When the World Cup kicked off in Brazil, a captive audience of close to 100 million in India, myself included, settled down for a month in paradise: long, enthralling nights in front of a television (most games begin after midnight here) and short, imaginative mornings spent calling in ill at work before tumbling back into bed.
India’s current ranking in the FIFA world standings is an abysmal 154th, and India’s vast soccer audience — now in love with the teams of Manchester United, Real Madrid, Spain and Brazil — developed independently of any real relationship with the moribund Indian game and primarily after the satellite television revolution of the 1990s. No Indian fan seriously hopes that India will qualify for a World Cup in the course of his or her lifetime.
The oldest of them would recall, however, that India was once listed for a World Cup tournament in Brazil — and decided not to go! That was in 1950 — the fourth edition of the tournament and the first after World War II. To understand why is also to understand how much the world has changed in 60 years.
Like cricket — the only sport in which India is today a considerable power — football was introduced in India late in the 19th century by British colonialists. It quickly caught on, especially in Bengal, where the major Indian football clubs of today were born: Mohun Bagan, in 1889; Mohammedan Sporting, in 1891; and East Bengal, in 1924.
The British didn’t think much of the skills of the natives, but one Indian team was allowed to compete against British teams in an annual competition in colonial Kolkata called the IFA Shield. In 1911, Mohun Bagan caused consternation by becoming the first Indian club to win it, beating East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in the final. This victory had a powerful symbolic significance in the age of colonialism. “Mohun Bagan is not a football team,” according to a contemporary report. “It is a tortured country, rolling in the dust, which has just started to raise its head.” Indian football also had a distinctly indigenous element in that Indian teams chose to play barefoot.
In 1947, India became an independent nation, and it sent a team to an international tournament for the first time the next year, for the Summer Olympics in England. There, the players put up an impressive display, once again playing barefoot. Meanwhile, thanks to the Second World War, there hadn’t been a World Cup since 1938. When the competition resumed in 1950, FIFA, soccer’s controlling body, decided to offer one of the 16 places in the tournament to an Asian team for the first time. After three other Asian teams turned down the invitation, it was offered to India, which accepted.
At a draw in Rio de Janeiro in May 1950, a month before the tournament, 12 numbered balls with the names of the unseeded teams were dropped into a silver globe. India, ball No. 6, found itself slotted into Group C with Italy, Sweden and Paraguay.
That’s when the board of the All India Football Federation, which runs the game in India, decided to pull out of the tournament. Legend has it that India backed out because the players were used to playing barefoot, and FIFA insisted they wear shoes. At least one surviving player from that generation has said that was the explanation given to them by Indian officials.
The truth, though, appears to have been much more banal (truth often is). The AIFF just didn’t think the Jules Rimet Cup, as the World Cup was called until 1970, was that important a competition. The trip to Brazil would have required substantial organization and expenditure, and the Indians thought it best to pass. (In this, they were not alone; France, too, decided to pull out of the long trip to South America.) And so the tournament took place without India.
For a while, it looked like the decision would have no adverse consequences. Indian football continued to thrive locally and enjoy a considerable following at home alongside cricket and field hockey, and the football team remained a power in South Asia all through the ’60s and ’70s.
Then, in 1983, India’s cricket team — which never turned down an invitation to a World Cup — won the title for the first time, exhilarating millions of countrymen and turning cricket into India’s sport of choice. When India hosted the cricket World Cup in 1987, it became clear that the potential audience for cricket in India would soon make the country the game’s economic superpower. Today, even the best British and Australian talent flocks to the marquee Indian Premier League to earn salaries unheard of in international cricket. Meanwhile, football floundered, and India has fallen so far back in the world game that Indians routinely argue that we’re terrible because of Indian genes and Indian climate, not the lack of a footballing culture.
Might the history of Indian sport, and indeed that of soccer itself, have taken a different turn if the golden generation of the ’40s had been sent to the World Cup in 1950? Could India have been a great soccer power today? And might I have been on the plane to Brazil right now as a visionary playmaker in the Indian midfield (oh, to be a star!), not stuck in New Delhi doing air kicks in my room and pleading in the evenings to be allowed to participate in the football matches of African students in the neighborhood park?
In the light of history, and the distance today between Indian soccer and any World Cup dreams, the decision by India to turn its back on the 1950 World Cup must be the most spectacular own goal in the game’s history.
Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel “Arzee the Dwarf” is published by New York Review Books.
© 2014, Bloomberg News