History of the Indian football team on the international stage, including its highest peaks and deepest lows, is closely intertwined with the Olympic Games.
In fact, independent India’s first-ever international football match was at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London.
So, needless to say, any discussion of the Indian national football team’s progression over the years is incomplete without reference of the Indian football team in Olympics.
From 1948 to 1960, India qualified regularly for the Olympics and the period is still regarded as Indian football’s golden era.
With their Olympic football pedigree in tow, the period also witnessed India emerge as one of the premier teams in Asian football, which culminated in gold medals at the 1951 and 1962 Asian Games.
Indian football team at the 1948 London Olympics
The Indian football team’s first appearance in Olympics was at London 1948. Just a year after India’s independence from the British Raj, the occasion was a special one as India were competing in the Summer Games in the capital city of their erstwhile colonisers.
Barring the prevalent political and sociological aspects of the time, the first round match of the tournament against European giants France was also to be India’s first international match as an Independent nation.
For the first time under the banner of the Indian tricolour, the Indian football team led by the charismatic Talimeren Ao and coached by Balaidas Chatterjee took the field at East London’s Cricklefield Stadium in front of a 17,000 strong crowd on July 31, 1948.
Word of the match instantly spread across London as eight members of the team’s starting eleven played barefooted. The absence of boots, however, hardly seemed like a deterrent as the Indian players played football with gusto and gave their mighty opponents a run for their money.
As captain Ao would later put it, “Well, you see, we play football in India, whereas you play bootball!" His comments made headlines.
Despite the fearless display, India lost the match 2-1. France’s René Courbin opened the scoring but India’s Sarangapani Raman scored independent India’s first-ever international goal to bring the Blue Tigers level in the 70th minute.
Much against the run of play, France grabbed the winner in the 89th minute through René Persillon to break Indian hearts in the dying seconds. The result, however, could have turned out very different if India’s Sailen Manna and Mahabir Prasad hadn’t squandered opportunities from the penalty spot – one in each half.
The loss eliminated India from the 1948 Olympics but immortalised the team. It’s even rumoured that King George VI invited the team to Buckingham Palace and asked Sailen Manna to roll up his trousers to check if the Indian players had feet made of steel.
Indian football team at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics
Four years later at the Helsinki Games, though, India’s Olympic venture became memorable for the wrong reasons.
India bowed out in the preliminary round after a 10-1 thumping at the hands of eventual silver medallists Yugoslavia. It still stands as the heaviest loss India has suffered in international football till date.
In the Indian team’s defence, the Yugoslavian team featured several World Cuppers, including Bernard ‘Bajdo’ Vukas, who is regarded as the greatest Croatian footballer of all time and the greatest athlete the country has produced in the 20th century. Vukas scored a brace in the match.
Another World Cupper Branislav Zebec, who later coached Bayern Munich to a Bundesliga title in 1968-69, top-scored with four goals.
Red Star Belgrade legend Rajko Mitić, after whom Serbia’s principal stadium (formerly Red Star Stadium) is named, scored two while Tihomir Ognjanov completed the rout with a brace of his own.
Ahmed Khan grabbed India’s 89th minute consolation strike.
Indian football team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics
Under coach Syed Abdul Rahim and captain Samar Banerjee, India created history at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics.
In their first match, India were to face Hungary, who won the Olympic gold medal four years back. Featuring all-time legends like Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis, the Mighty Magyars were strong favourites to retain their title but withdrew from the competition in response to the Hungarian Revolution back home.
Progressing through a bye, India set up a quarter-final tie against hosts Australia. Against the Socceroos, on their home turf, India won 4-2.
The Indian team played inspired football with young PK Banerjee creating havoc down the flanks. Striker Neville D’Souza scored a hat-trick – the first-ever treble by an Asian player at the Olympics. Krishna Kittu scored India’s fourth.
On the back of the victory, India reached the semi-finals where they faced old nemesis Yugoslavia.
This time, India took the lead in the 52nd minute through Neville D’souza but were pegged back by three quick goals by the Yugoslavians. A Muhammad Salam own goal in the 78th minute wrapped up the 4-1 scoreline against the Indians.
But India’s performance against the Yugoslavian side, featuring multiple World Cup first-teamers, was so impressive that even the then FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous visited the Indian dressing room to congratulate the players.
India, unfortunately, lost the bronze medal match 3-0 to Bulgaria to finish fourth.
The semi-final appearance in Melbourne is not only the best performance by the Indian football team in Olympics, but is also their best finish at a major global international tournament.
It was also the first time an Asian team had finished in the top four at the Olympics. Just five Asian teams have reached the men's final four since with Japan (1968) and South Korea (2012) the only medallists among them, both taking bronze.
Neville D’Souza also finished as the joint-top scorer in the tournament with four goals.
Indian football team at the 1960 Rome Olympics
The 1960 Summer Games in Rome marked the Indian football team’s last Olympic appearance.
With groups introduced to Olympic football, India were drawn in a tough Group D alongside Hungary, France and Peru national teams.
In the first match, India lost 2-1 to eventual bronze medallists Hungary.
Hungary fielded a strong team with Florian Albert, Ernő Solymosi, János Göröcs, Kálmán Mészöly, and several others who would later go on to lead Hungary to the 1962 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals.
Grocos and Albert, who won the European Player of the Year award in 1967, scored to give Hungary a 2-0 lead by the hour-mark. But led by PK Banerjee, Tulsidas Balaram and Chuni Goswami – Indian football’s holy trinity – India hit back as Balaram pulled a goal back in the 79th minute.
India made life really uncomfortable for their illustrious opponents in the closing stages but couldn’t find a second goal.
It was by far the hardest the Hungarians were pushed in the Group stage. They beat Peru 6-2 and thumped France 7-0.
Another historic result awaited the Indian team in the second match, as they held the Les Blues to a 1-1 draw. It was captain PK Banerjee who gave India the lead in the 71st minute but Gérard Coinçon scored the late equaliser to save France's blushes.
The French team had finished third at the World Cup two years earlier.
India lost to Peru 3-1 in the final group match and failed to progress to the knockout rounds. Tulsidas Balaram scored India’s solitary goal in the match. It was also the final match of the Indian football team in Olympics.