The World Cup, the international football carnival, attracts billions of people all over the globe. India is no exception. The world’s fastest growing economy is also the second most-populated country in the world, home to over a billion people. India might not have proclaimed itself on the international stage, but it could have rewritten history back in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
In India, cricket is the most widely followed sport but there are numerous football fanatics across the country. India has a rich footballing history, which dates back to the days of the British Raj. During the period of colonial rule, many local clubs started to form, an idea that was, in part, symbolic in nature. These clubs became a beacon for India’s freedom struggle.
Local clubs from the cities would organise matches between themselves, and against the football team of the British railway regiment or police force. Supporters would pour in to cheer for the clubs, making their voice felt. Football reinvigorated the nationalistic identity on which the freedom struggle was based.
The first football governing body in the country was formed in 1893 in Bengal, known as the Indian Football Association (IFA). The federation, which was affiliated to the Football Association (FA), was mainly governed by Englishmen and served as the most powerful football body in the country during the early twentieth century. The IFA was replaced in 1937 by the All India Football Federation (AIFF), which to this day handles all affairs related to football in the country.
After India gained independence in 1947, the idea of a national football team started to gain momentum. The 1948 London Olympics was India’s first major international tournament, where a predominately barefooted Indian team lost 2–1 to France after failing to convert two penalties. This match already drew a great deal of attention as the 1948 Summer Olympics was the first time that India was performing in an international tournament as an independent nation.
At this time, FIFA’s World Cup had not been staged since 1938. The 1942 and 1946 editions were both cancelled due to World War II and after the war FIFA was keen to resurrect the competition as soon as possible.
During the planning stages of the competition, FIFA decided that the defending champions Italy and hosts Brazil would be guaranteed spots, leaving a further 14 to be filled. It was decided that seven of those would come from Europe, six from the Americas, and one from Asia.
Out of the four Asian teams invited to the World Cup, three of them (the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma) withdrew from the tournament before qualification could even start, which meant that India were awarded the solitary spot by default.
When the group stage draw was made, India were placed in pool three alongside Sweden, Italy and Paraguay. However, almost inexplicably, India withdrew from the competition. The AIFF announced that the team would not attend the World Cup, citing “disagreements over team selection and insufficient practice time.” This was disputable, as the organising body were willing to sponsor the Indian team’s trip to Brazil.
The then AIFF President, Moin-ul-Haq, after a closed-door meeting with the football federations of Bombay and Calcutta, had decided not to send the team. Accordingly, AIFF released a report stating, “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.”
Some news reports suggested that India did not participate in the World Cup because they were not allowed to play barefooted. A BBC report that said: “India pulled out because FIFA would not let them play in bare feet.”
Some argue that that the AIFF just did not take the World Cup seriously, considering the Olympics to be the ultimate goal. This was backed up by Sailen Manna, who would have been the captain of the team. He told Sports Illustrated, “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.”
The story remains that India did withdraw from the competition, which went ahead with just 14 teams instead of 16. We can only keep pondering over what could have happened, much like Manna did, “Indian football would have been on a different level had we made that journey.”