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Déjà View | Go fourth in triumph

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-06-2014 Sidin Vadukut

Finally. After all those years and months and weeks of waiting, another FIFA World Cup is upon us. I don’t know about you, but I am one of those people who record and recall all the important incidents in their lives with respect to whichever World Cup was in the nearest chronological proximity.

Indeed, the mere mention of different World Cups brings back memories of various life-stages. Italia ’90 symbolises an insouciant childhood. USA ’94 instantly reminds one of one’s rebellious baggy denims interlude. And France ’98 brings back rich memories of my Bee Ge… I mean Pink Floyd and Wishbone Ash phase.

There is one aspect of my World Cup fandom that always leaves me a little sad: the complete and utter absence of India in it. The story of Indian football’s rise and fall, and strengths and weaknesses is much too complex and lengthy to be covered in these meagre column inches.

But I am sure we can find just about enough space to talk about a moment that many fans reckon is one of the greatest chapters in Indian football history.

At the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne a somewhat unfenced Indian team reached the semifinals and eventually came fourth in the competition, with India’s Neville D’Souza ending the tournament as joint top-scorer with four goals.

This performance by India came right in the middle of what many call the golden age of Indian football. For a decade-and-a-half from around 1950, Indian football achieved success at a regional and international level that it has since never come close to repeating.

India famously qualified for the 1950 World Cup. Urban legend has it that the team eventually didn’t go because it wasn’t allowed to play barefoot. The real story, as told by Chandrahas Choudhury in a recent Bloomberg View column, is quite different. One reason for this refusal was that football administrators in India considered the honourable Olympic tournament more important than that FIFA jamboree. So they focused on the Olympics, and qualified consistently.

Six years later India qualified for the 1956 Melbourne games as one of six Asian teams out of a total of 16. Unlike India, most of the top teams in the world had already started to focus on the World Cup. Besides, professionals were debarred from the Games, and the strong teams came from the Eastern Bloc. Hungary, also hitting a singular purple patch in their footballing history at that point, were favourites to win in 1956.

What followed were a slew of withdrawals that all fell perfectly in India’s favour. First, several Asian teams withdrew from the qualifiers, granting India automatic qualification.

Next, India got a bye in the first round in Melbourne. This may have been India’s greatest stroke of luck, for the original draw had India facing Hungary. But the Magyars also withdrew, allowing India to sail through to a match with Australia in the second round.

Neville D’Souza scored a hat-trick, and India swept past the Aussies with a 4-2 victory. In the semifinals they faced a fierce Yugoslavia, who had crushed the USA 9-1.

“India provided much stronger competition in the semifinal,” records the official report of the Games.

Both teams went into half time tied at nil-nil. Minutes later an upset was on the cards after the resumption, when D’Souza scored his fourth of the Games.

It is at this point that a peculiarity of the then Indian domestic game came to bite the team. For some odd reason, club matches back home in the 1950s were 70 minutes long. Team captain Samar Banerjee said in a 2012 interview with Goal.com that even training matches were limited to 70-minute sessions.

This meant that the Yugoslavs quickly began to dominate a tiring Indian side. The match ended 4-1. An exhausted team then went on to lose to Bulgaria (3-0) in the third-fourth play-off.

On paper it wasn’t a particularly great tournament for India. The team did only win once. It is tempting to think that against a full roster of 16 teams India may have not got fourth place at all.

Maybe. But maybe not. This was, by all accounts, a really good team. “Trained for the shorter matches played at home, and unaccustomed to wearing boots, the Indians adapted themselves admirably to international conditions of play,” records the official Games chronicle.

The Melbourne Games, in a sense, marked an inflection point for the national side. They won the Asian Games gold in 1962 and came runner-up in the AFC Asian Cup in 1964. The 1960 Rome Olympics saw them eliminated at the group stage, but only after holding France to a commendable 1-1 draw.

But then came the decline. India’s last major international footballing prize was a bronze at the 1970 Asian Games. The platform built in the fifties and sixties is now crumbling.

I am, however, optimistic. With a new generation of young fans watching international football and keenly following exciting teams such as Arsenal and Barcelona, we may soon hear the patter of studded feet again. We have done it before, we could do it again.

Allez Inde!

Every week, Déjà View scours historical research and archives to make sense of current news and affairs.

To read Sidin Vadukut’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/dejaview--

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