Braving it barefoot

Certainly, having nurtured their talent without footwear, Indian footballers took a liking for playing barefooted. Even though India lost in the opening round of the 1948 London Olympics to an amateur side representing France, the plaudits received from the British media only reinforced their belief in this unusual approach.

Sample this Reuters report after India defeated Metropolitan Police 3-0 in a friendly in Surrey as part of its preparations for the Olympic tournament.

"THE WAY THEY PERFORMED without boots tonight surprised many spectators and the match can be summed up in the words of a Police supporter, who said they are better without boots than our boys with them."

It's noteworthy that, according to trainer B. D. Chatterjee, the Indian team in London did carry shoes in case the need arose.

When one considers the popular tale of India missing out on the 1950 World Cup due to its reluctance to play with shoes, the following information busts a few myths.

IT SHOULD BE KNOWN that India qualified for the first World Cup after itsindependence without even playing a single match. Drawn in the qualification group with Burma (now Myanmar) and Philippines, the Indian side benefitted from the withdrawal of the aforementioned participants. According to journalist Jaydeep Basu who wrote Stories from Indian Football, a rare authoritative work on football in the country, India failed to travel to Brazil as the All India Football Federation (AIFF) could not bear the travel expenses. Indeed, this version has been verified by other trustworthy sources.

Yet, India's insistence to not follow FIFA's rules and regulations in full was to hurt the team four years later in Helsinki. Winning the gold medal as host in the 1951 Asian Games at Delhi furthered India's belief that barefooted was the way to go.

HOWEVER, IT NEEDS TO BE remembered that all matches in the continental tournament lasted 60 minutes and the pitch dimensions were 110 by 65 yards. Although the playing area was narrower, as compared to the international standards, the competition received FIFA's approval.

In fact, notwithstanding the positive response to the team's performance in the London Olympics, it must be noted that India harmed its prospects by not wearing shoes against France.

HERE'S AN EXCERPT from a British journalist's report of the match: "The Indians were dominating the game right from the start. Had the English or the Swedish team been in their position they would have certainly scored at least three goals in the first half. Were the Indian forwards never taught to do sharpshooting with their feet but only to dribble their way into the net?"

IT WAS OBVIOUS that the Indian players' poor finishing ability was a result of playing barefooted. Moreover, India missed two penalties in its 1-2 defeat to France.

Syed Abdul Rahim's side was tactically backward too. Even though Herbert Chapman's WM formation had been in use since 1923, India continued to employ only two defenders. All of this changed in 1952.

Football was popularised, like many other sports, by the British in India. Till 1953, the English team had believed that it was the best side in the world. In reality, its development had stagnated.

A YEAR AFTER INDIA received its wakeup call, Hungary visited the Wembley Stadium and imparted a football lesson to the English. The 3-6 defeat was viewed as a catastrophe by the country's media and public. India's 1-10 thumping at the hands of Yugoslavia in Helsinki was a disaster of similar proportions. Although India did not enjoy England's standing in world football, the consequences of the debacle were far-reaching.

INDIA FINALLY ACCEPTED the FIFA directive to wear shoes and the AIFF increased the duration of matches in major tournaments. The switch to a `three-back' system took a while to be implemented. But when it was adopted earnestly, it helped India to finish fourth at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and regain the Asian Games gold in Indonesia six years later. The latter achievement, arguably, remains India's biggest success in football.

The Indian team, however, did not return to World Cup qualifying until the competition began for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Although India applied to enter the qualification tournament for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, its application was submitted only after deadline (according to the veritable RSSSF website).

SUCH TARDINESS should not come as a surprise as the AIFF members had been busy bickering with each other for a while. Whether India could have achieved something noteworthy in Switzerland remains a separate question.