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“Kal aplogon se mujhe ek tohfa chahiye…kal ap sona jitlo”
The quote can be translated as “I ask of a present from you tomorrow…win the gold (medal)”. These words were uttered by Syed Abdul Rahim, Rahim saab, to footballers all over India. Being unable to sleep before a highly charged final of 1962 Asian Games, the footballers as well as their coach took a stroll in the games village at midnight. It was at that time that Rahim, usually a reserved man, made this emotional plea to his players. The rest, as they have increasingly stopped saying with every passing decade, was history. India played one of the most memorable matches in its football history and won the gold. It was a fitting but ill-timed farewell to the most influential figure in modern Indian football.
Rahim was born in Hyderabad in 1909. A teacher by profession, he was addicted to the game from his childhood. Hyderabad was a hotbed of football activities in that era. They produced great players and challenged the established order of Bengal football. Rahim played no small part in supremacy of Hyderabad in those days. As a player he was part of the group which set up Qamar club, which remained one of the best teams in local league. It was as an administrator and coach that his influence was far reaching. He took over Hyderabad Football Association in 1943 as secretary, holding the post till his death. As a coach he turned Hyderabad City Police into arguably the greatest club team in Indian football history. He was not an administrator who sat in the high office and focused on top level. He was someone whose focus was more on the grass-root level. He went about starting football tournaments all across Andhra, in different age groups. Tournaments like Nizam Gold Cup, Majeed Challenge Shield paved the way for hordes of Hyderabad players who dominated Indian football. Most intriguingly, Rahim knew the exact problems plaguing Indian football. He organized non-dribbling tournaments in lower age groups, to encourage children to sharpen their sprint speed and stamina.
Golden Age of Indian Football
Rahim’s biggest claim to fame, perhaps, lies in his success with national team. His appointment was not smooth. In that era, specialized football coaches were not very common in India. Coaching duties were handled by officials or team captains. India was led by an influential official – Balai Das Chatterjee – in 1948 Olympics. Chatterjee vehemently opposed Rahim’s appointment initially. Rahim’s track record saw him through as he took over the team for 1951 Asian Games. The inaugural Asiad will go down as one of the glorious tournaments for Indian football. Cheered on by a boisterous home crowd and watched on by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian football team won gold. The 1952 Olympic Games was an anti-climax. BD Chatterjee came to fore-front, meddling with the affairs of the football team, reducing an ailed Rahim to a powerless spectator. Things didn’t end well, as India lost 10-1 to Yogoslavia.
That loss, in a way, established Rahim as the unquestioned coach of Indian team. He was given a free reign in selections as he built up his own team from scratch. Results showed eventually as Indian football entered the golden age. India won 4 Quadrangular tournaments from 1952 to 1955 under Rahim. It did well in Merdeka Cup. India’s victory over Australia in 1956 Melbourne Games became part of sporting folklore. The apex was winning gold in 1962 Asian Games, under hostile conditions. Under SA Rahim, India was the finest team in Asia. A team whose style and finesse was appreciated by the likes of Willy Meisel and Sir Stanley Rous.
Rahim saab, a man ahead of his time
What made Rahim so unique? There were several factors. In terms of tactics, Rahim was ahead of his time in Asia. In a country which still clutched on to the archaic 2-3-5 and British long ball tactics, it was Rahim who thought differently. He was an eager learner, in sync with the recent developments of the football world. And he was impressed by the style of perhaps the greatest football team of all times – Gustav Sebes’ Hungary, the “Magic Magyars”. He closely observed the team which won an Olympic gold medal in 1952. Rahim saw the revolutionary tactics used by his opponents – a withdrawn centre-forward. He slowly incorporated this new tactic in the national team using Samar Banerjee for that role. He also adapted the three-back system; delaying it just enough to let his players get acclimatized. He had the ability to think out-of-the-box and he was open to try out new systems and tactics. It is all but natural that three of India’s finest and most innovative coaches – Amal Dutta, PK Banerjee and Nayimuddin played under Rahim. Each of these three coaches has acknowledged Rahim saab’s contribution to their coaching techniques.
Rahim was an excellent man-manager. He was a strict disciplinarian, a common trait in coaches of his era and bore a paternal attitude towards his players. He encouraged players to spend their free-time in reading and thinking about the game. He was ruthless when it came to non-performers, often discarding established players who didn’t fit his team. He deconstructed the 1948 Olympics team, assembling a new batch of players for 1951 Asiad. He had a soft corner for young players and groomed the likes of Chuni, Balram and Prashanta Sinha wonderfully. He was also a brilliant motivator. His teams often rejuvenated themselves after some tough talking at half time.
Rahim was a man who has immense belief in himself. An interesting anecdote shows this side of Rahim. Just before the selections for 1956 Olympics took place, Hyderabad defeated Bombay in the final of Santosh Trophy, winning the game 4-1. Rahim wanted to take more players from Hyderabad, deviating from the tradition of taking more players from Bengal. Bechu Dutta Roy, then AIFF president, was involved in a heated exchange with Rahim saying Hyderabad won only because Bengal didn’t make it to the final. An irate Rahim challenged Dutta Roy to organize a match between two sides. The match took place in BNR ground in Kolkata, and Hyderabad won by three clear goals. Rahim’s faith was repaid by his players.
Honouring a legend, the Indian way
It is customary for Indian administrators to insult people who have done the country proud in sports. Sadly, they managed to do this to a person like Rahim also. Despite his track record, the government insisted Rahim to attend classes of English coach Harry Wright. Wright was in no way a man suited to lecture Rahim, it was evident when he performed poorly with a talented team after Rahim’s death. It was Bechu Dutta Roy who resisted this idea for long. Despite their differences Dutta Roy knew that Rahim was too knowledgeable to take classes from Wright. Rahim didn’t get any accolades during his life-time. He was paid a minimal amount for his football related work.
Greater injustice has been done to him after his death perhaps. Administrators botched up football in his beloved Hyderabad, a city which has ceased to exist on the game’s map. The football league which carries his name is held up in a quagmire of politics. Some of the tournaments Rahim started have been stopped a long time back. The long ball tactics which Rahim discarded is currently being used by the National team. The dedication and far-sightedness he showed as an administrator are a rarity in Indian football fraternity nowadays. His name is forgotten, his birth centenary went almost unnoticed last year. The game which Rahim tried to revolutionize has been in a free-fall in last few decades.
Following 1962 Asian Games triumph, Rahim didn’t rest on his laurels. In an interview given in 1962 he highlighted the fact that rest of Asia was making progress and India could struggle to cope with the changing demography. He said that India needed some time to adjust with evolving tactics in football. Rahim, however ran out of time.
Syed Abdul Rahim passed away from cancer on 11th June, 1963. He was the life-breath of modern Indian football. After he passed away, the game slowly entered a comatose phase. He was only 54 at that time, yet he had given Indian football almost all of its fond memories during his lifetime.
Sources: “Stories from Indian Football” by Jaydeep Basu, articles by Novy Kapadia, Boria Mazumdar and several ex-footballers. Credit for thumbnail picture goes to Zia Ur Rahaman and his wonderful site – http://mdsportingclub.webs.com/