Mohammed Salim: The first Indian to play for a European Club

With Sunil Chhetri having joined Sporting CP's 'B' side, takes at the story of one such Indian who was the first from his country to ply his trade in European Football..

With the world not having seen a lot of barefoot footballers in the history of European football, it was one silent Indian marking his name in the tales of times by being the first from his country to play abroad.

Celtic was not only the first British club to win the European Cup, they were also the first to play an Indian. recounts the extraordinary story of how Mohammed Salim, an Indian from Calcutta, played for Celtic in the 1936-37 season.

Salim was born in colonial Calcutta in 1904 and was an integral part of the great Mohammedan Sporting side of the 1930’s, where he played as a winger and helped them to five successive Calcutta League Titles.

Thereafter, Salim was part of the squad that played two friendly matches against the Chinese Olympic side. Hasheem, Salim's cousin, who lived in England, and was then visiting Calcutta, witnessed the first of the two friendlies. Having seen his brother’s incomparable display, Hasheem urged Salim to try his hand at European football.

On Hasheem's persuation, Salim gave the second friendly against the Chinese Olympic side a miss to sail along for England. After a few days in London, Hasheem took him to Glasgow and Celtic Park. Much to Salim’s surprise, he saw the players at Celtic play with studs which was an uncommon sight for him given that studs were a luxury back home.

Hasheem spoke to Willie Maley, the then Celtic manager and said I quote, “A great player from India has come by ship. Will you please take a trial of his? But there is a slight problem. Salim plays in bare feet.” Although Maley initially laughed at the thought of an Indian amateur competing with Scottish professionals, he eventually decided to give him a trial.                                                   

Salim impressed 1,000 club members and three registered coaches who decided to put his skill to the test by playing him in a match against Hamilton.

Salim, even with no shoes, helped The Bhoys win 5-1 and followed it up by guiding them to a 7-1 victory against Galston. The next morning, the headline in the Scottish Daily Express read: “Indian Juggler – New Style.”

There were several other mentions across Newspapers after his splendid performance. The article in the Daily read: “Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic FC’s player from India, hypnotised the crowd at Parkhead last night. He balances the ball on his big toe, lets it run down the scale to his little toe, twirls it, and hops on one foot around the defender.”

Not a lot of people expected it but Salim gradually became homesick and came back to India. Salim’s son Rashid, who lives in Calcutta, told the media: “Celtic tried to persuade my father to stay by offering to organize a charity match in his honor, giving him five per cent of the gate proceeds. My father did not realize what five per cent would amount to and said he would give his share to orphans who were to be special invitees for the match. Five per cent came to £1,800 [colossal money then] but although my father was astonished, he kept to his word.”

Many years later Rashid wrote to Celtic stating that his father was in distress and he needed money for his treatment. The intention behind the letter apart from the financial cause was Rashid wanting to find out whether his father is still remembered for his heroics at the club. To his surprise, Celtic sent a bank draft of £100 which Rashid till date hasn't cashed as he wished to preserve it until his death.

True to his words, Rashid has kept the cheque and a Celtic green and white jersey as a memory of his father’s days at Parkhead, who died on November 5, 1980.