The bare footed eleven

My younger son is always talking about shoes, like he is crazy about Lakers star ‘Kobe Bryant’. He is forever looking for new basketball shoes, and has no qualms even about wearing yellow and purple Lakers shoes that we have so far managed to forbid purchase of…There was a time when I had just one pair - a North star shoe from Bata which was fantastic (rumour has it was an prize winning design by N Singh in 1960, but got introduced in India after a lot was rejected by a ‘phoren’ buyer in the 70’s eventually becoming a rage in India) till its PVC heel detached itself and flew off in the desert heat of Riyadh’s roads (that story was covered in an Earlier blog), but then, today foot accessories are big business.

During college days, I used to see soccer matches, especially the Sait Nagjee and Santosh trophy matches. Calicut was a football crazy place and my room mate Soman was a big time fan. So we used to go watch the clubs like Mohan Bagan, Mohamedan’s, Titanium, state teams like Goa & Kerala, playing at the flood lit stadium…and watching the mastery of players like Victor Manjila (his precision half volley kick from the goal line was legendary). However Indian football then & now remains sanctioned to state levels & club levels and in the hearts of such diehard fans, unfortunately never reaching world levels. Since then there has only one Indian claim to international football fame – the parentage of the ever so pretty Parminder Nagra from ‘Bend it like Beckham’ now a lead in ER(she even became FIA football personality of 2002, but saw India for the first time only in 2003!).

Well, there was once a time when India did not participate in Olympic football because they would not wear shoes while playing. For 39 years until that date, Indian footballers played without shoes, excelling in the game, winning many a tournament. Let us take a look at those heady days. It was a time when players did not have million dollar endorsements for scoring goals with their hands or sitting out on the bench or head butting others in fury.

It was 29th of July, 1911, 96 years back, when the Indian freedom movement found a new avenue towards the independence when Mohun Bagan defeated East Yorkshire Regiment by 2-1. Eleven bare footed men showed their character and came from behind not only to equalize but ultimately won the shield. It was on that day when Mohun Bagan Athletic Club became an example towards the subservient Indians and that phenomenon transformed the whole nation. Mohun Bagan Athletic Club became the first ever Indian team to win the IFA Shield and to pay the tribute; 29th July has been celebrated as Mohun Bagan Day

The first overseas trip for Indian footballers was finally realized in 1948
. The occasion was the biggest sporting congregation of the world - the Olympics - and the venue even more enticing - London. The patronage of the Indian government ensured that for the first time an Indian football team set sail for Europe. It was a team stitched together under the captaincy of the celebrated Mohun Bagan captain Dr. Talimeren Ao. The squad included other stalwarts such as Sahu Mewalal, Ahmed Khan, S. Raman, Dhanraj and of course Manna. "There was no elaborate preparation. We only played a few matches against local teams under our trainer Baliadas Chatterjee. There was no concept of a coach at that time," recalls Manna. "We had to travel for more than three weeks and the deck of our ship became the training field. We would do the fitness drills everyday and practice shooting with balls dangled by ropes. We were cheered by other people travelling with us." Manna's face gleams as his memory flashes images. "We lost the match 1-2 against France but our performance drew huge cheers as we were challenging the Europeans bare-footed," says Manna. The biggest appreciation came from the English monarchy. "Princess Margaret had asked me during a reception at Buckingham Palace, `Aren't you afraid of playing barefooted against boots?' We could not say that there was no fund for buying boots. We just grinned and said playing without them was more comfortable," says Manna with a hint of pride.

Who was the only Asian footballer ever to be named among the best 10 captains in the world? The man in question is Sailendra Nath (Sailen) Manna - the former Indian captain who fetched the country a host of international laurels including the first Asian Games gold in 1951. Today, Manna, is the representative of the period when Indian football was at its peak. Manna's exploits at the helm of the Indian national team had prompted the England Football Association to rate him among the 10 best skippers of the world in its yearbook of 1953. That was the best of times. The euphoria of newly gained independence was sweeping across the nation.

The Indian team qualified for the 1950 World Cup in Brazil, but could not appear as they still played in their bare feet at that time. Wearing shoes was a mandatory requirement by FIFA. There are also some statements & reports that it was only an attributed reason, the board did not apparently have the resources to send the team abroad!!

India faced disappointment in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. "We were still the `barefooted bunch' as most of us were unaccustomed to boots," says Manna. "We could only see snow all around. We were freezing on the ground. The chill proved too much against a well-accomplished team like Yugoslavia." India bowed out of the tournament losing 1-10.

Mohammed Abdul Salim from Calcutta played for Celtic, the first club to win the European cup, but had to bandage his feet. Called the Indian juggler, Celtics website explains why & even have a fantastic poem on him –
check it out

After showing amazing skills as an essential member of Calcutta's Mohammedan Sporting Club side, a cousin urged Salim to try his hand at European football. During his trial at Celtic Park, which came after an enduring boat trip via Cairo and London, Salim's ability even in bare feet astonished Willie Maley. On his debut in 1937 Salim, in bare feet, proved exceptional helping Celtic win 5-1. In his second match against Galston, Celtic won 7-1 and his performance led the Scottish Daily Express to write: "Indian Juggler - New Style." Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic FC's player from India, hypnotised the crowd at Parkhead. He balanced the ball on his big toe, lets it run down the scale to his little toe, twirls it, and hops on one foot around the defender." The board would have been happy, there is not truth that they tried to get the rest of our players to go bare footed, boots are expensive you know.

Salim even refused to take penalties out of shyness (too easy for him, perhaps?). When he decided to go back to India due to homesickness, Celtic offered to pay him 5% of the gate proceeds. In those days it was GBP 1,800, a princely amount, per day. He gifted all of it, until he left Britain, to orphans who were provided entry using this amount. ‘A social history of Indian football’ provides more details to those interested. Can you believe that 1000 club members were there to witness the selection session that Celtic laid out for Salim, before he was chosen?

For those interested in the origins of Football - Recorded in a military manual dating back to the Han dynasty (200-300 BC), it is usually believed that the Chinese Tsu Chu is the earliest form of football known to man.Two 30-feet high bamboo canes were used to suspend a large piece of silk cloth with a hole 30cm-40cm in diameter cut into it and competitors would attempt to kick a leather ball through it. Tsu Chu, it seems was played to celebrate the emperor's birthday and the penalty for losing was death.


narendra shenoy said…
This is such an awesome post! I love football, much better than cricket, even though we have done little (as I thought) to distinguish ourselves in it. Glad to know that we had people of great distinction despite the obvious economic adversity.

Also touched by Salim's gifting away 1800 pounds - enough to buy a jagir in India - without second thought. Where have these Indians gone?
GVK said…
Manna. I hsve watched him play in Durand Cup. Your piece took me back to my Delhi school days in the 50s. Moin (Hyderabad Police), Venkatesh (E.Bengal Club)are the other names that come to mind. Wasn't there a bare-footed forward named Mewalal who dribbled his way past the opponents right down to the goalpost, in many instances. I believe he represented the Railway. Hindustan Aircraft (Bangalore) had a good team, captained by it goolie Thangaraj. And then film actor Prem had sponsored a team (was it Bombay Dynamos ?)
Interest in football is one of things I shared with my father, who was otherwise a distant figure. We used to go to the Durand Cup matches together.
Good one. Perhaps the Bombay team that actor Prem (or was it Pran?) sponsored mentioned by GVK was India Culture League. They did well for some time.

I'm under the impression that up to and and inclusive of Manna, all India football captains were from Mohun Bagan. Is that true?
Do you see a pattern in the fact that football (soccer) is most popular in Kerala and West Bengal? :-)

Amazing how economic rewards can trigger the application of talent - my point being that the reason cricket in India attracts the most talent is because of the economic rewards.

narendra shenoy said…
Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab

Another reason for the popularity of cricket is said to be the non-contact nature of the sport which they say appeals to Indian casteist feelings. Sounds like a sweeping generalization to me, but wacky enough to have a grain of truth. What do you think?
Nah, you give us enough money, and we'll play full-contact kabaddi. Jaath gaye bhadh mein ;-)

Ottayan said…
I remember that 'North Star'.

How I begged and pleaded with my Dad.
Maddy said…
Narendra - how right you are - they are all gone - now we are a matlabi lot..
GVK - how right you are - today soccer is consigned to lower levels with cricket taking over..Pran it was who had his team..your comment about the trip with your dad for soccer reminded me of the scene in kite runner!!
Abe - I am not sure about all captains being from Bagan...I tried to find out but very little on the net!!
BPSK - It is not just money, but contact sports were not favoured by the Indian elite as narendra mentioned and thus Soccer had no 'pan indian' support. Those days it was not cool - it was for the rabble rousers, perhaps!!Polo & cricket found support from historic times!!
Ottayan - Only those who wore a Noth star or desired one would understand!!

Popular Posts