Syed Abdul Rahim is India’s greatest-ever football coach and a bit more. Take in his football wisdom and you’ll say: a lot more.
Stricken with cancer and on his death bed in 1963, Rahim who guided the team to gold medals at the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games, warned about the rise of teams like Japan, South Korea, Iran and China.
After his death Indian football plummeted, letting the Koreans and the Japanese take charge at the summit of Asian football. Rahim who knew what it takes to be the gold class in Asia was able to foresee the rise of the other Asian countries.
Almost 60 years since his passing, Indian football is still struggling to keep pace with the growth rate of Asia’s best.
“I think Indian football is on the right path. There’s steady growth. But when we compare to Asian countries, we’re behind and it makes me sad. We have to speed up,” Sunil Chhetri, India’s current football captain said on the eve of his 100th international game, almost echoing the warning Rahim had fired several decades ago.
Rahim was secretary of Hyderabad Football Association from 1943 till his death and functioned as an architect of that football ecosystem that produced many players for the national team for years that followed.
He didn’t just identify players but also was able to pick players who he felt have it in them to do a good job as a coach. He wanted AIFF to groom them so that they could continue to produce talents across the country.
“First of all, we should produce or train the producers or coaches,” Rahim was quoted saying in a 1955 interview to Indian Express, an image of which was tweeted by Twitter handle by the name Indian Football History, recently.
“Any short-term scheme for training of present footballers or any scheme to send footballers to foreign countries for training will do permanent good to the game,” he added.
To date, India is struggling to build a network of qualified coaches. India only has 14 Pro License coaches in the country, while at the grassroots level where the need of quality coaches is paramount, the numbers remain low.
Indian football clubs struggle to appoint an A License coach for their youth teams as most of their budgets are spent behind paying the salaries of top coaches for the senior teams. At either level though, the dearth of top Indian coaches is evident.
After Rahim passed away, the Indian head coach’s job exchanged hands 40 times. However, despite the frequent changes only 19 Indians have coached the national team since. PK Banerjee, Syed Nayeemuddin and Sukhwinder Singh each had three spells as India coach.
The Blue Tigers also repeated a foreign coach in Stephen Constantine who had two spells ten years apart, showing the stagnancy in Indian football.
India had great coaches and administrators even after Rahim, but few could match his vision.
As mentioned in Novy Kapadia’s book Barefoot to Boots, Rahim had a disdain for the British-style of football of using long, aerial balls. Having studied the footballing philosophies of various European teams, especially the great Hungarian side in 1950s, Rahim was a staunch advocate of ground passing.
In Hyderabad, he had devised non-dribbling events for young football enthusiasts so that they would learn to pass the ball and run into empty space to receive it back. He also arranged youth football matches with height restrictions and asked youngsters to only use their weaker foot to play in certain matches so that they were able to develop it.
While India too is adopting modern coaching techniques at the youth level, the senior team has struggled to adapt to a possession-based game that current coach Igor Stimac wants to play. The transition from direct football under Constantine to a more indirect style under Stimac has been a hard one for the team.
“Playing fields and stadia are the laboratories of the game where experiments are made and we badly require more of them,” Rahim said in that 1955 interview to Indian Express.
“It’s the duty of the Government to give every stimulus to sports. Appreciation and encouragement should be given to our coaches who are sincerely working for the welfare of the game. The complex of taking our true and efficient workers as incompetent will hamper the progress of the game,” he added.
Rahim with his coaching expertise was able to build a strong team of talented footballers who had the skills and understanding to adapt to different formations. The Hyderabad coach was seen as a master tactician the admiration for whom had grown far beyond the Indian borders.
When the world mostly used a 2-3-2-3 or a 3-3-4 formation, Rahim introduced the 4-2-4 formation to Indian football, few years before Brazil made it popular in the 1958 World Cup. Using a centre-forward to drop in midfield and a defender to overlap into attack were some of the revolutionary tactical changes that were eventually adopted by a few western teams.
Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool, currently the best team in world football, also use a similar ploy in attack. Roberto Firmino drops deep, almost in midfield, allowing their full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson to bomb forward in attack and function as wide forwards.
In the 1962 Asian Games final against a superior South Korean side that had beaten India 2-0 in the league phase, Rahim used full-back, Jarnail Singh, in an attacking role as The Blue Tigers triumphed 2-1.
In recent times, no Indian coach has displayed the kind of tactical intelligence that Rahim was famous for. Even decades after his death, Indian football can take plenty of cues from his management.
A visionary coach and master tactician, it is fair to say that Syed Abdul Rahim’s genius has stood the test of time.