[VoxSpace Life] The Story Of Barefooted Footballers And India’s FIFA World Cup Dream

Cricket, The ONLY Sport In India

In India, cricket is helmed as a religion – a sport that has the power to stop businesses for a day and instil a deep sense of nationalistic fervour in every Indian. Blame it on the marketing strategy by BCCI or the crores of rupees invested into the game, one cannot deny that cricket is the lifeline of ultimate happiness and celebration in the country – a celebration that knows no race, caste and class distinction. Sadly, India is also the country where seldom is any person encouraged to play any other sport, barring cricket. The money invested by the government to nurture the sportspersons skills is sometimes not even enough to provide for decent training and equipment. It is perhaps the reason behind the failure of India in most other types of sports; including football, because of which we do not qualify for the FIFA World Cup.

However, if we must take a sport’s name, which has been giving quite a strong fight to cricket – at least in some parts of India – it has to be football or soccer, as the Americans call it. In Kerala, West Bengal, and Sikkim among other states, football is the religion that binds people together. From regularly following the interstate club football to cheering for their states at national tournaments, there is a frenzy in these states as far as football is concerned. So what if India could not make it to the World Cup finals? The mayhem surrounding football among Indians is so intense that it led a person from Kolkata to paint his entire house (which is none less than a mansion) in colours of the Argentine flag just because he did not have enough money to go to Russia and support his favourite team Argentina.

Despite This Selective Madness, The National Team Failed To Make It To The FIFA World Cup

It is true that India has a veritable population of football fanatics and some amazing people who love and play the sport with all their hearts. Despite this fact, the National Football Team is nowhere we would want them to be. The main reason for the same is the fact plain and simple – no one with good physical fitness and stamina wants to “waste” his or her energy in football, after all, it is not going to let them anywhere in life. Apart from the huge difference in salary, there is also a lack of recognition, which makes many of the players’ lives after sports quite difficult.

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The Indian Football Team In 1950

All such politics and situational paradox may mar the love for sports in many people. And with India’s yet another failure to achieve a spot in the World Cup 2018 in Russia, the dejection may simply be unspeakable. However, here we shall talk yet another dejection that the entire country had to face once – in 1950 – when India was invited to play the World Cup in Brazil, the Mecca of football.

The AIFF Said NO To This Invitation

The fact that India was invited to play the 1950 FIFA World Cup in Brazil is known to all. However, the reason behind this rejection have mostly been fabricated stories. According to most people, the Indian players were debarred from participating in the event at the last minute because of their poverty. None of the players had sports shoes on. They were completely barefooted out there in the field, trying to play their maiden football World Cup match.

While the verity of this story may not be much questionable now – considering India was indeed a poor country back then, who had just achieved their independence – the truth is actually something else.

Reportedly, the Brazil Football Association invited India to participate in the tournament but it was the All India Football Federation (AIFF), which rejected this offer, thus stalling India’s hope of playing the World Cup for years immemorial.

World Cup Is No Big Deal At All ~ AIFF

Before you blame the AIFF for ruining this great, lifetime opportunity for the country, here’s something to know. According to a record recapitulated by the Sports Illustrated, Olympics was of paramount importance than the World Cup. It records, “At the time, for India, the Olympics was a bigger deal than the FIFA World Cup, which, in 1950, was the fourth edition of the global competition. So the AIFF did not see it fit to send a team halfway around the world via ship. Brazil even offered to sponsor the travel costs, but the AIFF declined.”

Sports Illustrated’s record further recapitulates that it was not just India, who faced such an ordeal. Russia, too, decided not to send its team as it possibly could not travel so far. The European nations, such as France, Portugal, Ireland and Scotland also gave the tournament a miss. Then there was a worry about the Indian sportsmen’s fitness. The Indian men, till then, had played in a 70-minute format of the game. So, possibly, in a different weather condition, they could not last 90 minutes on the field under the harsh Brazilian sun.

According to Sailen Manna, a football legend and Indian team captain in 1950, “We had no idea about the FIFA World Cup then. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger.”

The Indian Team DID Play Barefoot

While the fact that India did not participate in their maiden FIFA World Cup because of the lack of shoes is specifically untrue, it must be noted here that the Indian team playing the sport barefooted is NOT a myth. Here’s a glimpse of what Sports Illustrated had to recapitulate about it: “During the 1948 Olympics, the Indian team either played barefoot or in socks. In the first round against France, Indians managed to hold their opponents at 1-1 until the French found the back of the net in the 89th minute.”

In fact, King George VI was so impressed with the marvellous performance of India that he invited the entire team, which was coached by Syed Abdul Rahim, to the Buckingham Palace. The British media also had a “mystical” name for the team’s forward, Ahmed Khan. His excellent control on the ball earned him the nickname “Snake Charmer”.

However, the next Olympics held in Finland’s Helsinki turned out to be a disaster as the barefooted Indian footballers could not apply their skills on the stony cold turf, and garnered a loss of 1-10 to Yugoslavia.

It was only after the disastrous loss that AIFF made it mandatory for the players to wear shoes during matches.