For want of a boot

STAN RAYAN

WELL, pinch yourself hard, whack yourself blue, for it's all just true. India got a chance to play in the World Cup Football Finals in Brazil more than 50 years ago. And the side, which made the finals after the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma withdrew from the qualifiers, was grouped with Italy, Paraguay and Sweden in the first World Cup after World War II.

Unfortunately, India had to withdraw from that mega event. All because the rules of the World Cup did not permit barefoot play!

It was a missed chance the country has rued for more than half a century and could be mourning for another century or more. Come to think of it, it could even have been the missing link that keeps football in cricket's overwhelming shadows in the topsy-turvy priorities of Indian sport.

The World Cup is being played in our backyard this month, may even be just a remote control away, but for all of us, it is still eons away.

"We were all very excited about going to the 1950 World Cup. Sadly, we did not know then that barefoot play was not allowed in the World Cup. We got to know it very late," said Olympian T. Shanmugham, one of the stars who was supposed to make the hallowed trip to Brazil.

Unaware of the rules! Confusion! Ah, how many times have these been the bane of Indian football. And the World Cup had been played with boots right from its first edition in Montevideo in 1930. Host Uruguay, the first champion, makes quite a picture now with the long shorts and big boots worn by its players.

However, despite the World Cup's strict no-no to barefoot play, a Brazilian legend quietly managed a brief spell without boots in one of the greatest World Cup games ever. Leonidas da Silva, known as the 'Black Diamond', played barefoot for a brief while in the second half in a first-round match against Poland on a muddy Meinau Stadium at the 1938 World Cup in France. He was soon ordered by the referee to wear his boots.

Leonidas slammed in four goals in that match, including a hat-trick, as Brazil pipped Poland 6-5. He finished as the top scorer in that Cup.

Well, back to the what-could-have-been fifties. The 'booted' game was not new to Indians. "In fact, we used to have a lot of inter-company matches between the British and local teams at the hard Police Grounds in Bangalore. And the Brits used to play with boots," said Shanmugham, who joined the Karnataka Police in 1945.

"We were very good barefoot. In the 1948 London Olympics where boots were not compulsory, India lost to a strong France 1-2 in the first round," said Shanmugham.

"Sailen Manna, one of the best defenders the country has seen, was to lead the side in the World Cup. And we went to Singapore, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and even played an all-Chinese team in Hong Kong as part of our World Cup warm-up tour," said the former India midfielder. "But in the end, there was disappointment."

"India used to play a very attacking game then. We had two full-backs, two half-backs and five forwards," recalled Shanmugham. "Nowadays, we have only two forwards."

The missed trip also taught the Indians a crucial lesson. "We started playing with boots soon after that. And under Manna's captaincy, we won the football gold in the first Asian Games in Delhi in 1951," said Shanmugham who was part of the champion team which beat Iran 1-0 in the final.

Five years later, India made football history when it finished fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and the icing on the cake was a superb hat-trick by Neville D'Souza. Neville, whose feat helped India thrash host Australia 4-2, also finished as the joint top-scorer in Melbourne. India lost to silver medallist Yugoslavia in the semifinal.

With India far away from the action and with China, Saudi Arabia and hosts Japan and South Korea in the thick of the coming World Cup, all that early good work may appear to be a dream.

And when former three-time Indian Footballer of Year I.M.Vijayan tells you that winning the World Cup does not even figure in his dreams now, you can understand.

Well, for want of a boot, a kingdom was lost!