Football had enjoyed a somewhat long-lived presence in India, having been introduced by the British military in the nineteenth century, with a strong early presence in the colonial capital, Calcutta. The three classic domestic competitions the Durand Cup, the Rovers Cup and the IFA Shield date from 1888, 1891 and 1893 respectively. The game was dominated by regimental teams before the First World War, although the first Indian team is believed to be Mohun Bagan (formed in 1891). A pivotal moment came in 1911 when Mohun Bagan defeated the East Yorkshire Regiment to win the IFA Shield.
Football in India was mostly organised on a regional basis, with different associations covering different geographical areas. The game essentially developed in garrison towns and in addition to Calcutta there was a strong presence in Bombay, Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi amongst other cities. In 1937 the All India Football Federation was established to provide a single body to administer the game throughout the country.
The presence of substantial numbers of British troops in the Sub Continent during the Second World War helped boost the game and tours by British Forces teams towards the end of the hostilities provided a tremendous boost at all levels. Indian teams got a chance to test their skills against professional players from Britain and put up some credible performances, most notably in February 1945 when an Indian FA team drew and then narrowly lost to the professional tourists. Towards the end of 1945 an IFA team also conducted a national tour.
India was awarded independence in 1947, followed by a traumatic period of domestic upheaval following the partition with Pakistan but nevertheless, the game was in a relatively healthy state by 1948 when it was decided to enter a team at that year’s Olympic tournament in London. Following a series of trials, a 17-man squad was chosen, with a further three players selected in reserve. The players were drawn from just three areas in the country: Calcutta, Mysore/Bangalore and Bombay and the clubs set out to raise funds with a series of charity games arranged.
The initial squad of 17 comprised the following players:
Goalkeepers: Kenchappa Varadaiah Varadaraj (Bangalore Blues, Mysore), Sanjiva Uchil (Trades India SC, Bombay)
Full Backs: Sailendra Nath Manna (Mohun Bagan, Bengal), Taj Mohamed (Mohun Bagan, Bengal), Mathew Papen [also known as Thomas Varghese] (Tata SC, Bombay)
Half Backs: Talimeran Aao (Mohun Bagan, Bengal), Mahabir Prasad (Mohun Bagan, Bengal), Syed M Kaiser (Bengal), Anil Nandy (Eastern Railway SC, Bengal), Sattar Bashir (Mysore)
Forwards: Balasundra Nataraja Vajravelu (Mysore), Ramachandra Balaram Parab (Trades India SC, Bombay), Sahu Mewalal (Mohun Bagan, Bombay), Santosh Nandy (Eastern Railway SC, Bengal), Ahmed Khan (Mysore), Sarangapani Raman (Mysore), Kadirvelu Ponnwangam Dhanraj (Mysore)
Reserves: Robi Das (Bhawanipore, Bengal), Sunil Ghosh (East Bengal, Bengal), SM Dey
A total of 18 players made the journey, although only 17 travelled on the TSS Empire Brent, with Robi Das arriving separately. The passenger lists provide full names, occupations and ages for the squad. This information reveals that five of the squad were students, four worked in ‘service’ occupations, three for railway companies (two being described as ‘worker’ and one as ‘official’), two were merchants, one was in business, one was employed by the Police Department and one was a motor mechanic. As a group they mostly fell into categories where it would be possible to take extended leave to attend the tournament – thus students, those in public service and those playing for teams associated with large and prestigious companies dominated. This was essential as the squad underwent five weeks special training before their departure from India at the beginning of June and they were absent from the country for around four months before their return.
The squad played a fundraising warm-up fixture against a team drawn from Calcutta’s two great rivals East Bengal and Mohun Bagan shortly after the squad was announced and a further two games after assembling in Bombay for their departure. Despite delivering a 4-0 thrashing to Afghanistan, also en route for London, they were few expectations of the team and the Times of India (3 June 1948) rather gloomily recorded: “On this showing [the exhibition match against Trades India SC] not even the most ardent supporter of Indian football can hold out anything but a slender hope of India surviving the preliminary round of the International contest.”
Along with members of the country’s Olympic squads for other sports, the team left Bombay aboard the TSS Empire Brent on 4 June, arriving in Liverpool almost three weeks later. On arrival the squad was initially based at a camp in Richmond Park, later moving to their permanent accommodation for the games, Pinner County School.
The 1948 Olympic Games tournament was something of a haphazard affair. Five nations withdrew shortly before the tournament started, and the fixture schedule had to be rearranged. India had originally been drawn to play Burma, a game they almost certainly would have won, but their opponents, along with Hungary, Pakistan, Palestine and Poland, withdrew late on and when the draw was made for a second time, India was matched with France.
The first round tie with France was played at Ilford’s Newbury Park where the Indians put on a display well beyond expectations and came close to victory over their opponents. In fact had they been more accurate from the penalty spot they would have won, for two missed spot kicks cost them the game. Nevertheless, they proved to be the equal of their more experienced Western European opponents for much of the game and won over the spectators with their style of football.
Although eliminated the team had put up a good fight and the Official Report of the Games (p.384) noted:
Playing without boots, as did nine of the Indian team, gave them speed off the mark and lightness in their feet. This advantage they often threw away by hesitation in front of goal. Several had their feet bound in bandages to make up for lack of footwear, but not one shirked even the heaviest tackle.
Having been defeated the team’s involvement with the tournament was over. After a short break they made a visit to the Netherlands where they played three games, most successfully defeating Ajax 5-1. Then it was back to the UK, where they played a further five exhibition games including two against Wales Amateurs, representative sides from the Isthmian and Athenian Leagues and also Boldmere St Michael’s, one of the leading amateur teams. Then it was back to Liverpool for a 4 September departure for Bombay on the Circassia. By the time they had returned the players had missed virtually all the domestic season.
The Indian team played in a style favoured by many colonial sides of this period, using the centre half as the pivot of the team rather than as a third back, as was the established formation in professional English soccer.
Their centre-half, the burly T. Aao, was no policeman, he acted as distributor and lent a hand where needed most in defence. The full-backs covered the middle alternately and the wing halves took the wingers. (Ilford Recorder, 26 August 1948)
The Wrexham Leader reporter ‘Wanderer’ was completely won over by the tourists, describing the first fixture with Wales Amateurs as ‘the game of a lifetime’.
Since League football was first introduced on Wrexham Racecourse, I have never seen a game of such quality and purity as that displayed in the first of the two amateur international games between Wales and India … Eight of the Indians were bootless, but that did not reduce the power of their kicking. Their accuracy was uncanny, their passing immaculate, and what an object lesson they provided in keeping the ball on the ground. Few teams will ever leave the Wrexham ground midst a greater ovation than those Indians received.
(Wrexham Leader, 27 August 1948)
When placing their Olympic performance in context, it should be noted that France met Great Britain in the next round, losing by a single goal. The Indians returned home no doubt wiser and with their first experience of an international tournament behind them, laying foundations for their success in the Asian Games just three years later when they defeated Iran 1-0 in the final.
A longer version of this article appeared in issue 29 of Soccer History magazine and is available as a download from www.soccer-history.co.uk.