream. It meant India had qualified for the World Cup in Brazil.

In the current context, it would have been a momentous occasion. But it hardly made the news then and no one celebrated. Not even the footballers. Because they didn’t realise the importance.

Many years later, Sahu Mewalal, who scored India’s winning goal in the 1951 Asian Games final, said: “In our time, World Cup was not important. Olympics was. To us, the World Cup was still a vague idea. The dream was to play the Olympics. Even the federation officials were not keen. When India withdrew from the 1950 World Cup, we were hardly disappointed.”

He wasn’t far from the truth. Football was amateur in India and the World Cup was not the priority for the Indians till the 1980s. Otherwise, how could one explain the reason behind India waiting till 1986 to play the pre-World Cup for the first time?

Equally nonchalant were the AIFF officials. The development regarding qualification didn’t bring any extra motivation in them. The federation did nothing beyond its normal activities till the next AGM in New Delhi on March 21, 1950. Even this meeting produced little. On March 27, a committee was formed for the World Cup purpose. AIFF said it would have to raise Rs. 85,000 as team’s expenses.

AIFF further said it was in touch with the Brazilian federation. The World Cup organising committee told the Indian federation that it was ready to take care of the travel expenses if the Indian team reached Cairo on their own. The AIFF was told that as per the rules, all bills pertaining to India’s stay in Brazil will be picked up by the organisers from two days before their first match till two days after their last match. AIFF officials said they were worried since the plan was to send the team at least 10 days before the first match to acclimatise with conditions. It was decided that a letter would be written to CBF - the Brazilian federation - requesting further assistance.

After a month of silence, the AIFF president called a meeting of the sub-committee on the World Cup on April 30 in Calcutta. It raised hopes since the outcome of the meeting indicated that AIFF was serious about World Cup participation. Professor Haq said after playing in the World Cup, the Indian team may tour the United States, Argentina and Europe. Yet another cable was sent to CBF. In the meantime, a short preparatory camp was organised in Calcutta.

The World Cup was schedule to kick off on June 24, but the AIFF remained casual in its approach till the last moment. On May 10, it was reported from Mumbai that India were set to travel to Brazil.

As the CBF had extended a helping hand, AIFF won’t have to part with more than Rs. 40,000, the report said. The Western India Football Association promised to contribute Rs. 7,500 for the cause. The Mysore Football Association said it would pay Rs. 5,000. IFA, the parent body of Bengal football, first said it would organise few charity matches, but on May 19, promised to release Rs. 25,000. The team will be selected on May 16, it was announced.

Since India’s first match was to be played on June 28, the team, it was decided, should leave on June 15 or 16. Dutta Ray wrote to all clubs asking them to release footballers for World Cup.

Cold feet

Whatever happened thereafter remains a big mystery. Banking on India’s assurance, Brazil’s then foreign minister Raul Fernandez, on May 22 in the library room of Brazil’s foreign ministry in Rio de Janeiro, held the preliminary draw. India were clubbed with Italy, Sweden and Paraguay. Finally, in the four-team Group 3, India never showed up in Rio.

On May 23, AIFF president Moin-ul-Haq arrived in Calcutta to finalise India’s participation. And from here, the AIFF, strangely, developed cold feet. Nobody really knew what exactly happened till the federation issued a press release that hid much more than it actually conveyed. Those days, it was strongly believed that AIFF was wary of the possibility of heavy defeats India can suffer against the best teams in the world. It was keen to preserve the prestige it earned in the London Olympics and wasn’t ready to expose the national team against tougher opponents.

Whatever the reasons be, it was an opportunity lost, one that will continue to haunt Indian football till they manage to play at a World Cup. And given the current standard of Indian football, it is hard to imagine if they will play at a World Cup even in distant future.