Barefoot in Bengal and Other Stories

Prem Panicker
Managing Editor, Yahoo! India
The Playing Field

[Joga Bonito, the beautiful game, showcases not merely great soccer but also some fine, at times compelling, writing. This post brings together a random collection of the best on the web -- and for many of these links, I am indebted to Twitter friends Supriya Nair, Gobbeldyspook, Bedathur, Kripesh, Siva KG, Nipen Mody, RK, Ant Sims, Ashish Chandorkar, Subhac, Sunny, Chigateri, Shom Biswas and others. If you are not following these people, do -- good sources for stories, information, insight et al].

#1. An often rehashed story, especially when the World Cup rolls around, is of how India almost — almost — made it to the World Cup once, only to be stymied because, poor us, we played barefoot and the organizers mandated boots on feet. A related story is of how we almost — almost — made it to the World Cup, but were, woe is us, stymied by our own poverty, and didn't play in the global arena because we couldn't afford the fares and related expenses.

In a story titled Barefoot in Bengal in the June issue of Sports Illustrated [the Indian edition, now on the stands], Arindam Basu goes to the best possible source, and punctures that particular balloon. Basu talks to 86-year-old Sailen Manna of Kolkatta, the man who led India in the 1948 Olympics in London and was due to captain that team to the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 — and finds out different. Quotes and clips:

"We had no idea about the World Cup then," says Manna. "had we been better informed, we would have taken the initiative ourselves. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger."

India did field a team two years later, at the 1952 Olympics. The players were barefoot — and got a 10-1 drubbing at the hands of Yugoslavia.

In 1950, SI says, India was in Group 10 of the qualifying tournament. When the other teams in the group — Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines — withdrew, India automatically qualified to go to Brazil — but mysteriously, did not make the trip though Brazil, the organizers, had offered to fly the Indian team to Rio. So why did we lose out on the one chance of playing in elite company? As is often the case with Indian sport, the blame rests with officials. SI says:

On May 23, 1950, AIFF president Moin-ul-Haq reached Calcutta a day after India had been drawn in Group C along with Italy, Sweden and Paraguay. Following a meeting, a cryptic press release said India was backing out of the World Cup. The reasons cited were disagreements over team selection, and insufficient practice time.

Rubbishing the "not allowed to play barefoot" myth among others, Kaushik Bandyopadhyay, associate editor of the journal Soccer and Society, tells SI:

"A careful study reveals that beneath the apparent financial difficulties given as cause of withdrawal lay the AIFF's unusual failure to appreciate the importance of participating in the Cup, despite assurances from the organizing committee to bear a major part of the tour expenses."

SI drives home the point in its concluding para:

The opportunity to play at the sport's most glittering level was presented to the nation on a golden platter 60 years ago, but then swiftly squandered due to a decision made by officials. As Manna says, "Indian football would have been on a different level had we made that journey."

Clearly then, as now, officialdom was the bane of Indian sport. The more things change…