‘What if?’ – The story of India’s lost opportunity at the 1950 World Cup

Known as a cricketing country around the world today, India’s football story would’ve been vastly different if only they made the trip to Brazil in 1950.
Art by Onkar Shirsekar.

Many among the capacity crowd in National Stadium, Delhi heaved a sigh of relief when the referee blew his halftime whistle. The stage was set for a thrilling finale of inaugural Asian Games but India had not managed to replicate the sparkling form they had shown on their way to the summit clash. Their opponents, Iran, were physically superior and Indian players seemed intimidated. As the players recuperated during the lemon break they had a special visitor – Jawaharlal Nehru.

The Indian prime minister tried to motivate the players, tugged at their patriotism and made a demand from star striker Sheoo Mewalal to score a goal. It wasn’t quite an ultimatum like Benito Mussolini’s infamous “win or die” message to the Italian team before 1938 World Cup final, but Nehru’s appeal did hit home. India came back rejuvenated in second half and pegged Iran back with a much improved display. Repaying Nehru’s faith, Mewalal scored after a cross from winger Runu Guhathakurta. It was this goal that earned Indian football its first significant success – on 10th March, 1951. In his book “Barefoot to Boots” Indian football expert Novy Kapadia adds a wonderful sub-note to Mewalal’s goal, pointing out that he was playing in the final despite a family bereavement and just after the medal ceremony he was provided a special IAF plane to take him back to Kolkata. The things you do for your country and sport.

The success in 1951 Asian Games football was a great cause of celebration among Indian football fraternity. Perhaps, very few of them actually wondered at that time about the events that took place a year before which later would give rise to the greatest “what if” question in Indian football – maybe even sport – history. What if they had played in the 1950 World Cup?

Although All India Football Federation was established in 1937 the concept of Indian national football team only found traction after independence. Before 1947 selections of Indian players would make foreign tours but never as an official national team. In 1924 India first made a trip to Sri Lanka, followed by a 1934 tour of South Africa and a 1938 tour of Australia. AIFF joined FIFA in 1948 and in the same year, independent India’s first national football team participated in a major tournament – the London Olympics. At London, India lost 2-1 to France, but could have easily won the match had Sailen Manna and Mahabir Prasad not missed two penalty kicks. Nonetheless, the performance and skill shown by mostly bare feet Indian players won plaudits. On their way back, India played friendly matches against a few teams, including Ajax Amsterdam, who they defeated 5-1. India’s performance in 1948 set up the stage nicely for the first post-war World Cup in Brazil two years later.

The world was still coming to grips with rebuilding so the 1950 World Cup remains one of the most haphazardly arranged editions till date. The British teams were participating in qualifiers for the first time, but instead of playing other teams from continental Europe, the 1949-50 British Home Championship became a de-facto mini qualification group. West Germany and Japan were banned from participation, while teams like France and Argentina withdrew. India was grouped with Myanmar, Philippines and Indonesia in Asian zone. When rest of the teams pulled out, they got a World Cup berth without kicking a ball. Till the end of May, India were all set to participate in their first World Cup. The group draws were made on 22nd May in Rio de Janeiro, placing India in Group 3, along with defending world champions Italy, Paraguay and Sweden. And from here the story begins to take a twist.

After the groups were decided, AIFF officials soon chaired a closed door meeting. The result of the meeting was a baffling decision to withdraw from the World Cup. From the Press Trust of India release the official reasons were vague, “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”. With the passage of time, India’s non-participation attracted, newer, more dramatic theories; one theory states that AIFF didn’t have the money to send the team across half the world to Brazil. Another theory suggests Indian authorities became apprehensive after the group draws were made so withdrew to avoid an eventual embarrassment. The greatest and juiciest myth however, is the theory that India were “not allowed” or “didn’t participate” because the players didn’t use boots.

When examined closely most of these popular theories seem to fall flat. Indian preparation for international tournaments often included long camps and team selection was almost always fraught with controversy. Take an example of the 1952 Olympics when India travelled with an extra member because selectors couldn’t decide whom to drop between T Shanmugham and Paltu Roy. Indian coach Syed Abdul Rahim had already started to create the team for 1951 Asian Games, so actual player selection would also not have been an especially long drawn process and was unlikely to be an actual cause of non participation.

Financial problems could have been a possible reason, given that India had to travel across the world to Brazil. However, this theory also falls flat due to the fact that Brazilian authorities were ready to bear most of the expenses of Indian contingent. The Brazilians were keen to have a representative of Asia and the land of Mahatma Gandhi. They wouldn’t either have been the first South American country to bear expenses of visiting teams – Uruguay had done the same thing during 1930 World Cup. The Indian team being too scared to play against their group opponents also seems an unlikely prospect given many of these players had faced France and bunch of European sides in 1948.

And thus remains the most famous myth of withdrawal due to bare feet footballers. Proponents of this theory often portray boots as an outlandish item in Indian football in 1950. They weren’t outlandish, not by a long shot. Mohun Bagan’s legendary team that won IFA Shield in 1911 had a booted player in Sudhir Chatterjee. Contemporaries Aryan Club also had booted players on the behest of club official Dukhiram Mazumdar, perhaps India’s first football talent scout. Another club official CA Aziz brought in the culture of players wearing boots in Mohammedan Sporting Club in 1930s, turning them into Indian football’s first serial winners.

Even the Indian Olympic team which won hearts in 1948 featured four booted players. In “Stories from Indian football” senior journalist Jaydip Basu quotes the following report of one of India’s pre Olympic friendly matches, “According to their trainer BD Chatterjee, they had boots with them in case they prone too yielding in which case they would wear them but they prefer to play in their bare feet”.

Sailen Manna, who in all likelihood was to be the captain had India played the World Cup emphasizes the same point in an interview with Khela magazine. Manna says, “It was not like we were not used to wearing boots before 1952. We often used to wear boots when it rained. The ground became very soft, so it became difficult to keep your balance with bare feet. There were even instances that we started a game with bare feet but had to wear boots in second half after it rained during half time”.

The Mohun Bagan A.C. team that won the 1911 IFA shield against East Yorkshire regiment. Established in 1889, they're the oldest football club from India that is still functional today.
The Mohun Bagan A.C. team that won the 1911 IFA shield against East Yorkshire regiment. Established in 1889, they’re the oldest football club from India that is still functional today.

Dey offers an explanation to why players of the national team went bare feet despite sometimes using boots at club level, saying it was “an apparent attempt to Indianize the game”. In the context of India’s freedom struggle and the bid to boycott British made goods, this does make sense. Mohun Bagan’s bare feet  victory over British teams generated incredible nationalistic fervor and many of the national team players shared this emotion. It was also a USP of Indian players. Crowds often gathered to see bare feet footballers, as was evident during the Australia tour of ‘34 or in the London Games. It can be concluded that it was not a hard and fast rule for Indian players to use boots in 1950. Playing bare feet was often due to sentimental reasons or just a simple matter of comfort, rather than technical deficiency or unavailability of boots. If India wanted to play 1950 World Cup wearing boots, they could have managed it, especially given the fact that just two years later boots were made mandatory for the national team.

The real reason why India didn’t travel to Brazil is actually quite mundane and even mind boggling in current context. In 2016 Arindam Basu did an in depth feature for Sports Illustrated magazine to unearth the actual cause – Indian authorities simply didn’t understand the importance of World Cup. AIFF was under the impression that participating in a tournament with professional players could impact India players’ amateur status, which in turn would impact the holy grail of Olympics. In his “History of Indian Football” Nirmal Nath suggests that AIFF may have also worried about impact on Asian Games, to be held in 1951, another amateurs only tournament. With hockey not being a part of the Games, football had become the most important team sport. Indian authorities wanted to win gold in football as a matter of national pride and there may have been a fear that World Cup participation could have hampered the Asian Games dream.

To play the devil’s advocate, AIFF’s decision may seem astounding in modern era, but in 1950, it probably wasn’t that outrageous. Before 1950, there was very little difference between World Cup and Olympics football in terms of prestige. In fact, the Olympics were probably more prestigious at that time. The first three World Cups didn’t see much world wide participation – most of the major European teams stayed away from 1930 World Cup while inaugural winners Uruguay didn’t show up in 1934 or 1938 editions. To make matters worse, football’s nerve center, England and the home nations, considered the tournament as a “joke”. The scenario was even bleaker when it came to Asian countries. The first three editions of the World Cup saw just one Asian team, Dutch East Indies in 1938. Asian teams were not given much weightage by FIFA but the situation was quite different when it came to Olympics. In 1936 Berlin Games football China and Japan participated, the latter’s 3-2 win over Sweden was Asia’s greatest international victory till North Korea’s upset over Italy 30 years later. The number of Asian entries swelled to four in 1948 London Games – India, South Korea, China and Afghanistan. It is not difficult to see why India and Asian teams gave more importance to Olympic football.

Indian public also had very little awareness of the World Cup. Archival copies of Indian newspapers from 1950 show detailed coverage of English first division but World Cup results only get a passing mention. Indian newspapers depended on news feeds from English newspapers for international sports and lack of coverage in English papers may have caused this. In fact, English paper the Times didn’t waste any newspace for 1930 and 1934 World Cups and only gave a brief report of the 1938 World Cup final. On the other hand, Indian public had a great awareness about Olympics, largely thanks to the legendary exploits of Indian hockey team. Indian officials also didn’t have a clear understanding of the amateur rules, having joined FIFA very recently – it was not an era where couple of mouse clicks opened a treasure trove of information. For the officials, World Cup was an obscure tournament but Olympic football was a major source of national glory, which was important for a newly independent country.

India didn’t make the trip to Brazil, but there has always been speculation about how the team may have performed if they did play World Cup. India played well against France in 1948 but people often tend to forget the fact that it was a French Olympic team, which only included amateurs and not stars like Robert Jonquet. On other end of this spectrum lies a 1952 Olympics 10-1 thrashing at the hands of a Yugoslav side containing legends Rajko Mitic and Branko Zebec. Socialist countries were infamous for stamping professionals with shady amateur status so Yugoslavia’s Olympic team was actually their full strength side. However, it will be unfair to assume India would have suffered the same fate in World Cup as bare feet Indians literally froze thanks to frigid conditions and an icy turf in Helsinki against Yugoslavia. It was this result that ended Indian football’s tryst with bare feet players.

It may be difficult to conclusively deduce how Indians might have done against European pros but it can said that they certainly wouldn’t have been outclassed. India’s potential squad in 1950 World Cup had a number of extremely competent players. In Sailen Manna and Ahmed Khan they had two players who were world class without doubt. Manna was selected as one of world’s ten best captains by a English FA in 1953 while Ahmed Khan’s skills had mesmerized several foreign teams in 1950s. India’s attack was pretty strong thanks to Abdus Sattar, PB Saleh, P Venkatesh while the midfield had industrious Noor Mohammed along with T Shanmugham.

In Brazil, India’s group opponents were Italy, Paraguay and Sweden. Italy were the defending world champions, having won the last World Cup back in 1938 but a lot had changed in Italian football since then. In late 1940s Italian football was under a monopoly of the legendary Grande Torino side. They won five consecutive league titles, setting a slew of records which lasted for decades. The Italian national team was dominated by Torino players and at one point ten of the eleven starters of Gli Azzuri were Torino players. Tragically, the entire Torino team lost their lives in 1949 after a plane carrying the players crashed on walls of Basilica of Superga. Italian football took a long time to recover from this shock – the national team failed to progress beyond group stages in 1950 and 1954 and didn’t even qualify for World Cup in 1958. The Italian team that travelled to Brazil had players like Giampiero Boniperti and Amadeo Amadei, but was still under strength and in a phase of transition. To make matters worse, a traumatized FIGC didn’t want players to travel by airplane so they had to negotiate a long journey by ship which left players fatigued and out of match practice. As incredible it may sound, in theory, India could have taken points off Italy, especially considering the hot and humid conditions in Brazil which would have favoured Indian players.

Paraguay on the other hand, would have been at home with Brazilian conditions. They had a team which finished runner up in 1949 Copa America in Brazil, defeating the hosts during the tournament. Under coach Manuel Solich they would also win Copa America in 1953. Paraguay may not have been a power in world football but they could have caused problems to an Indian team which did not have any exposure to South American football at that point.

Sweden of course, were too strong for India. They were arguably the best team in Europe when football restarted after War till the rise of the great Hungarian team of the ‘50s. English manager George Raynor had turned the Swedes into a formidable unit, guiding them to Olympic gold in 1948. Three of their best players Gunnar Nordahl, Gunnar Gren and Nils Lidholm soon joined AC Milan, which also meant that they were banned from the national team, as Swedish FA only allowed amateur players to represent the country. Despite losing these players, Sweden was still perhaps the strongest European team in 1950 and would go on to finish third in the World Cup. Sweden’s star player in Brazil, winger Lennart Skoglund, would also soon move to Italy, joining Internazionale where he became a club legend.

However, India’s participation in World Cup was not just about performance. Even if the team had ended with zero points it would still have been a fantastic exposure for Indian football. Coach Syed Abdul Rahim was a keen student of the game. India played just one match in 1952 Olympics but Rahim watched and absorbed the tactics of Gustav Sebes’ gold-winning Hungarian team. Impressed with the implementation of a withdrawn centre forward, he would apply the same to Indian team in 1956 Olympics, deploying star striker Samar “Badru” Banerjee in that role. As a tactician Rahim would have been enriched when he came up against Raynor which in turn would have enriched Indian football.

The greatest damage perhaps, was not done in 1950, but what happened in aftermath. India’s last minute withdrawal from Brazil understandably brought wrath from FIFA, resulting in a ban for 1954 World Cup qualifiers. It was another golden chance lost. The Asian qualification zone was extremely simple in 1954 – just two participating teams with South Korea defeating Japan over two legs to qualify. This was a period where India became the first Asian team to reach Olympic semi-finals so it will not be unfair to assume that had India not dropped out in 1950, they would have been in a position to book a place in Switzerland four years later.

To make matters worse AIFF didn’t even participate in subsequent World Cup qualifiers – most sources say they were in “fear” of FIFA after two botched attempts. This meant that the Indian team which performed creditably in 1960 Rome Olympics and won gold in 1962 Asian Games after beating Japan and South Korea didn’t even get the chance to aim for the World Cup. It was unarguably India’s greatest team, with a wonderful squad depth and versatile players like Yusuf Khan. Peter Thangaraj in goal and Jarnail Singh in defence were arguably the best in their positions in Asia while the attack was powered by the holy trinity of PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram.

The qualification route from Asia had become tougher from 1958 onwards as Asian teams had to battle with Europe’s basement boys. Wales defeated Israel in 1958 while South Korea lost to Yugoslavia in 1962. By not even playing qualifiers when they were the best in Asia, India also gave up a chance to gauge their quality against the top international teams, gradually losing awareness about how football was progressing. It is intriguing to imagine how much Indian players could have learnt when they squared off against a John Charles or a Dragoslav Šekularac during qualifiers.

Syed Abdul Rahim passed away due to cancer in 1962 but his team maintained its momentum by finishing second in 1964 Asian Cup. A last hurrah came with a bronze in 1970 Asian Games. India increasingly became a hermit in terms of football progress after the success of 1960s. Lack of exposure to international teams meant they gradually slipped behind all tactical and technical developments, after being abreast with changes in 50s and 60s. The concept of overlapping fullbacks started in 1969, 4-4-2 formation was introduced only in late 80s. AIFF finally understood their mistake in 1980s during the tenure of Ashok Ghosh. Ghosh was perhaps the first AIFF official who had an international outlook to football – his brainchild – the Nehru Cup, ended India’s international football isolation. India started playing World Cup qualifiers in 1985. Sadly, it was too late and India had regressed beyond redemption. Countries like South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran were significantly ahead at that time. The gap has increased even more now, thanks to the unstoppable rise of Japan and South Korea, and the entry of Australia. In a vibrant and competitive zone like AFC, India now languish as minnows.

India’s non participation in 1950 World Cup played a part in their downslide from being one of the best in Asia to becoming a lower rung side. As Sailen Manna rightly said to Sports Illustrated, “Indian football would have been on a different level had we made that journey”.