For a country that had become independent only a year ago and had no proven credentials in the hugely popular game of football, a direct entry to the Olympic Games would seem near impossible. However, the All India Football Federation dared to throw its hat in the ring before the 1948 London Olympics.
In a few months, it was notified by the governing body that since only 23 countries had shown an interest in participating, all of them would be accommodated. A number of nations including Pakistan, Hungary and Poland pulled out at the eleventh hour, and India managed to sneak into the first round without having to play preliminary ties.
It was going to be the country’s first appearance on the international stage and under the tutelage of Mohun Bagan coach Balaidas Chatterjee, the squad travelled to Great Britain well in advance. The AIFF had managed to arrange for a few practice matches before the main event but as it turned out later, the opponent teams were minnows and at times, consisted of amateurs.
India started the tour with a 15-0 win against a department store and continued their fine goal-scoring form in the other four fixtures as well. The side pumped in 39 goals in five matches and was itching to take the field against France in the first match.
The face-off was scheduled to be held on July 31 at the Cricklefield Stadium at Ilford. For the first time ever, India were to play an international football match, and the coach had a full arsenal of players to choose from.
The towering KV Varadaraj, who hailed from the princely state of Mysore, started in goal. The 'keeper had already made a name for himself and was called “the six-footer” by British footballers after pulling off a number of splendid performances for Challenge Union Mysore and Mysore Railways.
The back-line consisted of the two best defenders of the country, as the players lined up in a 2-3-5 formation. Sailendra Manna, the 24-year-old Mohun Bagan defender popularly known as Sailen Manna, was not only a clinical tackler, but was also lethal from dead ball situations. The skipper of the team was the elegant centre-half Talimeren Ao, who was born in Mokokchung district of erstwhile Assam (now Nagaland) and had moved to Mohun Bagan in 1943. Quite interestingly, he was studying for his MBBS at Carmichael Medical College (now RG Kar Medical College) and remains India's only international footballer till date who was also a doctor by profession.
Taj Mohammed, the right-out, was the only Indian adept at playing with boots on. Born in Quetta, the footballer was a vital cog in the Mohammedan Sporting team which emerged as one of the major powers in contemporary Indian football. SA Basheer, another professional from Bangalore who would later go on to guide Mysore to a Santosh Trophy victory in 1968 at Cuttack, also started the game. Mahavir Prasad, who used to represent Bengal in the Santosh Trophy despite being born in Bihar, was part of the East Bengal squad.
However, it was the star-studded forward line that grabbed the eyeballs before the competition. The legendary Ahmed Khan, who was later named the “best striker of the millennium” by East Bengal, was the most popular. Eastern Railway’s Sahu Mewalal, who was to score the winning goal in India’s 1-0 win in the 1951 Asian Games final, was another well-known name. The Bombay forward Ramchandra Balaram Parab had a knack of pulling the trigger from a distance while Robi Das of Bhawanipore FC and Sarangapani Raman of Bangalore were also part of the starting eleven.
Throwing away chances
France took the lead in the evening fixture with Rene Courbin drawing first blood on the half-hour mark. India created a number of half-chances but the first real opportunity came when Gunnar Dahlner, the Swedish referee, pointed to the spot before the break. Sailen Manna stepped up but failed to make the penalty-kick count, as his effort sailed way over the bar.
This was not the end of the missed chances, as India were gifted another penalty in the following minutes. When Manna insisted that he would not take the kick, Mahabir Prasad set his sights on goal from 12 yards out. The end result, however, was the same as Guy Rouxel, the Stade Rennais goalkeeper, saved the shot. Trailing by a single goal, the barefoot fighters had wasted two gilt-edged chances.
However, parity was restored in the 70th minute, with Raman entering the history books as the first ever scorer for the India national team. Ahmed Khan combined with substitute B Vajravelu, who passed to Raman, and the Mysore Police striker made no mistake.
However, as the clock kept on ticking, the Indian contingent found it difficult to keep up with the pace. Almost all the matches back in India were 70-minute affairs, so the players struggled during the dying minutes of the 90-minute fixture. The opponents took full advantage of this and Rene Persillon, a Bordeaux midfielder, regained the lead for France in the 89th minute, taking advantage of a defensive lapse.
The 2-1 defeat at the hands of the French meant that the India team would make a first round exit from the competition, but the side had laid the foundations of success in years to come. Mewalal was the highest scorer of the competition when India won the Asian Games in 1951, and Ahmed Khan was the only scorer in a disappointing 1952 Olympics campaign. Then the Blue Tigers secured a fourth place finish in the 1956 Olympics and emerged victorious in the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta – without doubt the two biggest success stories of Indian football.
Most of the heroes from that side have died, but the likes of Ahmed Khan, who remains an avid follower of world football, will relish their memories when the hosts take on Portugal in the Euro 2016 final. The Blues will forever remain part of India’s football history.
Atanu Mitra has been covering Indian football for more than four years. He tweets here.
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