Remembering Indian football's glory days

India's Blue Tigers stunned hosts Australia on their way to fourth at the 1956 Olympics. Now their story is being immortalised in a film starring Ajay Devgn. 

By Saurabh Shankar ·

The 'beautiful game' has never been India’s strong suit with the country currently 103rd in the international rankings.

In its 72 years since independence, India has qualified for the FIFA World Cup just once - in Brazil in 1950 - but had to pull out at the last moment due to unaffordable travel costs.

Football never took hold in India as it did in Europe or South America. But at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, an inexperienced group of Indian amateur footballers upstaged the hosts to achieve a record fourth-place finish.

Upsetting the hosts

A year after independence, India competed in football at the 1948 London Olympics.

In their first international match, they went down 2-1 to France whose winner came in the 89th minute.

Four years later, they were thumped 10-1 by Yugoslavia at the Helsinki Games.

In Melbourne, the Indians were pitted against reigning Olympic champions and 1954 World Cup runners-up Hungary in their opening match.

Boasting all-time greats 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.

That gave India a bye through to the quarter-finals where they would meet hosts Australia.

This looked set to be a tough task for the Blue Tigers with Australia one of the more organised and disciplined sides in the competition. They were trained professionally and were physically stronger and more adept to play the sport.

What followed though was 90 minutes of pure ecstasy for Indian football as the unfancied Asian side ran riot.

Their 20-year-old forward Neville D’Souza scored a hat-trick on his Olympic debut as India won 4-2.

Despite a young squad with an average age of 23, India showed experience beyond their years as they silenced an expectant home ground to become the first Asian side to reach the semi-finals of the Olympic tournament.

In the last four, India faced Yugoslavia with D’Souza giving the underdogs a shock lead early in the second half.

But the Europeans hit back immediately before running out comfortable 4-1 victors.

In the bronze medal match, India were well beaten 3-0 by Bulgaria but there was some consolation for D'Souza whose four goals saw him become the competition's joint top-scorer.

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.

Moving on

The Blue Tigers' glorious performance at the 1956 Olympics was one of the highlights of the nation’s 'golden era' of football with India last qualifying for the Games in 1960.

Before that, they had won gold at the 1951 Asian Games on home soil in New Delhi and repeated that triumph in 1962 in Jakarta.

Shooting of a film detailing this period, with seasoned Bollywood actor Ajay Devgn starring as coach Syed Abdul Rahim, starts in Bali this month.