A Journey that could have changed Indian Football!

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On National Sports Day (29th Aug is celebrated as National Sports Day to commemorate the birthday of Major Dhyan Chand, India’s hockey genius), at a time when we applaud the achievements of our athletes and sports-persons, bringing in medals and accolades at the Asian Games 2018, here’s a story that should inspire many more of our budding sports-stars to greater heights!


A tale about a journey that could have changed the story of Indian football. A journey that never happened!

Many amongst today’s crop of kids, including my own children, dream of a day when India will be playing the FIFA World Cup. Few know however that a legendary Indian football team did in fact qualify for the Football World Cup in 1950. By all accounts, they are regarded as the best generation to have played football for India.

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The Indian Football Team of 1950 that qualified to play at the FIFA World Cup


After achieving independence in 1947, India’s maiden Olympics-appearance as a free nation took place in 1948 in England.

This was the Olympics at which the Indian Field Hockey team defeated the English, to win India’s First Olympic Gold (the drama covered in the recently-released movie Gold starring Akshay Kumar)

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Recently- released film Gold, is set around the 1948 Olympic Games, when India created history by winning the Hockey Gold. It was India’s first Olympics as a free nation and India stunned the world by defeating its colonial master, England, in the final.

At the very same Olympics, the Indian Football Team had impressed many by its determined performance.

And hence, although the FIFA ranking system did not exist back in those days, when the line-up of participants for the 1950 Football World Cup in Brazil was being drawn up, India qualified as the Asian entry, after a few other teams withdrew.

Call it what you will, but despite having qualified, the Indian Football Team did not make that journey to Brazil to play at the World Cup!

Shocking but sadly true.

“Just as victory in the 1983 Cricket World Cup gave Cricket a major boost in India (with media-attention and sponsors), a formidable performance at the 1950 Football World Cup, would no doubt, have been a game-changer for Indian football. “

Sajjad Alam

Soccer Coach, Founder of TSA, and Central Defender in Indian Customs Dept Team.

Why the Indian team didn’t go for the 1950 FIFA World Cup despite qualifying

Several theories exist about why India didn’t go.

Theory 1 – India couldn’t afford the trip

One of the many stories about why India did not go despite having qualified, relates to funds.

India had just become a free nation and had many more serious and urgent needs to attend to. Brazil was very far away and it cost a lot of money to send over a dozen people by ship to the other end of the world.

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Coming close upon the heels of the birth of Independent India, it is said the young nation could not afford to send a football team half way across the world for a tournament.

Only two years ago when the Indian team had landed in London for the Olympics of 1948, they had feared disqualification on the grounds of non-payment of fee.

Yet, those who refute this theory say that the organisers had in fact offered to pay part of the expenses for the Indian team to travel to Brazil and hence this couldn’t be the real reason.

Theory 2 – Indians couldn’t play with shoes!

Back in those days, the Indian Football Team is said to have played without shoes. (Those who’ve seen the movie Pele would know that many others did so too!)

At the Olympics in 1948, the Indian football team did not wear shoes. However, FIFA made it clear that all teams participating in the 1950 World Cup were required to play with shoes.

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FIFA insisted that all teams participating at the 1950 World Cup play with shoes. Having played competitively for so long without shoes, including at the 1948 Olympics, it is said Indians were not accustomed to the idea of playing with boots.

Based on this, some say that Indians were uncomfortable playing with shoes and hence decided to skip the World Cup!

Again, there are those who refute this by saying that many in the Indian team were in fact accustomed to playing with shoes and that no team would have made such a decision.

Theory 3 – Nobody thought much of the Football World Cup

In the mid-20th century, the Olympics were the pinnacle of Sports. Achieving glory at that stage was the dream of every sportsman. During this period, World Cups (of any sport) either did not exist or did not seem like a big deal.

The Football World Cup just did not command as much respect or attention as the Olympics back in those days

Living in modern times when even club matches garner huge viewership, it is perhaps difficult to understand that point of view.

But if one could get into their shoes (oops..no shoes here!), perhaps one could understand why India did not think much about going for the tournament.

Theory 4 – Not Wanting to be counted as Professional Footballers

Back in those days, sportsmen would participate in the Olympics only if they were amateurs. If one were a professional, he/she could not take part.

Thus, even great football stars like Ferenec Pusckas from Hungary got jobs in the military (although Pusckas could scarcely shoot a gun!) just in order to have a different profession and not be counted as a professional footballer.

Given this rule, some say that the Indian footballers did not want to jeopardise their chances of playing at the Olympics (which was seen as a far more important tournament) by participating in the World Cup and running the risk of being counted as professional footballers.

Again, this theory too is refuted as almost everybody in the 1950 football team had jobs -either in organizations like the Railways or the Police or held some other governmental position.
Theory 5 – Not The Whole 90 Minutes

Another reason cited is that India (up until 1970s) played a 70 minute match (as per the rules here) and that players were not accustomed to playing a 90 minute game.

But this again say experts, seems like a flimsy excuse and is unlikely to have been true.
Theory 6 – The Official Version
The official reason given by the AIFF for India’s withdrawal was that there were issues over team selection and further that the Indian team lacked training, perhaps referring to the fact that the team was not used to playing in shoes. It also cited insufficient practice time as one of the reasons.

But today, there are few takers for this official story as well.

So What Really Happened?

Well…No one can say for sure.

But here’s what has been reported by a writer who interviewed Salien Manna, who would have been captain had that team actually played at the World Cup.

“We had no idea about the World Cup then. Had we been better informed, we would have taken the initiative ourselves. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger.”

Given this, it does appear like the other stories about shoes and money were not really the reason the team did not make the trip.

It was really a matter of what the World Cup meant back then.

Just not what it means right now.
Heroes of a Bygone Era

The team of 1950 and that era is said to have been one of the best India has had for Football. Here’s a quick glimpse.

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S.A. Rahim, the Coach of that legendary team is said to have been one of India’s finest coaches who took the team to its highest glories of winning Gold at the Asian Games.
Salien Manna who played for Mohun Bagan, was likely to be Captain of the Indian team had they played the WC in Brazil.
Ahmed Khan footballer.jpg
Ahmed Khan, who also played for Mohan Bagan, was known for his intricate passing and dribbling. He is regarded as one of India’s finest footballers.

It is said that Manna, Ahmed Khan and some of the others like Sattar and S Raman were not comfortable playing in shoes. But it does appear that that couldn’t have been a reason to keep them away from the world stage.

The striker of this team was S.Mewalal and the mid-fielder was one Talimeran Aao who was said to have been a medical student at that time.

From amongst the others S.K.Azizuddin, Noor Mohammad and Moin were from Hyderabad, all of whom played for the Hyderabad City Police team.

BPA Saleh and Sunil Nandy were two more players from Bengal while the goal-keeper of the team was K.L Varadaraj from Mysore.

What if…

In the 1950 World Cup draw, India had been placed in Pool III with Sweden, Italy and Paraguay. The Asian entry had gone to India after Philippines, Indonesia and Burma withdrew from the event. (You see….we were not the only ones to withdraw!)

Apparently, Paraguay was not a formidable team and India was in a position to match them.

Further, the Italian team had just emerged from a national tragedy. Eight players of the team had died in a plane crash and the replacement team were neither as good nor in a suitable mental state to play.

Sweden of course was a great side.

Given this combination, sports experts say India could have held their own and done well.

“Till the mid-60s, India was amongst the top three in Asian football. In both, the 1951 Asian games at Delhi and the 1962 Asian games at Jakarta, India won the gold medal in football. This withdrawal from the 1950 World Cup was a major setback for Indian football.”

Novy Kapadia

Sports Columnist

If India had made that journey then, no doubt the story of Indian football would have been dramatically different.

Looking Ahead

The story from here on can be different too. With India doing well for themselves in the U-18 World Cup and the emergence of heroes like Sunil Chhetri.

Sunil Chhetri is one of the heroes of modern-day Indian football

But we must look ahead of the What-If Story and look Beyond if we are to progress.

Sports may seem meaninglesss to some. It may be the sole purpose of life to others. While I didn’t care much for Sports at all, I can see Football means the world to my children. And to many other kids growing up in all parts of the world.

Fitness, Agility, Life-skills, Dealing with Failure, Learning to Work as a Team etc are no doubt the lessons of any sport. But more importantly, I see how the game contributes to their sense of Self-Worth and Self Esteem.


Whether they win or they lose, a well-fought game makes them hold their heads high.

When India performs well in an International Sports Event, I see them feeling confident and proud.

Surely the dream of seeing India play in the FIFA World Cup in the next two decades is a lofty one. But here is a generation that wants to make it happen.

“Being an Indian and working towards the goal of seeing India play in a FIFA World Cup, I am optimistic. But we need to set smaller immediate future targets like SAFF dominance, Asian glory and making policy changes.”

Dennis Fernandez

CEO Hon, India Rush Soccer Club, kick-starting plans for a Residential Facility to support development of elite football players in India.

And so it is, that I promised the kids, that amongst the dozens of stories that I write for Children about History, I would also write for them, a story about Sports History – telling them something inspiring about their favourite game.

To them and to all those little budding footballers out there who dream of seeing India play at the World Cup, it would no doubt be assuring and inspiring to know, that there was a day when India was good enough for that world stage.

PS – My son often spends hours drawing his favourite football stars. Most of the time, he is drawing something along these lines…


After hearing the story of this great Indian Football Team of 1950, here’s what I found him drawing….

A little story can give us new heroes 🙂 The Nation awaits another generation of our very own Soccer Stars!


  • subhasraomallya
    August 29, 2018 - 2:44 pm ·

    The most beautiful and moving story I have read, interspersed with pictures that seem to be unadulterated pouring of children’s love for the game.
    The concept the style of story telling and ofcourse those drawing made me read the whole thing again. This for a person who never ever reads the sports page of the newspapers

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