CHENGAPPA CARIAPA |8th October 2020

Amongst the many raging debates over clubs, players and anything remotely associated to the beautiful game that Indian football fans take part in on WhatsApp groups, social media platforms and video calls across the country, from stats being branded about goals, assists, trophies and individual accolades to history and current performance as evidentiary proof. A crucial fulcrum of most debates with fans is that the topics can range from what happened 75 years ago to the previous weekend on Sunday night, there’s no middle group. You can’t be a football fan and not find yourself in the midst of inane arguments about just about anything. In the heat of these discussions, there is one question that can quell any argument and bring everything to a standstill, something that everyone wishes for but no one actually has an answer to.

Indian football’s unanswered question

“When will we see an Indian footballer playing in Europe?”

It is of course, easier said than done, given the massive standards that are expected to be met in most of the top leagues in Europe.  Over the years, there have been several Indian youngsters who made the journey to play for the European youth leagues or have trials with clubs across the continent. The names that spring to mind include Ishan Pandita who became the first Indian to sign a deal with a Spanish club, penning a 1-year deal with Leganes, Ashique Kuruniyan’s brief stint on loan at Villareal C which was marred by a hamstring injury and Ishaan Sahi putting pen to paper for Palamos FC, a team in the Spanish third tier. And it has to be said that this indeed is an extremely promising sign of the growth of Indian football and something to look forward to in the coming years.

Ishan Pandita signing for Leganes in 2016

However, one begins to wonder why the likes of Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, Sunil Chhetri as well as Sandesh Jhinghan continue to ply their trades in India, despite stellar performances year after year. Gurpreet Singh Sandhu had a brief stint with Norway’s Stabæk Fotball, putting in some fine performances for the club as did Bhaichung Bhutia with Bury FC in England a while back.

Chhetri’s one of Indian football’s greatest but the fact that he was downgraded to Sporting’s B team after a week of joining was worryingly telling

So, the question that persists in the minds of Indian football fans is when their finest players will be picked up by top tier teams in one of Europe’s top 5 leagues and at least be given a chance to show what they are capable of?  How good can one be to make it there and stay? These questions have subjective answers which will have to be answered on another day.

The Mohammed Salim Story

From the streets to the stadiums

For now, we need to wind the clocks back by about 80 years and look into the life of a man who defied all odds for Indian football. Pre-colonial sporting endeavours were few and far between, but the story of this man is unlike any other. It is one that must be retold time and again for it epitomizes the sporting endeavour of a country wracked with death, destruction and chaos during the Indian Independence Movement. It is very easy for one to forget those who weren’t political leaders in the run up to 1947, who often overshadowed the feats and achievements of others. Perhaps this is because of the priorities at hand during those days. But the one thing that history has taught us is that the voice of the victors can never be subdued.

Mohammed Salim was one such victor and a man who led his own movement.

Born in Calcutta in 1904, Salim’s early life was very simple and mostly entailed focusing more on football than his studies, something so many of us can relate to. It was at the early age of 4 that he began honing his passion for the beautiful game in the streets surrounding his house and thereafter began playing for a local club by the name of Chittaranjan Club of Bowbazar. At that time, Indian football clubs were seen as forms of resistance and ways of getting back at the British as part of the Indian Home Rule movement.  It did not take long for Salim to be noticed by prominent football team owners and administrators who ensured his timely transfer away to other clubs such as Sporting Union, East Bengal Club and Aryans club. He finally returned to Mohammedan Sporting Club in 1934 and was immediately drafted into the first team.

Until then, Mohammedan Sporting Club had never won the Calcutta Football League. With him spearheading the attack, the team won 5 straight league titles and gained immense popularity amongst those that lived and breathed the game in the city. Salim was a hit and odes about his magnificence were constantly written about in newspapers. Being a forward, the knack for scoring goals and the attacking prowess that he brought to the field was unlike any other that the fans had ever witnessed. Salim’s immense popularity of course allowed him to be at the forefront of Indian football but more importantly, it brought him attention unlike any other to the point that he was recognized and was selected to represent India in 1936.

After being called upon to play two games for the All India XI and the Civil and Military XI against the Chinese Olympic team, it became evident that Salim had been recognised for his talents and prowess in front of goal. He was known in the local football circuit as a definite ‘keeper’.  But what came next would alter Indian football forever.

Short and sweet: The Celtic Days

Salim was praised after the first game by the Chinese ambassador who publicly spoke about his brilliance on the pitch.  But prior to the second game, he was nowhere to be found. It just so happened that his cousin from Scotland was visiting Calcutta and requested him to try his hand at playing football abroad. Convinced of giving it a shot, Mohammed Salim was on his way to Scotland via ship to undertake a trial at Celtic FC. Little did he know that he was about to make history. There was just one condition and Salim’s relative acquainted the Celtic boss, Willie Malley of it.

“A great player from India has come by ship. Will you please take a trial of his? But there is a slight problem. Salim plays in bare feet.”

Celtic’s trainer bandaging Salim’s bare feet. You won’t see a more iconic image today.

Upon arrival, he was asked to show what he was capable of to the management and coach of Celtic FC, one of British football’s finest institutions to this day. His skills were unquestionable and after a trial in the training ground, Salim was told that they would field him for two friendly matches. He starred in both games and played a part in all 7 goals in one match along with scoring a penalty in another. But what was telling was that Salim had won over the fans and newspapers alike. He replicated his performances and publications such as the Scottish Daily Express waxed lyrical.

“Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic FC’s player from India hypnotised the crowd at Parkhead last night in an Alliance game with Galston. He balances the ball on his big toe, lets it run down the scale to his little toe, twirls it, hops on one foot around the defender, then flicks the ball to the centre who has only to send it into goal.”

Salim really was one of one.

The management was convinced they were ready to sign him and make him a part of the first team but it wasn’t to happen. For reasons known only to Salim, he felt homesick and expressed his desire to return home immediately. He didn’t even play in a charity match that was organised for him and asked the coach to direct his income from that match to the concerned charity and children. A true gent, on and off the field who departed from Glasgow with his head held high. Celtic FC made it a point to provide monetary assistance to his son for medical expenses when Salim fell ill in the late 70s, a truly heartening gesture from the club and a testament to the level of respect he’d earned, despite his brief stint with the Glaswegian side.

Salim’s inadvertent fightback

After returning to India in 1937, he joined up with Mohammedan Sporting Club and started right back from where he’d left off, dominating the league.

One of the reasons behind why I chose to write about Mohammed Salim wasn’t merely to highlight his individual brilliance and his feat of becoming the first Indian footballer to play abroad. There’s more to this story that is missing and is well worth reflecting on.

I mentioned Mohammed Salim leading a movement earlier in this article. At a time when Gandhi was debating provincial autonomy in Delhi, he had also rejected the proposal of a new Constitution. The country was entering its final decade under British Rule and Salim was in Scotland.  When it comes to depicting resistance, Mohammed Salim holds a special place in Indian sporting history alongside hockey legend Dhyan Chand for bringing India to the attention of the world. He might not have won multiple Olympic Gold Medals, but Salim in his own right showed his oppressors that he was their equal. On the pitch, it did not matter if he stood out due the colour of his skin as long as his ability on the ball could do all the talking.

He inadvertently, led a fight against perceptions in the West regarding the ‘brown skinned man’. Salim changed the stereotypes that poorly summed up India and ensured that there was equal footing when it came to sporting endeavours. No one in Great Britain had heard of the Indian ‘peasants’ and subjects of the empire as being sportsmen, let alone footballers.  The Glasgow Observer aptly described the mystique behind the man.

“In his bare feet, he was a conspicuous figure but this was further emphasised by his dark skin against the white and green of the Celtic strip.”

While it is true that he was passionate about playing the game, it was his instinct of seeing football as a way of fighting back that he displayed on the field and which was ingrained him since his early days in the local Calcutta leagues.  This in turn brought him to the forefront of the game and gave India an international face that no one would ever have fathomed. Barring hockey, there were virtually no sports which India excelled at internationally.

One must go through the newspaper excerpts during those days in order to understand that there was no racism, malice or hatred that was used to tear Mohammed Salim down in any way during his time at Celtic. It was all astonishment, adulation and respect, borne solely because of his genius on the pitch. This is not to say that those that are on the receiving ends of such unfortunate aspects of society are at fault. It’s just yet another little fact that makes one smile when Mohammed Salim’s name is brought up in passing.

Many might gawk at this story as he never made it big in Europe or for him not being famous enough in India. But more than ruing his “wasted” talent abroad, we must revel in the history that Mohammed Salim brought to Indian leagues and to Indian football in general. The one man who stood out for what he could do with a football and that’s that.

Inadvertently, Mohammed Salim represented sport as a sign of resistance to counter oppression and as an individual, he was a ray of hope in a time where it was an intangible yet priceless commodity.

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