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Business News/ News / Business Of Life/  The mystery of barefoot footballers
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The mystery of barefoot footballers

In 'The Best of Indian Sports Writing', Arindam Basu writes on India and the 1950 World Cup

The Best of Indian Sports Writing: Edited by Sundeep Misra, Wisdom Tree, 173 pages, Rs295.Premium
The Best of Indian Sports Writing: Edited by Sundeep Misra, Wisdom Tree, 173 pages, Rs295.


Extract | The Best of Indian Sports Writing

Legend has it that they swept the ground like an approaching tornado. On the turf they played like giants, the opposition completely dwarfed. The fans, dazzled by their talent and charm, came back for more. They were the legends of Indian football, often referred to as immortals by later generations. I first saw Sailen Manna, one of the immortals, as a kid during a prize distribution ceremony in our locality. I had always heard snatches of a story that the Indian football team was denied a chance of playing in the 1950 World Cup because they could not buy boots. I looked at the frail figure of Sailen Manna and envisioned in my mind his youthful, despondent image. Years passed by and it was a forgotten chapter, until I stumbled upon a report in an old newspaper while doing some research work on football.

It was a Press Trust of India (PTI) report published in a Bengali newspaper that got me ticking. The initial search resulted in some deadpan facts. The World Cup of football had not been staged since 1938. The 1942 and 1946 editions were both cancelled due to World War II. After the war, FIFA was keen to resurrect the competition as soon as possible and they began making plans for a World Cup tournament to take place. For some time, the World Cup was at risk of not being held out of sheer disinterest from the international community, until Brazil presented a bid at the 1946 FIFA Congress, offering to host the event on condition that the tournament take place in 1950.

India was in Group 10 of the qualification round for the 1950 World Cup. But three other teams in the group—Burma, Indonesia and Philippines—withdrew, giving India an automatic berth into the final. But, quite inexplicably, India did not participate in the World Cup. For a young nation to let go of such an opportunity would have come at considerable cost.

Stories did their rounds and slowly moulded into an impregnable myth of barefoot footballers who were not allowed to play in the World Cup by FIFA; boots were a must. Some said the sea journey was too much to be undertaken. Others sympathised with a poor AIFF (All India Football Federation), Indian football’s governing body, which could not raise the funds.

An article in Daily Pioneer stated: ‘It may be recalled in 1950 that the Indian football team qualified for the World Cup in Brazil. But the country did not have enough foreign exchange to send the team there. And thereafter India never qualified again.’

Further digging on the Net yielded a BBC report that said: ‘India pulled out because FIFA would not let them play bare feet.’ In another article attributed to the BBC: ‘The country qualified regularly for the Olympics until the 1960s, and were invited to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil but the problems of a long sea journey and the fact that they still played bare feet prevented them from appearing.’

It was a bottle of ether and I was left to fathom for myself what had happened behind the closed doors of Indian football that the team never set sail for Brazil. Though the barefoot theory sounded the most convincing, it was never concluded with evidence that playing barefoot was a deterrent. Then there was yet another piece of news I stumbled upon.

A PTI report datelined Calcutta, 23 May 1950 said AIFF cited differentiation in team selection and lack of time for practice as reasons for withdrawal. In fact, the AIFF blamed Brazil for the debacle. The release read, ‘India will not participate in the World Cup or the Jules Rimet Cup. Due to late information reaching India, the team will have to be flown to Rio resulting in cancellation of team selection. Since there is not much time, the Indian team will not be able to prepare and hence it will not be correct to send the team.’

PTI added: ‘Moin-ul-Haq [then AIFF president] after a closed door meeting with Bombay and Calcutta football federations has decided not to send the team. It may be mentioned here that IFA (Indian Football Association) was given responsibility to select the Indian team. It was decided that an amount of 50,000 would be collected from four charity matches as funds for the forthcoming World Cup.’

I decided to dig into the story further, wanting to reach the bottom of it. During the hours spent rummaging through piles of old newspapers in libraries, there was this report published on 11 May 1950 in the then largest circulated Bengali daily Jugantar. It stated: ‘India will participate in the 1950 World Cup or Jules Rimet Cup. The organisers are planning to take the Indian football team to Brazil from Calcutta. Due to this decision, the AIFF will save around 40,000. India will play its first game on June 28. For the benefit of the Indian team Bombay Football Association (BFA) will bear 5,000. Besides, money will be raised through charity matches to be played in Calcutta as per request of the Indian Football Association. The money will be used for the Indian team’s journey. On May 16 the IFA World Cup Committee will select the players for the team.’

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Updated: 29 May 2013, 09:00 PM IST
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