When India almost beat France at football

The question of what might have been the trajectory of Indian football if Sailen Manna and Mahabir Prasad had converted those two penalties against France, will continue to haunt us until the day the first eleven men of Indian football stand on the biggest stage of world football - the World Cup finals.

A group photograph of the Indian Olympic Football Team (Standing Lto R) Dhanraj, Mahabir, Baseer, S. Nandi, Varadaraj, Papen and trainer Chatterjee. (Sitting L to R) Mewalal, Ahmed, Aao, Raman and S. Manna.   -  The Hindu Archives

Every four years, around the time of the World Cup, there is the usual lament among Indian fans on social media, about when Indian football would win something significant on the world stage.  Few recall that in 1948, it almost did.  This is the story of the match that could have changed the fortunes of Indian football.  

In 1948, the world was still reeling from the aftermath of a terrible war that had lasted six years. To hasten the return to normalcy, the first post-war Olympics was organized. Despite suffering wide spread devastation and still under war-time rationing, London volunteered to host the games. 

Among the countries sending their gladiators to this historic event was the newly independent India, making its debut as a sporting nation.  India had a strong pre-war legacy at the Olympics, but it had largely been confined to the dominance on the hockey field. Individual athletic triumphs (like Norman Pritchard’s) had been rare and largely belonged to Caucasians performing under the Indian flag. 

At London, for the first time, India decided to send a football team to compete as an independent nation at the highest level. The competition would be fierce with 18 invited teams in the fray including four Asian sides - India, Afghanistan, Korea and China. 

Not only would the world see a truly Indian team play football abroad for the first time, it would also be struck by the unusual sight of eleven players playing barefoot on a football pitch. Being largely unused to playing in them, the players kept the boots supplied by the All India Football Federation (AIFF) for occasions when the wet and slippery English conditions left them with no alternative but to wear them. 

The Preparations Begin

The Indian team led by captain Talimeran Ao from Nagaland (he would become a doctor in later life) and boasting of the legendary Sailen Manna from Bengal, left for England on June 6 1948.

The team roster read as follows:

Goalkeepers
Kenchappa V. Varadaraj (Mysore), Sanjeeva Uchil (ICL-Bengal Club, Bombay)

Defenders
Sailendra "Sailen“ Nath Manna (Mohun Bagan AC), Taj Mohammed (East Bengal Club), T.M. Varghese Papen (Bombay FC)

Midfielders
Talimeran Ao (Mohun Bagan AC), Sattar A. Basheer (Mysore), Mahabir Prasad (East Bengal Club), S.M. Kaiser (East Bengal Club), Anil Nandy (Eastern Railway SC), B.N. Vajravelu (Mysore)

Forwards
Robi Das (Bhawanipore Club), Ahmed Mohamed Khan (Mysore), Sahu Mewalal (Eastern Railway SC), Ramachandra Balaram Parab (Bombay FC), Sarangapani Raman (Mysore), K.P. Dhanraj (Mysore), Santosh Nandy (Eastern Railway SC)

Officials
Balaidas Chatterjee (Head Coach)

 

India was scheduled to take on France in the 1st Knock-Out Round of the Olympic football tournament on July 31. In preparation, India would play five matches to get acclimatised to the English conditions. 

Coach Balaidas Chatterjee’s team won all the five preparation matches easily. India kicked-off with a 15-0 win against a Department Store XI (July 13), before they defeated the Metropolitan Police FC (July 16, 3-1 at Thames Ditton), Pinner FC (July 24, 9-1 at Pinner), Hayes FC (July 26, 4-1 at Hayes) and Alexandra Park FC (July 28, 8-2 at Wood Green).   

The Big Day Arrives

Lynn Road(Cricketfield Stadium), Ilford

On 31st of July 1948, brimming with confidence from the preparations and with immense faith in their abilities, the first eleven men in independent India’s footballing history trooped out to the middle. Their thick socks were cut off at the ankle and bare feet strapped up to protect and provide grip. Taj Mohammad wore the boots he had been given, but he was the exception. Sailen Manna, the star of the team, wore none. 

The contest was an even one. For the first 29 minutes neither team dominated proceedings, but the high standard of football had the 17,000 spectators on their feet. Then in the 30th minute Rene Courbin put one past the Indian goalkeeper. France was 1-0 up.

A barefooted Talimeran Aao (right), captain of the Indian team shakes hands with G. Robert, captain of the French team at the opening of the Olympic football match at Ilford, Essex Ground.   -  The Hindu Archives

 

Just before half-time, Swedish referee Gunnar Dahlner awarded India a penalty kick. With the weight of the country’s expectations on his shoulder, Sailen Manna aiming for the top left corner of the goal, could only watch in dismay as the ball sailed over the crossbar. 

In the second half the Indians launched wave after wave of counter attacks, and just as it looked like France would manage to hold on to its slender lead, Ahmad Khan, a forward known for his skills and passing abilities created an opening. He combined with Vajravelu (who came in as substitute), beat the French defense and passed the ball to Sarangapani Raman. Raman made no mistake, slamming in India’s equaliser in the 70th minute, forever etching his name in the record books as independent India’s first international goal scorer. 

Ten Minutes after Raman’s equaliser, India had a chance to take the lead through another penalty, but this time Mahabir Prasad’s shot at the goal was saved brilliantly by the French goalkeeper Rouxel. 

With one minute to go for the final whistle and the teams getting ready for extra time, totally against the run of play, Rene Persillon (who would help his club Girondins de Bordeaux win the French Championship in 1950)  put one past the diving Indian goalkeeper to give France a 2-1 victory and a place in the quarterfinals, where it would eventually lose to Great Britain 0-1.  

Accolades and the tour of Europe

While the 1-2 loss to France and first round elimination was a huge disappointment to the team and the public alike, the quality of football that the team displayed had captivated one and all.

So much so that King George VI invited the team to Buckingham Palace and there, as the story goes, (obviously equipped with a keen sense of humor) he lifted up Sailen Manna’s trouser leg, telling him it was just to check if the Indian really had legs of steel as would appear from the strength of his shots! 

But there was football still to be played. Encouraged by the accolades and the positive reception to India's football, the AIFF decided to extend the tour with some friendlies across Europe. Over the next several weeks the team would play some matches that would only enhance its growing reputation. 

In the Netherlands it lost 1-2 against Sparta Rotterdam but stunned Ajax Amsterdam led by legendary Rinus Michels 5-1 two days later.  Back in England and Wales, it put together a string of victories over several teams including Boldmere St. Michaels FC, which it met on a muddy pitch at Church Road Ground on August 31 – a day with heavy rainfall. The Indian team was forced to wear boots. But Olympic goal scorer Sarangapani Raman headed home the lone goal of the match off a B.N. Vajravelu cross to hand India a 1-0 win. 

A newspaper report the next day read: “Last night’s match between Boldmere St. Michaels and the Indian Olympic XI at Church Road, won by the tourists by the only goal, provided an interesting contrast of football styles. Boldmere did well to hold their visitors to the lowest possible margin but it is no injustice to suggest that the conditions were all against the tourists.” 

A second report said: “Boots were the cause of a considerable amount of Indian discomfort last night. They caused goals to be missed, passes to go astray and members of that country’s Olympic team to make many violent contacts with the Boldmere St Michael’s sloping ground at Church Road. The tourists had been compelled to take to boots, an unusual item of football gear to them, because the heavy rain that fell throughout the game. Only inside-left Khan was brave enough to leave the hated boots in the dressing-room, but his partner Sarangapani Raman was soon sitting on the touch-line undoing his laces. The boots discarded, he promptly put his head to a centre from Ballsasundara Vajravelu, a veritable coloured Matthews, to score the only goal of the game.“  

The Future that never was

Having shown the world what it was capable of, the team finally returned to India to a warm reception late in August. Notwithstanding the significant successes through the tour and the praise it had garnered, the thoughts about what could have been if it had managed to convert the two penalties against France, would haunt the team. A 3-2 victory and a quarter final clash against the former colonial masters, perhaps resulting in an emotional and triumphant entry into the semi-finals of the Olympics and a world at the bare feet of eleven Indians, was a reality that had been snatched away just as it had seemed within the realms of possibility.

Under Sailen Manna’s leadership in 1952 India would again lose in the first round, this time 10-1 to Yugoslavia. But four years later at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne India would have its best outing at the games beating hosts Australia 4-2, Neville D’Souza scoring a hat trick. In 1960 at Tokyo, PK Banerjee’s goal would help India hold France. That would in fact be the last time India qualified for the Olympics in football. 

As the drama and the excitement around the World Cup 2018 in Russia fades from public memory, the lament about the continued inability of the national team to qualify for events at the highest level of the sport  will continue to ferment. 

In the midst of this angst, the memories of that glorious summer of football in Europe in 1948 might perhaps act as a momentary balm to the festering frustration.  But the question of what might have been the trajectory of Indian football if Sailen Manna and Mahabir Prasad had converted those two penalties at Ilford against France, will continue to haunt us until the day the first eleven men of Indian football stand proud with hands on their chests, as the national anthem plays and the tricolor flutters behind them on the biggest stage of world football - the World Cup finals.   

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