Why India did not compete in the 1950 football World Cup (and no, it wasn’t because they didn’t have boots)

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Box to box: 75 years of the Indian football team, edited by Jaydeep Basu

Number of pages: 262

Price: Rs 650

The countdown to every football World Cup inevitably gives rise to one of the most inane, over-used, and, as it turns out, a mythical piece of trivia. India, the oft-cited story goes, did not play in the 1950 edition – the closest the country has come to participate in a World Cup – because the players did not want to wear shoes. And FIFA, the tale continues, did not allow players to step on the field barefoot.

This claim, however, has been countered in a recently-released book, ‘Box to box: 75 years of the Indian football team.’ In a chapter titled, ‘Blunder of the century’, author Jaydeep Basu – who has also edited the book – reveals how ignorance, short-sightedness, lack of confidence in the players and misplaced priorities on behalf of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) cost India a golden chance to compete in a World Cup.

Basu, a veteran journalist, gives a blow-by-blow account of the series of events that led to the AIFF deciding against sending a team to Brazil despite the organisers’ willingness to share the burden of expenses that would be incurred. Not just the Brazilian federation, the chapter claims that state-level bodies from across India agreed to chip in so that the AIFF – who did not have the capacity to raise the necessary funds – would face any difficulties.

Based on this, and a series of other factors noted in the book, India announced its squad for the World Cup on May 16, 1950, and the team was scheduled to leave for Brazil on June 15 or 16 to play its first match on June 28. “What happened thereafter remains the biggest unsolved mystery of Indian football,” Basu writes, adding that ‘it was an opportunity lost that would continue to haunt Indian football till they manage to play another World Cup.’

Apart from busting the myth surrounding India’s non-participating in the 1950 World Cup, the story also highlights a common thread between then and now – the lack of foresight and imagination on the part of the AIFF through the course of India’s football history.

The federation’s failure is particularly tragic when one looks at stories in Indian football that inspire awe and have defied odds, which have been told by an eclectic bunch of writers who perfectly capture the 75-year history of the sport in independent India.

At a time when Indian football is facing a severe identity crisis with a stagnating and seemingly-directionless league, a dying ecosystem and the national team that’s struggling to take meaningful steps forward, Box to Box is a reminder of what Indian football was and what it could have been.

From the delightful story of Dr T Ao, the first captain of India’s football team from Nagaland (the North Eastern state was recently in the news after one of its schools won the Subroto Cup for the first time after 44 years), to the humble-to-a-fault Tulsidas Balaram, the book chronicles the stories of some of the finest players the country has produced.

It also deals with some of the prickly issues that have stunted the sport’s growth. However, it doesn’t really go deep into probing the reasons why in 75 years, the sport completely failed to make an inroad into the so-called Hindi heartland even though it dives deep into the culture of some of the football strongholds across the country.

Across all stories, what shines through are stories of immense resilience in the face of countless adversities. To quote a blurb from the book itself, it is a ‘fascinating, if not always happy, history of a team that still raises passions among millions.’

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