When the Kites Weren't Black
The lost legacy of Indian football
Bob Houghton, who once led Malmö to a European Cup final, left his job as India national coach in April, adding his name to the ever-growing list of those who have been unable to coax new life from once fertile soil desecrated by three generations of inept administrators. The decline has been precipitous. When Houghton was a teenager, India were an Asian football power. By the time he arrived, aged 59, to take the coaching job in 2006 after nearly three decades of wandering, they were among the minnows, periodically losing to the likes of the Maldives.
Picture this scenario. A hot and humid February afternoon three years ago. An I-League game at the Corporation Stadium in Kozhikode, a northern Kerala town famous for its devotion to football. There was a transport strike that day and only a couple of hundred turned up to watch Viva Kerala, a rootless team of stragglers representing a proud tradition, play East Bengal, Kolkata giants fallen on hard times.
With the sun beating down and the sea breeze playing truant, the vast concrete stands echoed with the players' shouts. The fare they dished out was abject. Viva's motley crew of young locals and Africans who hadn't made it to the big leagues strung some pretty passing moves together and even scored a wonderful goal through their right-back, but they were no match for an East Bengal side for whom Alvito D'Cunha, a former India international, pulled the strings.
His clever free-kicks created two of the goals and he scored the other with an insouciant lob on the run, but the rest of the time he strolled around like a slow-mo version of Juan Román Riquelme. In fact, the entire game seemed a throwback to another era, with deliberate build-ups and tackles that were apologetic rather than snappy.
By the second half, most of those watching had shifted their attention away from the field to a figure in the stand. He sat on a plastic chair surrounded by a few friends. Having retired just a couple of years earlier, he liked to come back and see the odd game, traipse a little down memory lane.
Inivalappil Mani Vijayan was probably the greatest talent that Indian football has produced in the modern era, a lithe striker with a penchant for the spectacular goal. He scored 39 times in 79 games for India, and was the mainstay of his club sides, first with Kerala Police and later Mohun Bagan, JCT Mills and FC Kochin. Long before Emir Kusturica's celluloid paean to Diego Maradona or the cinematic ode to Zinédine Zidane, there was Cherian Joseph's Kalo Harin [Black Deer], a small-budget award-winning movie that explored Vijayan's rise from the lowest stratum of society. The footballer himself was a natural in front of the camera, and not in a Vinny Jones kind of way. In Shantham [Peace], a film that picked up the national award in 2001, he played a killer overcome by remorse.
That February afternoon in Kozhikode, Vijayan's eyes were on some point in the far distance. Like many of the old-timers in the stands, he might have been thinking back to a better time, when Indian football at least held the promise of something better, when a game against a mid-ranking Asian side like the United Arab Emirates didn't necessarily mean humiliation. He might also have pondered why the advent of professionalism and a national league hadn't given India a club side worthy of comparison even with the Kerala Police teams that he was once part of.
As the crow flies, it's about 1100 miles from the Corporation Stadium to the Calcutta Football Club grounds at Ballygunge in south Kolkata. To understand Vijayan's story and also what Houghton went through, you have to go there, to the heartland of Indian football. This was where the final of the Indian Football Association [IFA] Shield was played in July 1911, between Mohun Bagan and the East Yorkshire Regiment. After the English and Scottish FA Cups and India's own Durand Cup [started in 1888], the Shield is the oldest Cup competition in the world, having first been contested back in 1893.
The 1911 final was significant in more ways than one. Just over four months later, King George V would shift India's capital from Calcutta (as it was called then) to New Delhi. The state of Bengal had been partitioned in 1905 and its freedom fighters and revolutionaries were at the forefront of the struggle against British rule. No team comprising Indians had won the shield and although football and sport weren't a vehicle for the new nationalism, there was huge interest in a game that was to be played over two halves of 25 minutes.
Contemporary accounts suggest that almost 80,000 crowded in to watch the game. Those who missed out didn't need to worry. According to Reuters, "They were informed of its progress by flying kites" — clearly the 1911 equivalent of today's minute-by-minute internet reports. Ferries operated overtime to get people to the city from across the Ganges, and hopes were high as Bagan lined up for the kick-off.
The city already had a long tradition of football. The Gentlemen of Barrackpore and the Calcutta Club of Civilians had played at the Esplanade in 1854, even before the 1857 Mutiny that would give rise to the freedom movement that lasted nearly a century. Bagan were formed in 1889, and backed mainly by the Bengali elite. The club emphasised Victorian values as much as it did success on the field and it wasn't until 1904 that it won its first major trophy, the Cooch Behar Cup. A year later, they beat Dalhousie, the Shield winners, 6-1 in the Gladstone Cup final.
Such antics from the 'natives' weren't always well received. In 1909, Bagan's defeat of the Gordon Highlanders so incensed some British soldiers that they beat up members of the Bengali support. By the time the 1911 Shield came around, the atmosphere was sufficiently charged that matches between Bagan and British regiments carried considerable significance. Bagan in those days played a 2-3-5 formation and they comfortably saw off St Xavier's 3-0 in the opening round, despite playing a man short. Sudhir Chatterjee, the left-back, hadn't been granted half-day leave from the college where he taught.
Playing barefoot, Bagan excelled when the conditions were dry. It was a different story when heavy rain — and it doesn't half pour in Kolkata during the monsoons — reduced the ground to a swampy mess. On a slick muddy surface, they struggled to see off Rangers in the second round, winning 2-0 despite a decidedly dubious penalty in the regimental side's favour. In the last eight, they saw off another Army side, the Rifle Brigade, and there was another huge crowd to watch them take on the Middlesex Regiment.
It ended 1-1, with Bagan complaining bitterly about the Middlesex goal, bundled in after a goalmouth melee that saw Hiralal Mukherjee, the goalkeeper, badly injured. The ugliness continued in the replay, with Abhilash Ghosh exacting revenge with a challenge in which Piggott, the Middlesex keeper, nearly lost an eye. Although he returned, bandaged like a mummy, Bagan prevailed 3-0.
When the East Yorkshire Regiment led early in the second half of the final, black kites were flown to announce Bagan's predicament. Only five of the 25 second-half minutes remained when Shibdas Bhaduri slotted home the equaliser. This time, the kite was maroon-and-green, Bagan's colours. With the clock ticking down, it was Shibdas who was the match-winner, slaloming his way through the defence before leaving Ghosh, the enforcer against Middlesex, with the simplest of tap-ins.
The celebrations that followed were akin to those that greet victorious Indian cricketers today. "When it was known that the East Yorkshire Regiment had been beaten, the Bengalees were tearing off their shirts and waving them," Reuters reported. Even the Daily Mail joined in, their report saying, "It was a notable victory, gained over the best British regimental teams, and not even the sweltering heat of Calcutta to which the Bengalees are better insured than the white man, can discount it."
Epochal as that triumph was, it didn't mark the start of a golden age for Indian football. Most of the players were from patrician backgrounds and usually ended up in the civil services or tea plantations. In Chatterjee's case, he went on to teach at Trinity College, Cambridge.
Indian football would have to wait another quarter-century for its first great side, and again it was history's march that was partially responsible for its emergence. In the decades following the partition of Bengal, the movement for a separate Muslim state and identity grew steadily. When Nawabzada Aminul Islam started the Jubilee Club in the late 1800s, that was all in the future, but the side from the Kolkata suburb of Sealdah eventually became Mohammedan Sporting Club. There wasn't much success in the early years, but when CA Aziz took over as club secretary in the late 1920s, things started to change.
Having been relegated to the third division in 1929, Mohammedans were lucky to remain in the second tier when another team disbanded. By then, they had started recruiting players from across the subcontinent. They came from the North West Frontier, from Quetta and from Uttar Pradesh, and were captained by Habibullah Bahar, a political activist who would go on to become Pakistan's first Health Minister.
Between 1934 and 1941, Mohammedans won the league seven times. In 1939, they, East Bengal and others withdrew from the league in protest against what they saw as favouritism towards Bagan. That blip aside, they were relentless, sweeping aside all opposition for nearly a decade. It wasn't just the Kolkata league in which they were dominant either. They crossed the subcontinent to Mumbai and won the Rovers Cup there, and in 1940, they became the first Indian team to win the Durand Cup in Delhi.
Part of the reason for such excellence was Aziz's foresight. He was one of the first to recognise the advantage that boots offered in muddy conditions. Initially, there was opposition from players who feared it would affect their dribbling skill but Aziz persisted, and even had special boots made that were lighter and more supple than normal ones.
Mohammedan Sporting's fame extended as far as Glasgow thanks to Mohammed Salim, the winger who was briefly a Bhoy. As Boria Majumdar, then the deputy editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport, wrote, "It shows how in the days of the Empire, Celtic broke barriers, living up to the ideal of the civilising mission and how this Indian in bare feet enchanted one half of Glasgow."
Salim was in his 30s and accustomed to playing barefoot by the time Mohammedans established themselves as India's premier football force. After clinching a hat-trick of Kolkata League titles in 1936, Salim played in a friendly against a China Olympic side that was en route to Berlin and a first-round exit at the hands of Great Britain. Hashim, a cousin of Salim who lived in England, watched his display and was convinced that he had what it took to succeed in Europe.
They sailed on the City of Cairo soon after and arrived at Celtic Park in time for pre-season. Willie Maley, the manager, scoffed at the idea of a man playing in bare feet, but Hashim managed to convince him to give Salim a trial. The winger showed off his skill in front of the club members and coaches and was picked for a friendly against Hamilton Academicals. Celtic won 5-1. Against Galston, they triumphed 7-1, and Salim's virtuoso display prompted the Scottish Daily Express to headline an article, "Indian Juggler — New Style". "Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic FC's player from India, hypnotised the crowd at Parkhead last night," said the report. "He balances the ball on his big toe, lets it run down the scale to his little toe, twirls it, hops on one foot around the defender."
The story didn't have a happy ending, though. The bleak Scottish autumn and winter didn't suit Salim and he decided to head back home. Years later, long after his father's death in 1980, Rashid, Salim's son, told Majumdar that "Celtic tried to persuade my father to stay by offering to organise a charity match in his honour, giving him five percent of the gate proceeds. My father did not realise what five percent would amount to and said he would give his share to orphans who were to be special invitees for the match. Five percent came to £1800 but although my father was astonished, he kept to his word."
In the 1970s, as Salim's health failed, Rashid wrote to Celtic asking if they could help. "I had no intention of asking for money," he said later. "It was just a ploy to find out if Mohammed Salim was still alive in their memory. To my amazement, I received a letter from the club. Inside was a bank draft for £100. I was delighted, not because I received the money but because my father still holds a pride of place in Celtic. I have not even cashed the draft and will preserve it till I die."
The cheque and Celtic's hooped jersey remain in the Salim house as a reminder of the man who was so nearly became Indian football's first overseas star.
Even with independence from British rule in 1947, the barefoot problem remained. In Jaydeep Basu's Stories from Indian Football, Sabu Mewalal, who played in the 1948 Olympics, recalled that "an officer from Buckingham Palace visited our camp and invited the team for a tea party. Even [the future] Queen Elizabeth II expressed her surprise at how we play so well without boots." The team lost 2-1 to France, missing two penalties and spurning numerous other chances.
It's now become urban legend that it was a desire to play barefoot that saw India miss the 1950 World Cup despite having qualified [Burma and the Philippines withdrew from the group]. Their absence, though, had little to do with lack of boots and more to do with the absence of money in the football federation's coffers. It wasn't until 1951, when the country hosted the first Asian Games, that the team even had a professional coach.
In many ways, Syed Abdul Rahim was the Stan Cullis of India. Just as Wolves enjoyed their halcyon years under Cullis, so Indian football's brief moments in the sun came under the Hyderabad-based Rahim. Having established himself with Hyderabad City Police, whom he transformed into the country's leading side, the Asian Games provided the perfect opportunity for him to show what he could do with the best talent available.
The contests were still amateurish in nature, though. Matches in India were played over 50 minutes. For the Asian Games, that was upped to 60. India saw off Indonesia 3-0 and then beat Afghanistan by the same score to reach the final. There they faced Iran, who wore boots and employed a long-passing game to upset the hosts' rhythm. Some of the Indian players were visibly intimidated, so much so that Jawaharlal Nehru, the Prime Minister, visited the dressing-room at half-time to try and lift spirits.
Four minutes into the second half, Mewalal scored. The next half hour ticked by slowly, but at the end of it, the barefoot Indians were champions of the continent. It was the first of many false dawns, a chimera that would be rudely exposed at the Helsinki Olympics a year later. Yugoslavia, who would lose to Ferenc Puskás and the Magic Magyars in the final, routed India 10-1, a defeat that was to pave the way for 90-minute matches on international-size grounds and the compulsory use of boots. Tactically too, it prompted a rethink, with Rahim abandoning half a century of tradition and opting for a three-at-the-back system.
Herbert Chapman arrived at Arsenal in 1925 and pioneered the W-M [or 3-2-2-3] formation. It was another three decades before Rahim decided to imitate that with his Indian team. By then, world football had moved on, with Gusztav Sebes's Hungary highlighting the extent of English football's tactical limitations. The move to three backs met with huge resistance in India and even Rahim was initially sceptical when Albert Flatley, who did a four-month coaching stint with the Indian federation in the mid-1950s, suggested the switch.
By the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, the change had been made, largely because Rahim had a squad of his choosing. After Hungary's withdrawal in the aftermath of the Uprising, which saw large numbers of players defect to the west, India went straight into the quarter-finals, and a game against the hosts. Neville D'Souza's hat-trick ensured a 4-2 win and the honour of being the first Asian nation in an Olympic semi-final. Yugoslavia made sure they went no further, with a 4-1 win, but D'Souza scored first and most reports of the game suggest a match that was far closer than the scoreline suggests.
The 1958 Asian Games saw the team lose to South Korea in the semi-final, a setback that was to prove the spur for Indian football's finest hour four years later. When the Asian Games were held in Jakarta in 1962, regional politics ensured that the Indians would be the most unpopular contingent. The team bus was stoned, and athletes constantly heckled. It didn't help morale that the footballers started badly, losing 2-0 to South Korea. In a fortnight in which the Indian High Commission was attacked as well, Rahim's team ignored the multiple off-field distractions to beat Thailand 4-1 and Japan 2-0 to seal a semi-final place.
Against South Vietnam, they squandered a 2-0 lead before Chuni Goswami, the suave captain who also played cricket for Bengal, struck the winner. The final meant another game against South Korea in front of a hostile crowd of 100,000. Goals from PK Banerjee and Jarnail Singh, the commanding centre-back, clinched a 2-1 victory that is still spoken about half a century later. Rahim wept afterwards. Within 10 months, it was Indian football that would mourn as he succumbed to lung cancer. An era had passed.
That team was India's finest ever. Goswami, Banerjee, Jarnail and Peter Thangaraj, the goalkeeper, were all candidates for Asian All-Star sides. But once Rahim passed on, there were no capable hands at the rudder. Bereft of direction, Indian football stalled. By the 1970s, they were struggling to beat Asia's leading sides. By the 1980s, they themselves had become easy to beat.
Before the Asian Cup appearance in Qatar in January 2011, a back-door entry courtesy of winning the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008, India hadn't taken part in the continental showpiece since 1984. They hadn't come close to qualifying for more than three decades, and the plight of the top clubs in the Champions League has been just as pitiful.
The structure of Indian football didn't help. Until the National Football League was formed in 1996, teams focused primarily on their state leagues and on cup competitions held in various parts of the country. Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, the country's most successful clubs, tended to be obsessed with superiority in the Kolkata league, and employed a ludicrous transfer policy that saw players change teams every season. With no concept of team-building and a big-fish-in-a-small-pond mindset, there was no progress, either in terms of tactics or attracting people to the game.
While cricket became professional and made huge strides, football began to wither away even in places where it traditionally had a huge following. Bengal, Kerala, Goa and parts of Mumbai and Delhi have been the game's strongholds, but despite the national league, standards have slipped steadily. Clubs from Goa, the one Indian state yet to produce a well-known cricketer, now dominate the league, while Kerala and Bengal tend to get by on memories of former glories.
An influx of foreign players hasn't necessarily helped. It would be different if youngsters were playing alongside a Gianfranco Zola or a Luís Figo. Instead, you have a number of African professionals, many of whom started off as college students in India. Some of them are exceptionally gifted and will eventually find their way to the Middle East or Malaysia/Singapore, but a great number hold down a place because their physique allows them to play a brand of bustling football that intimidates the locals.
The lack of role models is another factor. Vijayan, who grew up desperately poor after his father died in an accident when he was a child, started off selling soda bottles at his local stadium. When he first made the grade, he was so emaciated that most doubted his ability to last 90 minutes. Although he played for most of India's top clubs, the shyness and diffidence that were a result of his upbringing prevented him from making a serious attempt at football overseas. His successor as India's best player, Baichung Bhutia, did make the leap, but his time at Bury at the turn of the new millennium was distinctly unrewarding. A small skilful player couldn't have chosen a worse stage than English football's lower reaches, with the emphasis on brawn and speed.
Houghton's stint, carrying on the good work done by Stephen Constantine, another itinerant Englishman, helped some of the younger players gain confidence. Sunil Chhetri went off to Major League Soccer and the Kansas City Wizards, and although the move didn't work out for him, he's still young enough to make it elsewhere.
There's also hope that a new generation will be able to go where even the team of 1962 couldn't. Barcelona are among the big European clubs to have set up a coaching school in India, and various Premier League clubs, not just the Indian-owned Blackburn Rovers, are looking at tapping the young talent. Premier League replica shirts are now part of India's urban landscape and more and more well-to-do kids prefer 'cooler' football to cricket. Whether they'll have anywhere to play is another matter. Most government-run schools have nothing resembling playgrounds. Even the traditional ones are disappearing, usurped by unscrupulous land mafias in various part of the country.
Ultimately, though, the future depends on the one thing that no one likes to talk about: money. Mahindra United, who had been part of the Indian football scene for decades, left the sport last year having decided it was no longer feasible to field a side. Others will go the same way unless sponsors step in. Viva Kerala have found one such benefactor in Volkswagen. A sponsorship deal worth $4 million over two seasons will be signed, provided the team can escape relegation from the I-League this season.
With that kind of money, Indian football can look at bringing in fresh coaching ideas to invigorate a moribund system. And while others laugh at the idea of paying big money into the retirement funds of Fabio Cannavaro and Figo, there's no overstating the value that one such signing would have for Indian football. Lalit Modi, for all his faults and omissions, created a multi-billion dollar creature in Twenty20 cricket's Indian Premier League. What football needs is an entrepreneur of similar determination and vision, someone who can tap into the passion of a people who will pack a 100,000 stadium in Kolkata this September when Argentina play a friendly.
Nearly 50 years have passed since Rahim masterminded that memorable night in Jakarta. Houghton's departure inspires no great optimism, but if a Modi can be found for football, it may be that after decades treading water for so long, Indian football could make its great leap forward.