Never before had Indian football experienced such a disastrous Independence Day as it did in 1971. As the nation celebrated its 25th Independence Day, Indian football hit its lowest ebb in Kuala Lumpur.

In the concluding group league match of the 1971 Merdeka tournament on August 15, India, led by Chandreshwar Prasad, suffered a 9-1 defeat against Burma (now Myanmar) which shocked the entire the football fraternity. Till date, it is India’s worst ever loss against an Asian team.

The Ministry of Education in Delhi (now HRD), took serious note of the drubbing and directed the All India Football Federation to immediately launch an enquiry.

In Kolkata, in the governing body meeting of the state association (IFA), the members caused disruption and demanded an explanation from AIFF president M Dutta Ray. He was, however, intelligent enough to skip the meeting.

But then, the story doesn’t stop here. It is not merely a tale of disaster, but also about a remarkable comeback that has been forgotten over the years. In less than two weeks after that humiliation on foreign land, the Indian team bounced back and jointly lifted the eight-nation Pesta Sukan invitation tournament in Singapore.

In a tournament that had teams like Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand, the Indians reached the final after trouncing Malaysia 6-0 in the penultimate round and returned home with the joint-winners trophy after a goalless draw against Vietnam.

East Bengal right winger Swapan Sengupta was a part of the team and played an important role in India’s triumph. Never again after this was he selected for India, but he still cherishes the moment of victory. Incidentally, it was India’s last international trophy in the true sense in the 20th century.

“I was a new kid on the block, raring to go. But midway through the 1971 Merdeka, it turned out to be a nightmare. Several top players got injured. We had already lost the chance to qualify for the semi-finals, but the 9-1 defeat against Burma was too much,” recalled Sengupta.

With news coming from India about the uproar the defeat had created, the team felt like a bunch of condemned men. There were even suggestions about skipping the Pesta Sukan meet and the two coaches, PK Banerjee and GMH Basha, almost agreed to it.

Key forward Subash Bhowmick, who made a roaring start in Merdeka with a hat-trick against the Philippines but was injured after the second match, said some of the footballers vehemently opposed the idea of returning home.

“We said the team must go for the Singapore tournament and do something to regain some of our lost prestige. Pradeep-da and Basha-da agreed, though reluctantly. We finally proved ourselves in Pesta Sukan,” he said.

Riding on a high

One must revisit the story from the start to know how things unfolded. In 1971, Indian football was on a high. The previous year, India had won the Asian Games bronze medal and finished third in Merdeka.

So, there was hope. Barring a few newcomers like Arun Banerjee, Samson Gunapandian, Shyam Sunder Manna, K Balakrishna and Swapan Sengupta, the team for 1971 Merdeka was almost the same that played in the 1970 Asian Games, though some of the footballers were definitely past their prime.

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The start, however, was encouraging as Bhowmick struck thrice in a 5-1 win over the Philippines. Habib and Balakrishna were the other scorers.

The slide started thereafter. Indonesia and Hong Kong defeated India 3-1 and 2-1, respectively; Singapore drew 2-2. Bhowmick limped out of the pitch against Singapore, Sudhir Karmakar, Amar Bahadur, Nataraj and Habib suffered injuries against Indonesia. India were finding it difficult to field a side of 11 players when it came to playing the last match against Burma. Finally, central defender Nayeemuddin had to play in the forward line to fill up the gaps.

To make matters worse, it rained before the match. Defender Gunapandian, who only brought small-studded boots, found it extremely difficult to adjust to the ground condition.

Four goals came before half time.

Burma showed no mercy and scored five more in the second half.

The prestige of Indian football lay in tatters in Kuala Lumpur.

A forgotten triumph

Having tasted that heavy defeat in Merdeka, India made a grand recovery in Singapore’s Jalan Besar Stadium. It was a creditable triumph in the sense that most of the top players were yet to recover fully from the injuries they suffered in Kuala Lumpur.

In the opening match against Indonesia, India trailed by a goal till the 61st minute before Habib restored parity. The match went into the extra time and Habib struck again to steer his team out of the woods.

India were at their best in the semi-final against Malaysia. They won 6-0, India’s biggest triumph over Malaysia till date. Bhowmick and Habib were in great form, having scored two goals each, while midfielder Nataraj and winger Sengupta got the other two.

The final against South Vietnam on August 28 was marred by rough play but remained goalless even after extra time. Both teams agreed to share the trophy. India, in fact, had hardly any bench-strength to carry over the challenge to the next day. So much so that Nayeemuddin and midfielder Ajaib Singh had to play in the forward line.

The tour, however, had its casualties. This was the last time Nayeemuddin and Prasad donned the Indian colours. The defeat against Burma effectively ended their careers with the national team. The two were India’s longest serving central defenders after Jarnail Singh and Arun Ghosh.

Sadly, hardly anyone these days in Indian football talks about this memorable victory against all odds. A team, completely shattered in Malaysia, carrying too many injuries of top players and nearly denounced at home, made a near-impossible recovery to return with a trophy.

It is unfortunate players like Gunapandian, Nirmal Sengupta, Shyam Sunder Manna, Swapan Sengupta or Ajaib Singh don’t even get a mention in the footnote of Indian football history.

The team in the Pesta Sukan final:

Kuppuswami Sampath, Sudhir Karmakar, Samson Gunapandian, Chandreshwar Prasad and Nirmal Sengupta; Shyam Sundar Manna and D Nataraj; Swapan Sengupta, Syed Nayeemuddin, Mohammed Habib and Ajaib Singh.