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Indian football and East Bengal have seen a number of skillful forwards over the years. Among them, a very few forward lines in Indian football history have been as famous as the “Panchapandavas” (Five Pandavas) who led East Bengal to their first golden era in 1950s. Apparao, P Venkatesh, PB Saleh and Dhanraj were all accomplished players in their own rights but it was the fifth Pandava who went down as one of the greatest players to have kicked a football in India – Ahmed Khan.
Ahmed Khan, who hailed from a football family in Southern India, became one of the first superstars of Indian football during his peak years. His sublime style of play as well as trickery with the ball made him an immortal name in Indian football history.
Early Life With Bangalore Muslims
To trace back Ahmed Khan’s rise to the top, we need to revisit the Indian football scenario in post independence years. Unlike now, football was truly a national game at that time with Bengal, Punjab competing with the likes of Hyderabad and Mysore for supremacy. Regardless of their current status, Mysore and Bangalore produced a clutch of top-class players in that era who represented India in the Olympics, as well as earned the state multiple Santosh Trophy crowns.
Ahmed Khan’s father, Mehmood “Baba” Khan was a well known footballer at his time and a shining light in Mysore-Bangalore football circuit. Four of his son’s also went on to become accomplished footballers in their own rights, Ahmed Khan being one of them. Ahmed Khan received tutelage from his maternal uncle Fazlulla Khan at a young age and soon started playing football for Bangalore Crescents Club, where he had the unique chance of playing alongside his father. Soon, he left Crescents club to join the biggest club in his locality – Bangalore Muslims.
Despite being a non-entity in current top level football, Bangalore Muslims used to be one of the most accomplished teams in first half of 20th century. The first native club to win Rovers Cup, the Muslims would go on to become a powerhouse in Indian football till 1950s. With Ahmed Khan and Abdus Sattar in their ranks, Bangalore Muslims captured their last Rovers Cup title in 1948, defeating Mohun Bagan 1-0 in final. Ahmed Khan’s precocious talent was now drawing attention of scouts across India. His performance for Bangalore Muslims earned him a place in Indian national team for 1948 London Olympics. The training camp for Olympics was held in Shillong under the sights of a certain Jyotish Chandra Guha, an East Bengal supremo. Guha, who had a keen eye for talent, liked what he saw and promptly signed Ahmed for East Bengal in 1949. Rest, as they say is history, as the era of Panchapandavas began.
Five Pandavas and A Golden Era for Red & Golds
Indian football has never seen a more ruthless football machine than East Bengal’s famous Five Pandavas team of 1950s. P Venkatesh and PB Saleh played on right and left wings respectively, Apparao played in the inside right position of a classical 2-3-5 formation while Dhanraj was center-forward. These were four extremely talented individuals but what made them unstoppable was the dexterity of left inside forward Ahmed Khan.
Learning its basics from the English, Indian football too followed the tactical rigidity of English 2-3-5 where front five would usually stay in their usual positions. This mould was first broken by Mohammedan Sporting’s history making side of 1930s where Rahim and Rahmat would switch positions. This fluidity was perfected by East Bengal’s Five Pandavas line-up. Venkatesh was the first winger in Indian football to cut back in from the wings while Ahmed Khan revolutionized their style by playing as a roaming striker. Ahmed Khan was arguably the first play-maker in Indian football as he was one of the earliest protagonists who would take more joy in creating goals for others, rather than scoring himself. His contemporaries Byomkesh Bose and Sailen Manna often recalled many instances where Ahmed would be one on one with a goal-keeper but would pass to Dhanraj instead of scoring himself. Between 1949 and 1953, East Bengal scored 347 goals with five forwards scoring 260 goals. Ahmed Khan’s tally of 35 goals seems rather small when compared with Dhanraj’s 114 goals but a large percentage of these goals were assisted by Ahmed himself.
An Ahmed Khan inspired East Bengal did their first League-Shield-Rovers treble in 1949, two years later they became the first Indian team to win Durand Cup (their first ever Durand title) and IFA Shield in the same season. But the apex of their achievements came in 1953, when East Bengal was invited to a football tournament during World Youth Congress in Bucharest, Romania.
On 21st August, 1953 East Bengal travelled to Romania with four of the five Pandavas as Dhanraj was left out. JC Guha travelled with the squad as their main motivator. East Bengal began their campaign with a bang, defeating Austria 2-0. They followed it up with another convincing 6-1 win over Lebanon; Ahmed Khan was brilliant in both matches. Hosts Romania finally ended their run in semi-final, winning 4-0. East Bengal finished 4th in the tournament after losing 5-2 against Germany. Their performance impressed USSR administration as they were invited for a tour. On 21st August, 1953 East Bengal started their campaign against Torpedo Moscow. Such was the anticipation to see them that the stadium was quickly sold out. East Bengal players braved the cold weather to eke out a 3-3 draw, thanks to a brilliant goal from Venkatesh. The rigors of the tour finally took a toll as they went on to get thrashed in rest of the matches losing 1-9, 1-13 and 6-0.
What Made Ahmed Khan Such A Unique Player?
Ahmed Khan was one of the most naturally gifted footballers ever born in India. He was never a player who worked hard in training, often choosing to ignore them completely. In his book about East Bengal – Mohun Bagan rivalry, Manas Chakravarty tells us how Mukul Dutta, a legendary sports journalist rated Ahmed Khan. According to Dutta, “Excluding foreign players, there has not been any better player who came from outside to play in Calcutta. He could pass accurately. He could play like elastic, moving to and fro between forward line and midfield. He could also shoot with both feet.” Dutta also praised Ahmed Khan’s understanding of tactics though criticized his lack of appetite for goals and weak heading ability.
In the same book Sailen Manna, perhaps his biggest antagonist in that era, but a dear friend off the field, recalls an incident of his shrewdness. In 1949 IFA Shield final, Ahmed Khan committed a sharp foul on Anil De when the match started. De was irate and tried to retaliate, thereby ensuing a cat and mouse game between them on the field. As a result Mohun Bagan’s system lost its shape allowing other East Bengal players to exploit it. Manna also praised Ahmed Khan’s passing and ability to retain possession, as well as his ability to release through passes.
Ahmed Khan’s team-mate Byomkesh Bose, another legendary footballer, once expressed his amazement at how he managed to remain fit and fleet footed despite practicing so little. A stylish player on the pitch, Ahmed Khan also had an off-field affinity towards expensive cigarettes, playing cards and watching films.
In December, 1949 East Bengal narrowly lost to Swedish team Helesingberg. However, Ahmed Khan dished out a scintillating performance in that match and greatly impressed their manager Ulf Leighberg. Leighberg commented after the match that Ahmed Khan had magic in his feet and would have become a world renowned star if he ever played in Europe. In November, 1951, another Swedish team Goteberg FC came to Kolkata. East Bengal defeated them despite being dominated in first half. In “History of Indian Football”, Nirmal Nath recounts a comment from ex-East Bengal captain Chandan Banerjee, “Ahmed Khan mesmerized the Swedish team in second half with some scintillating performance.” Four players from that team later played in 1954 World Cup but on that day, they couldn’t stop Ahmed Khan.
By 1954 East Bengal’s era of domination came to an end as they lost key players. Ahmed Khan stayed till the club till 1960 but he was never able to taste the same level of success as before. Before hanging up his boots, he played for Mohammedan Sporting for a year.
During his trophy laden career with East Bengal, Ahmed Khan won the Calcutta Football League three times (1949, 1950, 1952), IFA Shield four times (1949, 1950, 1951, 1958), Durand Cup two times (1951, 1952) and Rovers Cup in 1949. In total he scored 68 times for East Bengal. He was also selected as the club captain in 1954.
Ahmed Khan’s record for Indian team is enviable as well. His first major tournament for the national team was 1948 London Olympics. India’s performance in their first major international was incredible, as they narrowly lost to France in the only match. Ahmed Khan was one of the stand-out performers for India.
By the time of 1951 Asian Games, Rahim saab had removed most of the players from the 1948 squad but Ahmed Khan was one of the few retained players. He paid back Rahim’s faith by dishing out a series of strong performances as India won the gold medal. He scored a goal as well, finding the net against Indonesia in the opening game.
A year later, the Helsinki Olympics was bit of an anti-climax. Barefoot Indian players struggled to cope with conditions and a half-amateur Yugoslavia side as they lost 10-1. However, India’s only goal, arguably the best in the match, was scored by Ahmed Khan.
Till this day Ahmed Khan remains the most celebrated player in East Bengal. The club has bestowed numerous awards to him including the best forward of last millennium. Despite being largely ignored in his native land, Ahmed Khan was also invited to hoist India’s flag on the occasion of All India Football Federation’s 75th anniversary recently. Strangely, he has never received the Padmashree award, something that went to his great rival Sailen Manna. Ahmed Khan’s long and affectionate relationship with East Bengal will reach another level when he receives the “Pride of India” award from the club. Few players have deserved such an award more.
Sources: History of Indian Football by Nirmal Nath. Goal Less by Boria Mazumdar, Kaushik Bandopadhyay. Stories From Indian Football by Jaydeep Basu. East Bengal – Mohun Bagan Reshareshi – Manas Chakravarty. Articles on Khela and Kick-off magazines.