In current context, it’s very difficult to imagine that there was a period when Indian national football team was one of the strongest teams in Asia. India’s status as an Asian powerhouse was largely due to Asian Games exploits.


Winning Gold in First Asiad

In 1951 the inaugural games were held in New Delhi. Two years before, Syed Abdul Rahim took over as the coach of Indian national team. Innovative and in sync with the changing football world, Rahim was ahead of his time. He had turned Hyderabad City Police into a juggernaut in Indian domestic football.

After a series of trial games, Rahim selected his team. He retained key members of 1948 Olympics team – Sailen Manna, Ahmed Khan, Papen and Mewalal. New faces like Venkatesh and Saleh were added to strengthen the team. Matches were played at the National Stadium in New Delhi.

Six teams participated in the football tournament. Matches were of 60 minute duration. On 5th March India started the campaign with a fine 3-0 win over Indonesia. Mewalal, Venkatesh and Ahmed Khan scored. Right-out Venkatesh was particularly impressive. Next up was Afghanistan, who had travelled to Delhi quite early before the tournament started, to get accustomed to playing surface and the environment. Afghans resorted to rough play when they failed to contain the skilled Indian players, ending the match with 9 men. Mewalal and Venkatesh scored again, Sunil Nandy added the third.

On 10th March a capacity crowd thronged the National Stadium as India played Iran in final. The then President of India Dr Rajendra Prasad and the Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru were present in the stadium to witness the match. India struggled against physically strong Iranian players as goal-keeper B Anthony put on a courageous display. In the end it was Sahu Mewalal who broke the dead-lock. His goal sealed a brilliant gold medal for barefooted Indians. Football was given a huge boost after this triumph.

Football Fans Know Better

India Team for final against Iran in 1951 Asian Games

Indonesia proved to be the nemesis in next edition. In the Manila games of 1954, India began with a 3-2 win over Japan. Couple of days later it slumped to a disappointing 4-0 defeat against Indonesia.

Performance graph went up in the Tokyo games 4 years later. By this time Indian football had undergone its first tactical revolution. Impressed by Gustavo Sebes’ Hungary, Rahim disposed the old pyramid system. He adopted the ‘WM’ formation while using a withdrawn centre-forward. He was helped by a new bunch of skilful players, arguably the best generation of Indian footballers. The point to be noted here is that boots were made mandatory by AIFF by this time.

India started with a 3-2 win over Burma. A 1-2 loss to Indonesia didn’t pevent the passage to quarter-finals. A Rahmatullah brace ensured a comfortable 5-2 win over Hong Kong in the quarter final match. India was undone by a tough fixture as they had to play South Korea next day, losing the match 3-1. India lined up against Indonesia for bronze medal, its 3rd match in 3 days. A 4-1 loss ended chances of a medal.

Jakarta Games – Golden moment for Indian football

1962 Jakarta Games brought the finest moment in Indian football history. Rahim supervised a lengthy camp in Hyderabad to prepare his team. The start was hardly auspicious, a 2-0 loss to South Korea. Off-field tensions had gripped the team. Local crowd and authorities bore a partisan attitude, the Indian contingent was booed in every game.

Indian bounced back in fine style. The fearsome trident of PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami and Tuslidas Balaram tore apart the Thai defence as India won the match by a comfortable 4-1 margin. India’s rock at centre-back – Jarnail Singh suffered a head injury in this match and had to get six stitches. Rahim, the great tactician played Arun Ghosh, a wing-back in place of Jarnail. Ghosh was an immediate hit as he continued to occupy the same position for next decade. 20 hours after the Thailand game India faced Japan for a place in next round. In a do-or-die game, India carved out a fine 2-0 win.

South Vietnam waited in semi-final; they had scored 9 goals in group leg. Rahim made a bold tactical switch, putting burley Jarnail as a centre-forward. An exciting match ensued, Rahim’s gamble paid off – Jarnail with his robust approach created havoc in opponent defence, as India rushed to a 2-0 lead. Vietnam came back to make it 2-2 before skipper Chuni Goswami scored the winner for India.

4th September, 1962 was one of finest moments for Indian football. Rahim had taken another gamble – replacing Pradyut Burman in goal by Peter Thangaraj. Thangarj’s height was an advantage, he insisted. Jeered on by a capacity crowd, India found an unlikely source of support – Pakistan hockey team! There was no case of nerves as the forward line toyed with Korean defence. PK and Jarnail scored as India took a 2-0 lead. A host of chances were missed; Koreans took advantage of an uncharacteristic error from Thangraraj but could not prevent India from winning.

The glorious success in Jakarta amidst of all adversities was the start of the downslide. Rahim saab passed away 10 months later, due to cancer.

How one man’s death started the downslide

Rahim’s death signalled the end of a golden age of Indian football. For over a decade he had been a towering figure in football. AIFF struggled to find his replacement. The post of Indian coach soon became a game of musical chairs.

Instability in coaching post affected the performance of the team. The next generation of talented players were never moulded into a strong team, as it happened in previous decade.

Bangkok games in 1966 proved to be disappointing. India failed to defend the gold medal, going out in first round. It managed to beat Malaysia 2-1 but twin losses to Japan (2-1) and Iran (4-1) ended India’s campaign. India curiously travelled without a coach for this tournament.

A revival of sorts happened in 1970 Asiad. Coached by PK Banerjee and GM Basha India won bronze. It was a squad filled with talented players. Defence was bolstered by Syed Nayimuddin, Sudhir Karmakar and Chandreshwar Prasad. Shyam Thapa, Subhas Bowmik and Mohammad Habib formed a potent attacking line.

India began with an insipid showing against Thailand, trailing 2-0 at the breather. It came back brilliantly to tie 2-2, Bhowmik scoring a brace. A win against South Vietnam ensured passage to quarter final round. India beat Indonesia 3-0 in the quarter final, but lost to Japan, thanks to a late goal. The fixture list again took toll as a tired Indian team lost to Burma in semi-final.

The match for bronze was particularly memorable. Sudhir Karmakar, dished out a legendary man-marking performance against Japanese striker Kamamoto, perhaps the best in Asia at that time. His performance prompted Sir Stanley Rous, FIFA president, to proclaim him as “Asia’s best defender”.

The rest of the 70s served as pointers to how Indian football was slowly going backwards. Number of embarrassing losses kept piling up. India conceded 14 goals in 3 games in Tehran ’74, including a 7-1 loss to China. Things remained same in Bangkok ’78. Despite progressing to quarter final, India lost 3 games out of 4, losing to Iraq (3-0), North Korea (3-1) and Kuwait (6-1).


1980s – Dark Times

In 1982, Asian Games was back in New Delhi. In order to recreate the magic of 1951, an elaborate preparation camp was organized. It was this camp that led to one of the darkest moments in Indian football. On 19th February, 1981, 21 of India’s topmost players walked out of the camp. They made it clear that their allegiance was with the clubs. With the transfer season coming up, they wanted to quit the camp. There was public outcry after this. Players were branded as rebels and unpatriotic. Federation was unsympathetic and turned a blind eye to player’ demand of better payment for National Camps. In the end both parties came to an agreement but it tainted Indian football. The negative publicity for this incident remained ingrained in public memory for years.

The 1982 games did provide moments of brilliance. India won against Bangladesh and Malaysia, drew with China. It fell in the quarter final against Saudi Arabia.

It was back to square one in 1986 Seoul Games. India lost all 3 games, managing to score only a single goal.

By this time the government had enough. It refused to clear the football team for 1990 and 1994 Asiad.

Encouraging performances in recent games

In 1998 games, the football returned to the fold. India was unlucky to be grouped with a strong Japan team. Despite winning against Nepal, it lost narrowly against Japan.

Before 2002 games India enjoyed a good run, winning LG Cup in Vietnam. Reilable defender Arun Malhotra failed dope test and didn’t travel with the team.

Tomba, Alex Ambrose played well as India defeated Bangladesh 3-0. Baichung Bhutia scored a brilliant side volley as India came back from 1-0 down to beat Turkmenistan 3-1. A dubious penalty against China ended India’s hopes.

The story was same in 2006 Asian Games. The government again refused to clear the team, AIFF had to pay for expenses to send the football team. India’s matches in Doha games were marked by late goals. Pradeep scored from 30 yards against Hong Kong. His 89th min strike got cancelled in 92nd minute, denying India a win. Another goal in 89th minute grabbed a 2-1 win over Maldives. India was undone by a world cupper nation, Iran this time. Sandip Nandy played the match of his life but couldn’t stop two goals in last 10 minutes.

In last 2 Asian Games, India has shown signs of improvement from 1980s and 1990s, they missed the quarter final berth losing to teams which played World Cup in the same year. This year there is no World Cup playing nation in India’s group. Can the young players spring a surprise? Time will tell.

  • Parth P

    The article fails to depict the true picture here, more details about each Asian Games would serve the readers better to understand reasons behind sudden failure. Rahim’s death was one reason; but there are many more.
    Moreover Peter Thangaraj getting voted as Asia’s best goalkeeper in 1958 and Chuni Goswami winning the best striker of Asia award in 1962 should be mentioned here.

    Anyway, a good read.

  • Rahul

    Tough draw for India this time. I would be happy if we dont lose all the three matches by big margin.

  • Laverne Federico

    Wow ! Never knew India play football too ! Thanks for sharing the article.

  • Shoumik Chanda

    Lesson learned for India. We are not good enough to compete with other Asian teams. While the other Asian teams have improved drastically, for us it has been demotion :(