For any football fan around the world, his national team is a source of immense pride. Any game involving one’s own country evokes tremendous emotion upon the individual. In India, football has never been the most popular of sports. Playing second fiddle to, first hockey, and then cricket, football has always found itself in the shadow of the other two sports. Even then, any encounter involving the ‘Blue Tigers’, as they are popularly called, are met with great anticipation by the Indian football fans. Anxiety levels among fans reach new highs on matchdays. Despite not receiving the support one expects the football representatives of the second most populous nation in the world to get, the Indian side has often done reasonably well, putting into consideration the various factors effecting the sport in the country, in its 64-year history, to keep India’s pride and esteem intact.
Ilford is a large cosmopolitan town in East London. Not the most popular of places, Ilford, however, will forever be etched to Indian football history for being the first place to host an international game involving India. Not even a year-old since attaining independence from the British, India went to the London Olympics in 1948, with all the hopes of the nation placed on its Hockey team. With the FIFA World Cup not yet into its glory days, the football tournament at the Olympics, based on a knock-out format, was the showpiece event for the beautiful game. Playing their first ever international game at the biggest of stages was a matter of great honour for the Indian footballers.
On 31st July, 1948, exactly 64 years ago, as 11 Indian men stepped into the Lynn Road Stadium at the East London town to take on France, not much was expected from the newcomers. The Balaidas Chatterjee-coached side, however, was backed by a formidable defence with goalkeeper Kenchappa Varadaraj standing below the bar, behind the defensive quartet of Taj Mohammed, Sailendra Nath Manna, A. Sattar Basheer and Talimeren Ao.
Mahabir Prasad and Ahmed Khan were the midfield schemers, operating behind a strong forward line that included Robi Das, Sarangapani Raman, Ramachandra Balaram Parab and Sahu Mewalal. While defensive stalwarts Sailen Manna and Talimeren Ao plied their trade at Mohun Bagan, Taj Mohammed and Mahabir Prasad played for Bagan’s archrivals, East Bengal. Goalkeeper Varadaraj, forward Sarangapani Raman, defender Sattar Basheer and inside forward Ahmed Khan were from Mysore, whereas R. B. Parab, Sheoo Mewalal and Robi Das were representatives of Bombay FC, Eastern Railway SC and Bhawanipore Club, respectively.
With majority of the players playing barefoot (inside right Ramachandra Parab is believed to be the only Indian player to have worn boots), in conditions colder than that in India, the Indian forwards struggled to convert most of the chances that came their way. Novy Kapadia, an eminent football historian and pundit, writes in ‘Triumphs and Disasters: The story of Indian Football, 1889-2000″, “India created more scoring chances, but because of the cold conditions, the forwards could not shoot properly and Raman and Parab missed a penalty each.”
.With Talimeren Ao, the then captain of the side, manning the Indian defence alongside Sailen Manna, the French side found it hard to break down their Indian counterparts. In fact, it was the Indian team that looked the better of the two. However, with Indian forwards failing to convert chances on a cold and wet surface, French striker Rene Courbin made India pay in the 30th minute, giving his country the lead in the half hour mark. India would later rue their missed chances, as strikers R. B. Parab and Sarangapani Raman each missed from the spot after Swedish official Gunnar Dahlner had correctly awarded a couple of penalties to the boys from South Asia.
In the second half, with elimination from the tournament looming ahead for the Indians, the Indian attack desperately looked for some inspiration and inspiration they did find in the form of Mysore based forward Sarangapani Raman. Ten minutes past the hour mark, Raman equalized the scores for the Indian side, ensuring a thrilling finale to the game. With 20 minutes left to play, it seemed as if the French defence would finally succumb to the Indian attack. However, with the game into its final minutes, Indian legs started running out of fuel.
In these circumstances, the French side made its experience count. Bordeaux midfielder Rene Persillon took advantage of the tired Indian legs and scored the winner, the goal that would knock India out of the tournament, with only a minute left in the game. This was a bitter blow to the Indians, as the knock-out format of the tournament meant that there was no chance of redemption for them. As France progressed into the next round, the talented Indian side won many hearts with its gutsy performance. S. L. Ghosh, a football historian, writes in ‘Indian Football’, “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 had lost.” India’s performance despite playing barefeet attracted the attention of English royality as well as the players were invited to a private meeting.
Although the achievements of this Indian side cannot be overemphasized, this single performance went a long way in ensuring that India wouldn’t be considered as mere pushovers by the established footballing powerhouses. As the historic encounter of Lynn Road completes 64 years today, it is important that we keep the legacy of these heroes alive. For many more of our future generations, may the likes of Sailen Manna and Talimeren Ao always be sources of inspiration.