India after its independence in 1947 emerged as a power house in International football during the 1950’s and 60’s. Although presently, in FIFA’s rankings, India is at 110th position still India has produced quality international players from its soil. Ranging from Baichung Bhutia, Sunil Chetri to Sandesh Jhingan and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu have left their indelible marks in international football.
India’s rise to international football can be traced back to an amateur footballing coach Syed Abdul Rahim who revolutionized the way in which football was thought about and played in India. He is regarded as the architect of modern Indian football. Under Syed’s tutelage Indian football rose through the ranks and reached new heights in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Life and Times of Modern Tactician
Syed Abdul Rahim was born in the city of “Nizam’s” Hyderabad in 1909. The veteran learnt his trade during his growing-up years, and soon became a prominent figure in the footballing circuit in the city. He represented the City College, Hyderabad and played for a team “Eleven Hunters” that was made up of current and former students of the college. After a couple of years as a teacher, he returned to the college to complete his arts degree.
He worked as a teacher in Kacheguda Middle School, Urdu Shariff School, Darul-ul-Uloom High School and Chadarghat High School. Syed earned a diploma in physical education and took charge of sports activities in the last two schools. With his hard work and sharp mind, he soon became a prominent figure in the footballing circuit in the city.
Syed’s true genius came into the fore when he took over the Hyderabad City Police team in the 1940s. His team went on to dominate the local and national tournaments for a long time. His genius soon drew the eyes of Indian football team and in 1950 he was appointed as the manager of the Indian national football team.
As mentioned in Novy Kapadia’s book Barefoot to Boots, Rahim had a derision for the British-style of football of using long and aerial balls. Having studied the footballing philosophies of various European teams, especially the great Hungarian side in 1950s, Rahim was a staunch advocate of ground passing.
When the world mostly used a 2-3-2-3 or a 3-3-4 formation in their gameplay, Rahim introduced the 4-2-4 formation to Indian football, few years before Brazil made it popular in the 1958 World Cup. Using a centre-forward to drop in midfield and a defender to overlap into attack were some of the revolutionary tactical changes that were eventually adopted by a few western teams.
1951-1962: The Golden Period of Indian Football
Under Syed’s managerial period from 1951 to 1962, Indian football reached new heights. The Indian team started the 1950s with victory in the 1951 Asian Games. Following the very next year, the team continued their form by winning the Colombo Quadrangular Cup held in Sri Lanka. The team didn’t stop here and also won three further editions of the Quadrangular Cup, which were held in Burma, Calcutta and Dhaka in 1953, 1954 and 1955 respectively. In the 1954 Asian Games in Manila, Indian football team finished in 8th position.
It was 1956 Melbourne’s Olympics which caught the eyeball of the world towards Indian football. After edging past Australia in the quarter-finals, the team made its way to the semi-finals. India may have finished fourth but this was the second time India made history in the world of football. By reaching the semi-finals in Melbourne Olympics, India became the first Asian team to reach the Olympic semi-finals.
Even after finishing fourth in the Melbourne Olympics, the legacy of Indian football and Syed Abdul Rahim did not fade away. India participated in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, Japan where they finished fourth, and then in the Merdeka Cup 1959 in Malaysia where they finished second. In the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Indian football team won the gold medal as they defeated South Korea 2–1 in the final.
Death and Plunge of Indian Football
Syed Abdul Rahim was stricken with cancer which led to his death in 1963. After his death Indian football saw a precipitous fall. This led to the Koreans and the Japanese taking charge at the summit of Asian football. However, Syed Abdul Rahim had already predicted their rise and other Asian nations in football.
India had great coaches and administrators even after Rahim, but few could match his vision. After Rahim passed away, the Indian head coach’s job exchanged hands 40 times. However, despite the frequent changes only 19 Indians have coached the national team since. PK Banerjee, Syed Nayeemuddin and Sukhwinder Singh each had three spells as India coach.
There was a time when football in India was highly celebrated. The Indian Football outfit was called the “Brazilians of Asia”. But due to several problems, football in India became less popular. The team lacks a technical director, and there are several other problems revolving around Indian football. India in football is considered as the sleeping giant which the world will soon reckon.
Syed emerged as an architect for Indian football as he groomed his team to win several international tournaments. A visionary coach and master tactician, it is fair to say that Syed Abdul Rahim’s genius has stood the test of time. Even decades after his death, Indian football can take plenty from his management.
(Views are personal)