BY ATANU MITRA (Follow @Atanu00 on Twitter)
If one is asked to name the biggest ever achievement by the India national football team, it essentially means choosing from two options: the semi-final finish in 1956 Melbourne Olympics and victory in 1962 Asian Games. While the former has a global appeal, a closer look reveals that India had only won one game in the whole competition and progressed that far based on the withdrawal of much stronger sides. The 1962 win, though, can be referred as a proof of the nation's footballing prowess.
While the victory is often talked about, fans have lost track of the finer details with time. Here we take a close look at five such forgotten facts:
India were not supposed to participate in Football!
With a foreign exchange crisis looming, the Finance Ministry had suggested only a fortnight before the tournament that it may not give green signal to the football team to take part in the fourth Asian Games. This came as a shock for all as India were the only team which had qualified for the Rome Olympics a couple of years ago, but the move also looked intuitive as with 22 members, the Chuni Goswami-led squad was the biggest contingent.
"Both the Maharaja of Patiala and Raja Bhalinder Singh, presidents respectively of All India Council of Sports (an advisory body to the Education Ministry) and the Indian Olympics Association are striving their best to ensure there is no cut in size," Indian Express had reported on 6th August. Finance Minister Morarji Desai finally gave in to the pressure three days later. "The Union Finance Ministry has relented to such an extent that there will be a cut of only seven in the contingent," read a UNI report on 9th that month.
Would AIFF risk paying the passport fee?
If bureaucrats debated on cutting down the contingent size, AIFF general secretary K Ziauddin dithered about paying Rs. 400 as passport fee ahead of the competition.
"The payments for the passports of the team had to be made on Monday. In view of the reported suggestion of the Union Finance Ministry to cut the size of the Asian contingent, the payment for the passports of about Rs. 400 was withheld," a Times of India report read. However, the good news came in the very next paragraph.
"On second thoughts, Mr. Ziauddin has decided to make the payments today," it added, meaning that the last hurdle ahead of India's participation was cleared.
A young Indian side were not the favourites
To set the record straight, it was a pretty young side, even though most contemporary reports stressed 'the blend of youth and experience'. The youngest member was 20-year-old Arumainayagam, while 28-year-old Services striker Ethiraj was the most experienced. The team had 10 former Olympians in its ranks, but the captain's armband was given to Chuni Goswami and not PK Banerjee, who was the skipper in the Olympics a couple of years ago.
"The selection of the side was unanimous," a UNI report said.
The Indian media were not very hopeful about the team's chances once the groups were announced. "Had they been placed in any of the other three pools, India would have made the quarter-final grade [sic]," a staff reporter at Times of India commented. "India face another handicap,.. they will have to play under floodlights," it further noted. Most other newspapers carried the same narrative even though they stressed that India's performance in Merdeka 1961 was inspiring and given the team practiced together for six weeks, coach Rahim Saab can come up with a winning strategy.
India national team shifts to 4-2-4
While the foundation of independent India's early footballing success was built upon a rigid 2-3-5 attacking system espoused first by Balaidas Chatterjee and later by Rahim Saab, the Hyderabad-born tactician decided to shift to a 4-2-4 formation for the Asian Games.
"Though the presence of only four forwards may appear to weaken the attack, it will not be so, because the two halves will also be available to support the forwards," the gaffer explained before the start of the tournament. "The fact that there will be four full-backs will mean added strength to the defense," he further added, advocating the key reasons for deviating from a system where most of his players had maximum exposure. It's needless to say that the change in tactics was a game-changer.
Indian Embassy ransacked, Footballers booed - but why?
The biggest talking point of the whole journey, however, was how politics got intertwined with sports. Indonesia, the host country, didn't approve visas of athletes representing Taiwan and Israel, which resulted in Mr. GD Sondhi, the Indian senior vice-president of Asian Games Federation, claiming that the competition should be stripped off the 'Asian Games' tag. That caused a furore in Indonesia, with the Indian Embassy facing the brunt. "Several thousand Indonesians,... today stormed the Indian Embassy here, broke into the embassy premises, smashed furnitures and broke window panes, a front page news on Times of India read on 4th September.
The next day, when 11 footballers took the field to fight for Gold, they were greeted with loud boos. "It was a triumph as much for our footballers as for all those who had stood up to that hooting, churlish mob," Times of India's KN Prabhu wrote in his report. "The fourth Asian Games ... ended today with thousands of Indonesians booing Indian athletes, the Indian flag and the national anthem," another report read. "The booing broke out among the 1,10,000 persons in the Senajan Stadium as the Indians [sic] defeated South Korea 2-1 to win the football championship and take the Games' last gold medal," it added.
While Indian footballers have played many a match on foreign lands since then, never have they faced such a concerted acrimonious crowd, incited allegedly by some leaders of the Indonesian ruling party.
That makes the Asian Games 1962 victory even sweeter.