The peculiar World Cup history of Indian soccer

When the Indian soccer 2014 World Cup begins in Brazil, a captive audience of nearly 100 million Indians, including myself, will settle in for a month of bliss: long, enthralling nights in front of the television (most games start after midnight here) and short, imaginative mornings spent calling in sick at work before tumbling back into bed.

India’s current FIFA world ranking is a dismal 154th and the vast Indian soccer audience—now enamored with the teams of Manchester United, Real Madrid, Spain, and Brazil—grew independently of any real connection to the dormant Indian game and primarily after the satellite television revolution of the 1990s. No true Indian fan believes that India will qualify for a World Cup in his or her lifetime.

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World Cup held every four years

However, the oldest of them will recall that India was previously selected for a World Cup competition in Brazil—and then decided not to participate! That was in 1950, the tournament’s fourth year and the first following WWII. To comprehend why one must first comprehend how dramatically the world has changed in 60 years.

Football, like cricket, the only sport in which India has a significant presence today, was brought to India late in the nineteenth century by British colonialists. It swiftly gained popularity, particularly in Bengal, where three of today’s biggest Indian football clubs were founded: Mohun Bagan in 1889, Mohammedan Sporting in 1891, and East Bengal in 1924.

The British didn’t think much of the indigenous’ abilities, but one Indian team was allowed to compete against British teams in the IFA Shield, an annual competition held in colonial Kolkata. Mohun Bagan made history by being the first Indian club to win the competition in 1911, defeating East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in the final. In the era of colonialism, this triumph had a strong symbolic value.

According to a recent article, Mohun Bagan is “not a football team,” but rather “a suffering country, laying in the dust, that has just begun to lift its head.” Indian football had a distinctly indigenous character in that Indian teams elected to play barefoot.

India gained independence in 1947, and the following year, for the first time, it sent a team to an international event, the Summer Olympics in England. The players put on a fantastic performance there, once again playing barefoot. Meanwhile, the World Cup had not been held since 1938 due to the Second World War.

FIFA, soccer’s governing body, chose to grant one of the 16 spots in the tournament to an Asian country for the first time when the competition resumed in 1950. After three other Asian teams declined, India was handed the invitation, which they accepted.

Indian soccer

Twelve numbered balls with the names of the unseeded teams were dropped into a silver globe at a draw in Rio de Janeiro in May 1950, a month before the competition. India was assigned to Group C, which included Italy, Sweden, and Paraguay.

The All India Football Federation (AIFF), which oversees the game in India, chose to withdraw from the tournament at that point. According to legend, India withdrew because its players were accustomed to playing barefoot, and FIFA insisted that they wear shoes. That was the reason offered to them by Indian officials, according to at least one surviving player from that generation.

The truth, on the other hand, appears to have been far more mundane (truth often is). The AIFF just did not believe the Jules Rimet Cup, as the World Cup was known until 1970, was a significant event. The Indians decided to pass on the trip to Brazil because it would involve a lot of planning and money. (They were not alone in this; France had also opted to abandon the arduous journey to South America.) As a result, the event was held without India.

It appeared for a time that the choice would have no negative implications. Indian football, along with cricket and field hockey, continued to grow in popularity at home, and the football team remained a force in South Asia during the 1960s and 1970s.

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Then, in 1983, India’s cricket team—which had never turned down a World Cup invitation—won the tournament for the first time, thrilling millions of Indians and establishing cricket as the country’s preferred sport. When India hosted the World Cup in cricket in 1987, it was evident that the country’s potential viewership for the sport would soon make it the game’s economic superpower.

Even the top British and Australian cricketers are flocking to the Indian Premier League (IPL) to earn unheard-of sums in international cricket. Meanwhile, football has struggled, and India has fallen so far behind in the world game that Indians frequently argue that we are bad because of our genes and climate, not because of a lack of a footballing culture.

In the light of history, and the distance today between Indian soccer and any World Cup hopes, the choice by India to turn its back on the 1950 World Cup must be the most stunning own goal in the game’s history “inputs from”.

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