BY ATANU MITRA (Follow @Atanu00 on Twitter)
If one takes a stroll down the rusty pages of the Indian national football team’s history, a match played in Kuala Lumpur on the independence day of 1971 appears to be a chapter worth highlighting. Before delving deeper into what happened on that fateful day, it’s pertinent to make a brief survey of India’s performances till that point.
India’s first foray into international football in the post-independence era came in the 1948 Olympics, where they lost to France. Three years later, India won the Asian Games Gold defeating Iran, a feat they once again repeated at Jakarta in 1962. If one also takes into consideration the 4th place finish at the 1956 Olympics and an unbeaten run in 1959 Merdeka Cup, India definitely was one of the leading superpowers in Asian football.
The scenario, though changed dramatically after coach Rahim Saab succumbed to lung cancer in June, 1963. India finished runners up in 1964 Asian Cup and Merdeka Cup, but there was a sense of waning dominance in the continent. Winning the Bronze medal in 1970 Asian Cup was the last podium finish in the continental stage for India.
Sudhir Karmakar was part of the starting XI
From the next year, the gulf in quality between India and some of the other Asian countries became too large to overcome. This fact manifested itself most prominently on the aforementioned day, when a full-strength India, playing in the Merdeka Cup, suffered arguably the most humiliating defeat in its history. The opponents in that 9-1 defeat was Myanmar (then Burma), the team India will be facing next Tuesday in an AFC Asian Cup 2019 qualifier. While the 10-1 loss against Yugoslavia in the 1952 Olympics remains the worst ever score-line, if one keeps in mind that the game was played in snowy conditions, where the Indian team, playing barefoot, almost froze, the 1971 defeat to Myanmar looks even more crushing.
Looking back, it seems near impossible to explain what exactly led to the disaster. Under the tutelage of G.M.H.Basha and P.K.Banerjee, the team consisting of the likes of Syed Nayeemuddin, Subhash Bhowmick, Sudhir Karmakar, Shyam Thapa and Amar Bahadur was confident of a good showing, given the core of the team had been kept intact for a few years. What unfolded though, was a horror show, as India were 5-0 down by the half-time whistle. While D.Nataraj scored one in the 83rd minute, the Burmese players hit four more.
“After all the sooth-saying by official pep-talkers of the Federation, the fact emerges that never before, perhaps, has a football team from India been so finally humbled,” Times of India wrote a couple of days after the match. “..I am wanting not to belittle the players who took such a whacking, but the officials who continue to issue statements which are so often totally refuted by the subsequent course of events,” an in-depth commentary published on 17th August 1971 read.
The embarrassment against Myanmar officially announced that the golden chapter of Indian football is over. The reverberations were heard for months, as the Union Education Ministry – which used to take care of sports during that period – also sought an explanation for the defeat. “It’s too early to say before we get full reports..but a probe is definitely indicated,” K. Ziauddin, the contemporary general secretary of the AIFF was quoted as saying.
From then on, the Blue Tigers could never really claw it back into the footballing elite of Asia, even though they have dazzled in patches - in Nehru Cup, AFC Challenge Cup and a handful of World Cup qualifiers. What followed was mostly a downward spiral in form and that resulted in dwindling fanfare and media coverage for the national team.
On Tuesday, Stephen Constantine and his men will have a golden chance to reverse the wheels of history. Grouped with Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar and Macau, India have a decent chance to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup 2019, given the top two teams from the group will directly make it to the prestigious tournament. The qualification will also be a major boost to the domestic football circuit, as India will rub their shoulders with the elite forces of Asia and will also get to play a number of friendlies against similar teams in the run-up to the tournament.
Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and co. will now have to stand up to the cause for the next six qualifiers to at least halt the slide temporarily and give back something to the loyal fans of the team. Pitted against a country that had once inflicted upon India one of its worst defeats ever, Tuesday will be a great stage to embark on that journey.