In Indian football’s golden age during the 1950s and 1960s, there was no shortage of players with flair who could match any player in Asia in terms of technique.
India under coach Syed Abdul Rahim were renowned for their technical quality and tactical innovations. The likes of Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee and Tulsidas Balaram, all delightfully talented players, were the face of the Indian football team.
In the 1960 Olympics, top European teams like Hungary and France found it hard to contain India’s bright forward line. But like in every football team that plays with a certain degree of style and swagger, there’s a player who quietly does the dirty work. For all their mesmerising quality on the ball, India needed a player with intelligence, some physical presence and a whole lot of cynicism to hold things together.
For the Indian football team during that golden age, that man was Jarnail Singh.
A tough tackler in the truest sense of the term, Jarnail was a full-back who instilled fear among the minds of even the most skillful wingers and inside forwards.
A big and strong defender who wore size twelve boots, he was known for his heavy tackles that he would make with impeccable timing. By the 1960s, he came to be known as one of Asia’s best defenders.
Witnessing the horrors of the partition
However, Jarnail’s journey to these heights was far from easy. He had a troubled childhood after his family witnessed the horrors of the partition between India and Pakistan first hand.
According to journalist Jaydeep Basu who wrote in his piece for Newsclick.in, Jarnail escaped a near-death situation at the age of 13 in Lyallpur (now Faisalabad in Pakistan).
With the town burning in communal rage, Jarnail’s father put him in a truck packed with 50 other men, women and children. After standing motionless throughout the journey to Amritsar, he boarded a train to Phagwara that was stacked with dead bodies. The floor of the train had become slippery due to the blood on it.
He managed to survive the two-day journey without water and food.
It was episodes like these that added to his mental strength, an attribute he would carry into his footballing career.
“I faced imminent death at the age of 13 during partition. Yet, I managed to survive. Thereafter, I feared nothing in life.” Jarnail once said.
Playing with stitches in the head
At the 1962 Asian Games, Jarnail arrived in Jakarta as one of the best defenders in the continent. But during the group match against Thailand, he was injured and had to be carried off the field on a stretcher. After receiving six stitches on his head, he missed India’s next group game, but coach Rahim needed him for the semi-final against South Vietnam.
According to Novy Kapadia’s book Barefoot to Boots, Rahim decided to use Jarnail as a forward as he couldn’t play him in defence as it was not possible for him to head the ball.
The versatile player, as fearless as ever, stepped onto the field in a position he was not familiar with. Using his physicality, he held up the ball well and brought into play India’s quick inside forwards like Goswami, who put the team in front.
Jarnail then scored India’s second goal to put them in control. South Vietnam brought it back to 2-2, but Goswami netted the winner to send India to the final.
In the gold-medal match, Jarnail once again played as a striker and scored India’s second goal in a 2-1 victory.
At club level, Jarnail won many accolades playing for Mohun Bagan and was presented with the Arjuna Award in 1964. Two years later, he became the only Indian to be selected as captain of the Asian All-Star team.
Jarnail was also extremely famous and was voted as India’s most popular sportsman in a poll conducted by The Indian Express in 1960. He was picked ahead of the likes of Milkha Singh, cricketers Chandu Borde and Polly Umrigar and tennis star Ramanathan Krishnan.
More than fifty years after his heroics in India’s gold medal-winning exploits at the 1962 Asian Games and twenty years after his death, Jarnail Singh is still fondly remembered as one of Indian football’s true gems who knew no fear.