From Giants To Minnows: The Intriguing Journey Of Indian Football
Indian football has fallen from the grace. What used to be the most dominant force in Asian football has become a push-over and a practice team in what was once it’s own backyard.
India, a country of over 1.25 billion people is one of the poorest footballing nation in the world, the solid reason behind which is still a mystery.
It’s not like India was always bad at football, it’s also not because India never qualified for any major tournament.
In-fact, the 1950’s to early 1960’s are considered as the golden era of Indian football.
Indian team fared decently in the 1948 London Olympics, going head-to-head against a much stronger French side.
The heroic efforts of the Indian team went into drain after a late goal helped France seize the game 2-1, but the efforts and display of the Indian team made headlines worldwide.
Whats more interesting is that the Indian team played the game barefoot, however this fairy-tale was soon to end as FIFA imposed restrictions about wearing shoes to participate in the 1950 World Cup.
India still managed to get invited to Brazil to participate in the World Cup, but due to the lack of sincerity and willingness of the AIFF, the Men in Blue, never took-off.
This was just the start of India’s golden period as the Blue Tigers under the tutelage of Syed Abdul Rahim dominated the Asian circuit from 1951 to 1964.
Hosts India won the 1951 Asian Games, beating the likes of Indonesia, Afghanistan and in the final they beat the mighty Iran.
This was followed by a successful Colombo Quadrangular cup triumph in 1952.
Though, India was humiliated by Yugoslavia in the 1952 Olympics as they was smashed 10-1 by the Yugoslavs, this was just a minor set-back.
Meanwhile, the Indian team kept dominating Asia, as they went on to win the 1953, 1954 and 1955 editions of the Quadrangular Cup, while finishing as Runners-Up in the 1954 Asian Games.
At one time in 1956, India reached the semi-finals of the Olympics. However, India again lost to Yugoslavia 4-1 in the semi’s and 3-0 to Bulgaria in the third place play-off’s.
The 1958 Asian Games held in Tokyo saw India finish fourth, which was followed by a second place finish at the Merdeka Cup in 1959.
In 1960, India failed to qualify for the Asian Cup, but the team bounced back stronger by winning the 1962 Seoul Asian Games.
The 1962 Seoul Asian Games also started the decline of one Asia’s biggest footballing power, as India struggled to achieve the former glory.
India did manage to finish third in the 1970 Asian games, but they were no longer the power house that they once used to be.
The decline of Indian football started in 1963, after the untimely death of the legendary coach and mentor Syed Abdul Rahim, who succumbed to cancer.
AIFF took almost no initiatives to build on the success that the team had during the period, and even the mass popularity of the sport failed to force the football governing body of India to take measures to improve in its efforts.
The lackluster efforts of AIFF and the continuous decline in the performance of the team created a vacuum in the minds of Indian sports fans, which was eventually filled by Cricket.
The worse thing to hit Indian football after AIFF’s reluctance to improve infrastructure was the emergence of Cricket.
Cricket started becoming immensely popular by mid 1970’s, Indian middle-class had found a new sport to watch, a new passion to follow.
As footballs free-fall continued, some parts of India continued to cherish and maintain the standard of Indian football(or at-least tried).
Goa, Kerala and the North-East of India remained football crazy while the rest of the nation was gripped by Cricket fever, however, Bengal and primarily Kolkata, became the epicenter of football circuit in India during the decline period.
East Bengal and Mohan Bagan, became power houses of Indian football, occasionally implying there trade in Asian club football, but the two giants could not help the national team.
India has come a long way(or should i say gone back a long way) from being the most feared team in Asia, to an extra, who big teams play for practice in qualifiers. though there is still hope, the emergence of Indian Super League has opened new doors for football in India. The huge crowds during ISL matches has shown that this Cricket crazy nation still has some football left in it’s veins.