There is no clear-cut reason for why India did not participate in the 1950 World Cup. The Government of India never discouraged such participation. In fact, India’s first prime minister after Independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, realized the value of sports in building a nation and developing an international identity. From whatever evidence is available from those years, it seems AIFF procrastinated and let this opportunity slip by. Indian football is still paying the penalty for missing this once in a lifetime chance.
The popular myth for the withdrawal is that the AIFF declined as most of the Indian stars played barefoot and would be out of their depth if, as per FIFA rules, they would have been made to wear boots. The AIFF feared that against professional teams, India would lose heavily and would mar the reputation they had earned in the 1948 London Olympics. Other factors, such as paucity of foreign exchange and the long journey by ship, are said to have forced India to pull out. Another excuse offered was that Indian players were not used to 90-minute matches. This was correct as, until the 1970s, matches in India’s domestic competitions used to be 70 minutes – implying that invariably teams would tire towards the end and concede late goals. With some physical training, this hurdle could have been crossed.
The reality was probably a concatenation of several reasons, boots being just one of them. India, as an impoverished, newly independent country, was unsure about the big investment that participation entailed, not to mention the month-long journey by ship to distant Brazil. Also, in 1950, the World Cup lacked the glamour and universal appeal that it has nowadays. So the AIFF may have wanted to concentrate on the Olympic football tournament and forthcoming 1951 Asian Games in Delhi. The AIFF officials of that era did not think the World Cup was an event momentous enough to warrant sending their players halfway across the globe. The Indian players also did not realize the importance of the World Cup and so took no initiative to participate. Due to the gold medals won by the Indian hockey team, they considered the Olympics as the more important event.
There was also the needless apprehension that if India took part in the World Cup, then their players would be branded as professionals and prevented from taking part in the Olympics and Asian Games. In those days, only amateurs could participate in the Olympics.
Lack of clarity about the rules may also have prevented India from taking part in the 1950 World Cup. In football this distinction between professionals and amateurs existed only for countries like England, Spain, Italy and Brazil where organized professional leagues existed. The socialist bloc of nations, particularly the East Europeans, openly defied such distinctions and claimed that their players served in the Army and so were not professionals. All their legendary players like Ferenc Puskas, Jozsef Bozsik and Nandor Hidegkuti (Hungary), and Lev Yashin and Igor Netto (USSR) took part in both the Olympics and the World Cups.
The apprehension that Indian players would have been out of depth because they had to wear football boots is also exaggerated. It has just become a self-perpetuating myth. The Hyderabad- and some Mysore-based players regularly wore boots during matches. They could have easily adjusted in the 1950 World Cup, where playing in boots was compulsory. Many of India’s star players like Ahmed Khan, M.A. Sattar, S. Raman and Manna were comfortable playing barefoot. However, the AIFF had been given ample time (almost a year) to prepare the team and could have accustomed these players to playing with boots.
The immediate consequences for India were disastrous. FIFA, annoyed at India’s last minute withdrawal, refused to accept the AIFF’s entry for the 1954 World Cup. For three decades after that, a type of cold war persisted between the AIFF and FIFA. It was only in the 1980s, at the insistence of the general secretary the late Ashok Ghosh, that the situation was amended.
India finally participated in the qualifying rounds of the 1986 World Cup and played in an Asian qualifying group in March-April 1985 along with Indonesia, Thailand and Bangladesh. The late Sudeep Chatterjee, a central midfielder, was the captain and India lost their first qualifier (an away match to Indonesia 1–2). In the home matches at Calcutta (now Kolkata), India drew 1–1with both Thailand and Indonesia, and beat Bangladesh 2–1 but failed to progress from the group. India has taken part in every World Cup qualifier since then.
It is now felt that if India, as a fledgling independent nation, had taken part in the 1950 World Cup, it would have given an impetus to the game in the country. It could have been a catalyst to hasten the onset of professionalism in Indian football and improve the status of the game in the country – steps to make Indian clubs professional were instead taken 60 years later in 2010.
Till the mid-1960s, India was amongst the top three in Asian football. In both the 1951 Asian Games in Delhi and the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta, India won the gold medal in football. In a regional competition known as the Quadrangular Tournament, India were unbeaten champions for four successive years. The late S.A. Rahim of Hyderabad, a highly respected tactician, was India’s coach during this successful era. Due to his coaching prowess, India was one of the first Asian countries to play in the then modern 4–2–4 formation. In the inaugural 1964 Asia Cup at Tel Aviv, India finished runner-up, narrowly losing 0–1 to Israel in the final. India also won the gold medal in the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games football competitions.
If only India, or rather AIFF, had accepted the challenge in 1950, the international media exposure would have made our footballers household names. The late Sailen Manna, likely captain for the 1950 World Cup, always admitted, ‘Indian football would have been on a different level had we made that journey.’
It is a case of what might have been.
Excerpted with permission from “The Football Fanatic’s Essential Guide: 2018 World Cup Special” by Novy Kapadia, published by Hachette India.