Going by the current FIFA rankings, it will be hard to believe that India were a force to reckon with at the Asian Level just after its independence. It’s no less than a mystery how the nation did not do justice to its true potential as a latent football powerhouse. Especially the steep decline after the success in 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, when it seemed like the nation is ready to have a crack at the top international level, makes the world football fraternity bewildered. A number of football pundits often describe the country as a Sleeping Giant, which has fallen in deep slumber ever since the glorious Jakarta days.

Today’s youngistan is hardly bothered about its rich footballing heritage as cricket has taken over the driver’s seat. Today’s European-football-loving-Indian-junta may also question the mental condition of the person trying to showcase India’s glorious rendezvous with world football during the late 50s to early 60s. It did not come as a surprise when a recent study by a Kolkata-based sports magazine revealed that around 77% of youngsters who follows the beautiful game in this country were unaware of the fact that it’s actually India which is the most successful Asian team in the history of Olympic Football. Their ignorance gave way to respect when they were told that it was an Indian who holds the Asian record of scoring the first ever hat-trick in the Olympic Games. Further, they were left flabbergasted to be acquainted with the fact that an Indian footballer had actually won the prestigious Golden Boot award in one of the Olympic Games.

India’s tryst with Olympic football began with the London Olympics of 1948 when India participated at the games for the first time as an independent nation. The Indian team could not adjust to the wet and cold artificial surface used at the games and went down 1-2 against a strong French team after failing to convert two penalties. However, their bare-footed skillful display on a freezing London turf caught the imagination of world football fraternity. S.L. Ghosh, notable football journalist, recalls in his book “Indian Football” published in 1975 –

“After the match was over, hundreds of appreciative spectators congratulated the Indian players on their sporting manner on the field and regretted that the better team lost.”

It had been a steady journey for Indian football in international arena in the following decade. They qualified for the next three Olympics in 1952, 1956 and 1960, which witnessed a varied range of outcomes including stunning performances and appalling defeats. After their spirited performance in the London Games, the expectations were more from the team in the next edition – the Helsinki Olympics. However it turned out to be a complete letdown as Team India were trounced 1-10 by 1948 Silver Medal winners Yugoslavia. The atrocious result propagated shockwaves across the country. In order to find out the exact cause of this disaster the All India Football Federation discussed the matter with every team member and officials who traveled to Helsinki. All the concerned people unanimously pointed out the freezing temperature to be one of the main causes and the Indian players’ preference to play barefooted made it even worse. One positive which came out of this calamity was AIFF’s change of stance on wearing proper football boots. The All India Football Federation thereafter made it mandatory for all the players to wear a pair of boots in all international assigments.

Team India – 1956 Melbourne Olympics

The Melbourne Games of 1956 witnessed one of the most glorious performances by team India in a top-tier football tournament. The fourth place finish was Team India’s best ever performance in Olympics, which eventually made them the only Asian nation to attain this peak in the history of Olympic Football till date. It was an important milestone not only in the history of Indian football, but also for Asian football in general, as no other Asian nation could ever reach the Semi Final stage before or after that. If we compare India’s performance in 1956 Olympics to that of the other two Asian nations in the same tournament, it would give us an insight of India’s powerhouse status in Asian Level. While India finished at a creditable 4th place, Japan lost in the first round 0-2 against Australia and Thailand were trounced 9-1 by the United Kingdom side.

Syed Abdul Rahim, fondly known as “Rahim Saab”, deserves accolades for India’s success in 1956 Games. Truly, he was a man ahead of his time. A shrewd tactician that he was, it didn’t take long for him to figure out that the 2-3-5 formation, largely followed in Indian domestic set-up during that period, was an outdated tactic and to be successful against the European countries, a complete alteration of playing style was the need of the hour. He was a keen learner and he devoted time to study various formations used by contemporary successful coaches. The “Magical Magyars” – Gustav Sebes’ Hungary outfit that had won the Gold medal in the previous edition of Olympic football influenced him the most. Thus came the concept of a withdrawn centre-forward, which revolutionized the way football had been played in the country in those days.

The charishmatic skipper – Samar Banerjee

Another person who warrants credit in transforming the face of Indian football is Samar Banerjee – the then Indian skipper – also known as “Badru” in his friends circle. “Dronacharya” would never exist if there was no “Arjuna” and here Samar Banerjee played Arjuna’s role to perfection much to the delight of Dronacharya Rahim Saab. The duo incorporated this new tactic in the Indian national team and changed the team’s formation to an embryonic 4-2-4, which was flexible enough to turn in to a 4-3-3 or a 3-4-3 whenever required. Samar Banerjee sacrificed his preferred position to play in the most critical role of an withdrawn centre-forward. The new system was an overwhelming success.

India were to play against Hungary in the first round; however, the Gold medal winners of 1952 Olympics withdrew from the event and India got a walkover to the quarter final stage. Rahim’s boys were set to face the hosts, a strong Australian team who had defeated the other Asian powerhouse Japan 2-0 in the first round encounter. India got the better of the Socceroos in that exciting contest and conjured up a memorable 4-2 win. Vice captain and centre-forward Neville Stephen J. D’Souza scored a fabulous hat-trick – which was also the first instance of a hat-trick in the Olympics by an Asian player. D’Souza drew the first blood in the 9th minute only to see Bruce Morrow equalize for the hosts 8 minutes later. Around half-an-hour mark, India once-again took the lead through another Neville D’Souza master-class; but Bruce restored parity at the stroke of the half time whistle. As the players went for the lemon break the match was evenly tied at 2-2.

In the second half it took only five more minutes for Neville D’Souza to complete an unforgettable hat-trick. Another goal by J. Krishnaswamy “Kittu” in the 80th minute was enough for the Indians to seal the match by 4-2 margin and thus India advanced to the last-four stage of the prestigious tournament. Renowned football critics and former FIFA officials Dr. Willy Meisal and Sir Stanley Rous were impressed by India’s development as a footballing nation and showered praise for the coach and the players because of their top-notch performance matching their illustrious European counterparts.

Neville D’Souza – Golden Boot Winner in 1956 Games

The match against Australia was a game marred with controversy as the officials ruled out two Australian goals in the first half because of offside, which the Australian camp did not agree upon. Their demand for a re-match was turned down by the Olympic Committee, and quite rightly so. Sankar Subramaniam Narayan, former India’s custodian and Neville D’Souza’s roommate in the Games village, in a candid interview with The Hindu recalls –

“Whenever I think about Indian football, his (Neville D’Souza) name comes to my mind. After we won, I remember the Australians calling our victory a `fluke’ and demanding a re- match at Sydney after the Games ended. They were so stunned at the Olympic loss despite the home advantage that they were adamant about playing us again. We won the re-match with Neville scoring twice”.

India were next up against Yugoslavia in the semi final fixture, the Silver medalists of 1952 games and a firm favorite to win the title in that edition. Neville started the semi final match in similar fashion. An unproductive first half was followed by a magical spell as India went ahead after the breather, riding on another Neville D’Souza strike. Shankar Subramaniam Narayan, who guarded the Indian goalmouth in that match recollects –

“Neville’s next target was Yugoslavia in the semi-finals, where after putting India a goal up, he dribbled past two defenders and deceived the onrushing custodian before lobbing the ball goal-wards, only to see it bounce onto the horizontal bar and go out of play. It would have been an audacious goal, but the post came in Neville’s way. His control was so good that once the ball was in possession, Neville was the absolute master. When on the move, his ability to dribble, cutting is the right word, was exceptional to the point that the ball would always be between his legs”.

However, Zlatko Papec restored the parity in the 54th minute before Todor Vaselinovic helped his side to 2-1 in the 59th minute. Papec went on to complete his brace and Muhamed Abdus Salam added one more to complete the 4-1 victory for the Yugoslavs. India missed the services of their number 1 goalkeeper Peter Thangaraj in that match and that served a big blow to their fortunes. Another point worth mentioning here – which is often cited as a cause of India’s downfall, especially in relation to conceding late goals – is India’s domestic football set-up where the official match duration was 70 minutes in comparison to the FIFA norm of 90 minutes of regulation time.

In the Bronze Medal encounter, India faced the Bulgarian challenge, who were ousted by Soviet Union 2-1 in the extra time in last-four stage. It was India’s 3rd match in six days and the low endurance level coupled with injuries to few key players let them down and they had to settle for the fourth place. Nevertheless it was no mean achievement and it remains the high point of Asian football in the history of Olympics till date. Neville D’Souza’s hat-trick went on to become a tale of the Indian folklore. The talismanic striker was also the joint Golden Boot winner in 1956 Olympic Games – another first of its kind achievement and the extraordinary feat remains unmatched in the Asian level even after long 55 years.

Four years later, India qualified for the 1960 Olympics held in Italy – making their fourth consecutive appearance at the Games. India bowed out of the tournament without registering a win – drawing the match against France and losing to Hungary and Peru. Legendary striker P.K. Banerjee scored for India in that 1-1 draw against a much stronger France side, which is considered as Team India’s best ever performance against a top-tier European nation. They could have staged a great upset in that match, however a late strike by Gerard Coincon ensured France of a single point from that game. India lost the other two matches against Hungary and Peru by 2-1 and 3-1 margin respectively. Another Legendary footballer of that era, Tulsidas Balaram scored India’s solitary goals in both these matches.

That would eventually become the last appearance of Indian football team in the Olympics as they failed to clear the qualification stage in their following attempts. Just when it seemed like the nation is ready to take over the mettle at the international level, the momentum was lost. With Rahim Saab’s unfortunate death due to cancer at an age of 54, the decline of football in this country set in and the prospective giant fell asleep. The journey ever since has mostly been wistful with sporadic magical spells amidst incessant slumber, albeit without any sustained impact on the nation’s bid to emerge as a powerhouse of the game in the continental level. The followers of the beautiful game in this country still hope for a revival in fortune, but are aware that it would take no less than a herculean effort to awaken the sleeping giant from this infinite siesta.

Quotation Source : Articles by renowned Indian football pundit Novy Kapadia and former Olympian Shankar Subramaniam Narayan’s interview on ‘The Hindu’ Newspaper.