It is not surprising to find that a large number of the current generation of football fans is unaware of the fact that India was once a footballing powerhouse in Asia. India boasted the best football team in the continent during the 1950s and early 1960s. During this period, they won 2 gold medals in the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962. They finished 4th in the Melbourne Olympics held in 1956, thereby becoming the first Asian nation to reach the semi-finals in Olympic history.
India was also ranked among the top twenty nations in world and was awash with talent including quality players like Sailen Manna, P.K. Banerjee and Chuni Goswami.
A lot many fans may also be unaware of the fact that India had qualified for the World Cup finals in Brazil, exactly 64 years ago. However, the team failed to make the trip, thus squandering the best shot they'd ever have at featuring on the biggest footballing stage in the world.
Which brings me to the point of this article - why didn't India travel to Brazil? Also, what if they had?
A brief background
Indian football is governed by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), established as early as 1937. However, for the first decade since its inception, there were no real signs of evolvement, although this can primarily be attributed to the two World Wars in that period.
In 1948, India was in the limelight for the first time in the field of sport as an independent nation, when its football team participated in the London Olympics. They were defeated in the very first round by France with a 1-2 scoreline. Despite their early exit, the Indian players won the hearts of many a football fan for their gritty showing.
In the same year, the AIFF gained affiliation to FIFA, making India the most recent addition to the world football federation at the time. It was, therefore, no surprise that an invite to the following World Cup (to be held in Brazil) was sent to the AIFF.
In the preliminary stages, India, along with their Asian counterparts - Burma (now Myanmar), Indonesia and the Philippines, formed Group 10 of the qualifiers.
However, these three teams were forced to withdraw as they found the long trip to Brazil economically unfeasible. This was a momentous opportunity for India as it meant they'd walk straight over to the group stages.
Now, a salient feature of Indian football during that period was that the majority of the players played barefoot until 1956. Having taken note of India’s ‘bootless’ display in the 1948 London Olympics, FIFA was swift to impose a ban on barefoot play in all of its official matches.
[This rule has evolved over the years and currently stands amended under Law 4 of FIFA’s Laws of the Game, as seen below].
To the best of my knowledge, there were two major stories that arose and spread like wildfire in the media in the years following 1950.
One of the stories that had arisen was that India were forced to withdraw from the tournament owing to the AIFF’s inability to fund the trip.This may seem believable, prima facie, considering many teams including Turkey, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines withdrew for the same reason. However, this story has been refuted by the organizers, who claim to have offered to sponsor most of the Indian team’s expenses, as they felt it imperative to have at least one representative from Asia.
Theory #2: The Barefoot Story
The second (also the most popular) theory as to India’s absence is the ‘Barefoot Story’, according to which the Indian football team was banned from the 1950 World Cup by FIFA as they refused to comply with the aforementioned rule against barefoot play.
However, there was no evidence at all to suggest that an insistence on the part of the AIFF or the National Team was a proximate cause for India's absence from the World Cup.
Finally, in a careful and extensive study conducted by Sports Illustrated (India) Magazine, these stories have been classed as myths.
According to the research conducted by Arindam Basu of Sports Illustrated, it emerged that one day after India had been drawn in group C along with Italy, Paraguay and Sweden - the AIFF, following a meeting behind closed doors, released a statement saying India wouldn't be involved in the tournament.
They cited 'disagreements over team selection' and 'insufficient practice time' as the reasons for disallowing the team from making the trip.
The PTI (Press Trust of India) release (dated: 23rd May, 1950), read as follows:
"India will not participate in the World Cup. Due to late information reaching India, the team will have to be flown to Rio resulting in cancellation of team selection meetings. 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."
Kaushik Bandyopadhyay (Journal: Soccer and Society) proceeded, based on the study conducted by Sports Illustrated, to rubbish these theories. He said:
"A careful study reveals that beneath the apparent financial difficulties given as cause of withdrawal lay the AIFF's unusual failure to appreciate the importance of participating in the Cup, despite assurances from the organizing committee to bear a major part of the tour expenses."
Sailen Manna, one of India’s greatest ever footballers, who would have have captained the team in Brazil, said in an interview to Sports Illustrated:
"We had no idea about the World Cup then. Had we been better informed, we would have taken the initiative ourselves. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger.”
An inference may be drawn from these findings that the AIFF never took the World Cup seriously. It considered the Olympics to be the greatest event and was solely focused on preparing the team for it. In all, the All India Football Federation can be held largely responsible for the debacle. The Barefoot Theory was just a story floated by the authorities as a means of covering up their dreadful decision of not sending the team to play in the World Cup. The opportunity was served on a platter, only to be impetuously frittered away by the the officials. The ripple effects of the governing body’s crass error in judging the importance of an event as big as the World Cup are still being felt in India, with the team currently ranked at a lowly 147th out of 209 nations.
What Could Have Been:
To think of the impact that trip to Brazil could have had on the future of the sport in the country is painfully intriguing. These effects may be broadly classified under two heads - the immediate (or proximate) impact and the remote (or distant) impact.
The immediate impact of India’s participation in the World Cup may be estimated by taking a look at how Indian Football could have directly benefited from it in the short term.
As stated earlier, India was grouped with Sweden, Italy and Paraguay, and was scheduled to play its first game against Paraguay, who were by no means a formidable side at the time; Italy were forced to field a weakened side as 8 of their players, from football club Torino, were involved (and tragically killed) in an unfortunate plane crash just a year before, whilst flying back after a friendly in Lisbon.
Considering the circumstances, it is fair to assume that India, the highest ranked Asian country at the time, could have defeated (or at the very least, drawn against) both Paraguay and Italy.
As for Sweden, a single point against them would have been a huge bonus. Their pace and strength would have proved too much for the Indians.
India had only gained independence from the British in 1947. Hence, participation in such a global sporting event as the FIFA World Cup would've been a tremendous step in the furtherance of the sport in the country.
- Decent showings against Sweden and Italy alone would have been a remarkable feat. The overseas media coverage would have enabled the players to make their presence felt across the globe.
The remoteness of the impact of India’s participation in the World Cup may be analysed by looking at how such participation would have affected the future of the sport in the long run.
It is fair to say that Indian football has hit rock bottom. In fact, the Indian national team has never been as close to qualifying for a World Cup as they were in 1950.
A decent run of performances in Brazil would've served as a powerful statement to the AIFF that there was tremendous potential for the sport to grow, thus providing them sufficient cause to promote football in the country by working towards the all-round development of the game.
Efforts taken towards developing the infrastructure could have sustained the era of dominance that the Indians enjoyed during their ‘Golden Period’ (1951-1962), which in turn would have restricted the dramatic growth in popularity and the monopolisation of cricket in the country.
The lack of a football culture has always been a barrier to the growth of football in India. There has never been any pressure on the team to win anything; the stadiums are never full; the fans that do attend games fail to serve as a weapon in nervy encounters - of which there are plenty.
This could have been a whole lot different: with regular investments aimed at achieving better standards of football, the process development of a culture could have commenced at a much earlier stage. Six decades on, achieving this seems a lot harder, especially with the majority of the population now comprising cricket 'diehards'.
Participating in the World Cup 64 years ago would have aided in the evolution of the sport at a time when there were very few hurdles to hinder it. This process is going to consume a lot more time (and resources) than it should have, given it has over six decades of catching up to do. For now, however, Indians including myself can stick to answering the inevitable question that pops up once every 4 years – “(When) will India qualify for a World Cup?” – my (hopeful) answer to which is, “not anytime soon.”