Why

Why

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

THE CASE OF A MISSING LETTER - INDIA AT THE 1950 FOOTBALL WORLD CUP

(Source: FIFA Archives)

In the past month and a half the media - especially the sports section have turned all their attention to the world's sporting showpiece - FIFA World Cup. Analysis, predictions, history and many other elements are being churned out, leaving no corners at all. Many such news highlighted India's inability to qualify at this global event. The causes are plenty - but what I do know is that, India had an opportunity to play at the World Cup in Brazil back in 1950.

Preparations were on till about a month's time when the Secretary General of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), Dr. Ivo Schricker received a telegram from AIFF (All-India Football Federation)  stating its inability to participate in the World Cup and the same news to be informed to the Brazilian Organising Committee. There were no reasons given in that telegram. However, a letter addressed to FIFA was to follow explaining the reasons for India's late withdrawal. Was this letter written? If yes, where is this letter? For sure, this letter would debunk several theories surrounding the withdrawal. All one finds is a letter dated 15th June 1950 written to FIFA by AIFF "requesting two rule books for the federation use".

Playing barefoot, lack of funds, lack of interest, lack of training or was World Cup - a much smaller event involving 16 countries than compared with Summer Olympics which had 59 countries taking part at the 1948 London Olympics.

1948 Summer Olympics was the first truly international competition India took part post independence. Indian football team or also known as 'All-India' from FIFA's official sanction back then showed its prowess playing barefoot. Since 1947, AIFF and FIFA have corresponded a lot of times leading up to the 1950 World Cup. I have written this article based on those correspondences interspersed with my opinions after having followed the history of this game for a while.

In early 1949, the organising committee and FIFA had selected 30 countries - out of which 16 teams would then be shortlisted leading up to the World Cup or Jules Rimet Trophy as it was called then. 'All-India' was part of this list and was one of the four countries from Asia.

AIFF in their preparations for the World Cup requested FIFA on 21st Dec 1949 about their qualifying matches in order to ascertain who among the Asian teams clubbed under Group 10 of qualifying matches would go through as a finalist for the main event. AIFF secretary Mr. Dutta Ray even talked about chartering a flight from Calcutta (now Kolkata) or Bombay (now Mumbai) to Brazil. AIFF had even plans to send the team 10 days in advance to Brazil and play few friendlies before the commencement of the tournament. AIFF also requested for approximate costs which would be incurred for accommodation purposes.

On the same day, Sir Stanley Rous (oblivious to the AIFF letter written on that day) the then Secretary of FIFA and member of the organising committee wrote a letter addressed to Mr. Dutta Ray, secretary of AIFF. The letter was detailed and it highlighted the organising committee's plans to have 16 teams grouped into four groups of four teams. Philippines and Burma had withdrawn and so India was to be the sole representative from Asia, if they were willing to. Rous requested if India would like to be part of the World Cup and since India would have played no opponents as a result of withdrawal of aforementioned teams, the Indian team was requested to come and play few qualifying matches in Europe (Spain, Switzerland or Portugal) to "prove if the team was worthy to take a place in the last sixteen". Rous also added - "Your team was recently beaten by a touring Swedish club and wondered whether that opportunity to judge your strength had caused your committee to review its decision to take part in the World Cup, the last of the teams which will be drawn from strong Professional clubs". He concluded the letter by telling that he was not confident that England is good enough to go far in the tournament after their performance against Italy in the friendlies.

With six months to go for the World Cup, it was clear that India was the sole contender to represent Asia at the World Cup. Before that they had to reply to FIFA whether they would be interested in taking part and if they are indeed willing to participate, will they be sending a team to Europe to prove 'if they indeed belong to the league of the other world teams'.

AIFF wrote a strong letter to FIFA's Secretary General Dr. Ivo Schricker in which they highlighted - "Regarding the friendlies to be played in Europe, had India fulfilled her engagements with Burma or Philippines this question would not have come up at all." It also indicated that if Burma or Philippines were to withdraw, India would automatically get in. A clarification on the Swedish club 'Helsingborg' defeating India 11-0 was false. In fact the Swedish team played three exhibition matches in Calcutta (Kolkata) against Mohan Bagan, East Bengal and Bengal Football Association. Mohan Bagan drew the match while East Bengal and Bengal Football Association lost their matches by two goals and a solitary goal respectively. AIFF insisted India to be much stronger than what it was at the 1948 Olympics and would not cut a sorry figure at the World Cup. AIFF had also appointed the FA Coach George Ainsley from the UK to train the boys for 3-4 months duration leading up to the World Cup.

In its 23rd February 1950 letter to AIFF, FIFA confirms India to be the finalist and they need not play their friendlies in Europe. The letter concluded with - "I want to mention a question which may be discussed by the Organising Committee in their next meeting: the question regarding whether the bare-foot playing will be allowed. I know that nothing is said about this question in the Laws of the Game - but the question will be eventually raised. It would be in my opinion advisable to let your players use in practice games light shoes, not heavy shoes." The last part was a private advice given by the Secretary General to AIFF.

On the very next day another letter was addressed to AIFF in which FIFA regrets the wrong press reports of the Swedish club matches played earlier. And it confirms again that AIFF does not need to play any of the so-called 'Test matches'.

On 19th March 1950, the organising committee met in Zurich and discussed various points related to the preparation of the World Cup. From the minutes of the meeting, it emerged that - "The Organising Committee considers that all players should play with shoes. However it is known that in some countries there are players who play football without shoes, especially in India. A letter will be sent to the All India Football Federation drawing attention wrt Art. Game 4 of the Statutes, which provides that the shoes are part of the equipment of the player and perhaps an arbitrator (referee) may refer to this article and hence prohibiting play barefoot".

Until 27th April 1950, there was no response from AIFF on their stand regarding playing barefoot. FIFA and the organising committee published the list of finalists who would be taking part in that year's World Cup. India was part of the final list.

India was placed alongside Sweden, Paraguay and Italy in Group C.

With just 30 days to go for the World Cup, FIFA received a wire message from AIFF which read - "Regret unable participate World Cup letter follows inform Brazil" - Soccer Calcutta.

And that letter is not to be seen and hence the mystery surrounds regarding this last minute pull-out.

What could be the reasons? Lack of funds, lack of preparation, lack of awareness surrounding World Cup football, amateur vs. professionalism, long distance travel, apprehensions against the World's top sides, being stubborn to change its barefooted playing style or the politics over selection and power?

Let me look at it one by one.

Lack of funds - Though India was independent three years prior to the event, lack of funds was not a concern. Wealthy businessmen and other philanthropists were in plenty to fund the football team to Brazil. Moreover, the Brazilian Confederation had guaranteed air transport for up to 22 passengers. The cost of the stay for the teams would have been reimbursed from two days before the first match until two days after its last match.

At that time, while the plans for the inaugural Asian Games were being made in India, it is highly unlikely that Government would have stopped the football team from participating at the World Cup. And moreover, by mere presence Indian football team would have been paid by the Organising Committee as a part of its participation fees.

Lack of preparation - George Ainsley, the English professional football player was roped in by AIFF to help prepare the Indian football team specifically keeping in mind of the World Cup. It was less than two years ago in 1948, where the Indian footballers put up a brave show against France at the Olympics. The better team lost that day but they returned home brimming with confidence. But how big was this football World Cup back then for these Indian footballers and to the AIFF? It seems Olympics was given more importance keeping in mind the success of Indian hockey team and its global appeal at that time. Lack of preparation would have been a mere excuse if even it came from the press release of AIFF.

Lack of awareness surrounding World Cup - Let me be brutally honest here. Sixty five years ago, sports was merely an element which the 'selected few' played. India, post independence had many problems and sports was not the priority. The success of Indian national hockey team made headlines across the country. Rest, it was left to purists to go out and satisfy their thirst for more sporting knowledge and desire. Prior to the 1950 football World Cup, the previous edition was held in France - a good 12 years ago. At a time when most men and women of our country was busy in the freedom movement, passing the ball around with one's foot and to have men playing for a world cup based out of this sport was unimaginable to many. However this has nothing to do with Indian football.

AIFF was formed in 1937 and a letter from AIFF was written to FIFA in April 1947 seeking permission to be part of FIFA. FIFA in return acknowledged and sent their statutes and waited for AIFF with the application. In May 1948, a letter was sent to AIFF confirming their membership with FIFA. In the subsequent letters written to FIFA, AIFF had shown more concern over 'rumours' of football being removed from the Olympic programme and if needed India would be happy to host the football leg of Olympics for the forthcoming edition.

It was evident, Olympics no-doubt was much bigger in scale than football World Cup around that time. In fact, later that year in 1949, Mr. Dutta Ray had visited FIFA in Switzerland and met the Secretary General of FIFA, Dr. Ivo Schricker. In his thank note, Ray acknowledged the warm welcome he received during his stay in Zurich and at the end of the note requests 'the arrangement plans' of India for the Brazil trip.

AIFF knew about the World Cup well in advance. Whether the Indian football team was well-informed on these communications with FIFA is not known. Even the ace-footballer 'Sailen Manna' (passed away in 2012) - who captained India at the 1948 Olympics revealed in an interview with Sports Illustrated India that - "We were less informed about the World Cup. And to us, Olympics was everything".

The enthusiasm shown by AIFF in its letters to FIFA are anything to go by, it would be another excuse if 'lack of awareness' were deemed to be the main reason for India's last minute withdrawal.

Amateur vs. Professionalism - At a time when India is still struggling to bring in professionalism in sports, it can be safely believed that the question of amateurism ideals of Olympics clashing with professionals would not have been an issue in 1950 for AIFF to worry. At that time, amateur vs. professional was a global issue in the sporting world and India being a newly formed country had other issues to deal with than worry on this 'debatable' matter.

Long distance Travel - At no point in time where Indian football team were asked to reach Brazil via waterways. It was well known to AIFF that the means of transport would be 'air-borne' and the Brazilian Confederation had offered teams air-fares. So we can safely rule out this reason.

Apprehensions against top sides at the World Cup -  Indian team was grouped alongside the reigning and two-time World champions Italy; Paraguay who had finished 11th at the 1930 World Cup playing in their second World Cup and Sweden, two time participants at the World Cup and the Olympic gold winner at the 1948 Olympics. It must be noted that - the Italian team was affected by the 1949 Superga air disaster which took the lives of Torino AC football team killing 31 people which included 18 footballers. This was the background of the teams India were grouped with. Indian team were not favourites and if anything to go by, it was an opportunity to play alongside these top nations and get recognised after having performed well at the 1948 London Olympics. If India could go to the Olympics then why not to Brazil especially if the expenses (major) were taken care of?

Barefoot Theory - It is a well-documented fact that Indians preferred playing with their bare feet as compared with shoes. At least that was the case in 1940's and early 1950's. Like mentioned earlier in this article, FIFA had given prior notice that Indian players were expected to play with shoes. If Indian hockey team played with shoes at the 1936 Olympics and at the 1948 Olympics then availability or knowledge of shoes was not an issue. AIFF - in their capacity could have procured shoes or at least requested for the duration of the World Cup. However there is another fact which must be addressed. Indian team played with barefoot at the 1952 Helsinki Games and were thrashed by Yugoslavia 10-1. The champions of Asia were literally 'cold-feet'. This incident throws light at the fact that FIFA did not oppose to India playing barefoot at the Olympics.

What would have happened if Indian team would have turned up in Brazil for the World Cup without shoes? Would the organisers have arranged shoes for the team or FIFA would have let Indians play barefoot as an exception or ban the Indian team from playing? Any one of first two would have happened as I cannot fathom Indian team flown in and out without participating in the tournament.

While playing with shoes was not comfortable for Indian players, I am certain of the fact that the players were not shy playing 'out of their comfort zone'.

Power Games and Selection Politics - Conduct a poll among the citizens of India on what prevents India from having a good sports governance, I would be surprised if power games and selection politics would not top the list by a huge margin. Such a delicate matter that, one cannot rule out this element - a crucial one as these struggles of power and favourism towards selection have often been the reasons for many of the teams to withdraw from the tournament. While the administrators are entrusted to be the voice of world governing sports bodies, if there-in lies a difference in opinion among the decision makers, the team often is the plagued one.

Conclusion: Without dwelling much into selection politics and power struggles, I would like to,  in my personal opinion have this point to be one of the many reasons I have cited above. The myth has grown in size due to this 'case of missing letter containing official explanation' which the AIFF officially wrote or did not write to FIFA after sending that telegram on 24th May 1950. If there was an official explanation, it is nowhere to be seen. Is 'AIFF innocent until the world get to see the official explanation'? The innocence stems from the fact that - it is unimaginable for today's audience to fathom the size of 'World Cup' back then.

Till then at every edition of football World Cup, there will be a small section of this 'great Indian football story' along with many myths, 'if's' and 'buts' thrown in. The fact remains with the late withdrawal that - an opportunity was lost to be part of the World Cup. In an ideal scenario, India's participation at the World Cup would have inspired many a generation and probably football would have turned out to be India's mass sport.