New Delhi, April 13 (IANS) Their infirmity may have slowed their reflexes, not the memories of India's 1960 Olympic football heroes. Anecdotes gushed like champagne with a tinge of emotion as the union sports ministry raised a toast Wednesday for a few remaining Olympians who played in Rome.
It took 50 years to remember the greats and surprisingly, none from the All India Football Federation was there at a felicitation function to honour the ten living legends at the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium.
For the septuagenarians, it may be better late than never, as one of them put it, but for some it was sadly too late and in a couple of cases even their spouses are not alive.
Those who made it to the capital were captain of the 17-member squad P.K. Banerjee, Tulsidas Balaram, S. Narayanan, O. Chandershekhar, Fortunata Franco, Chunni Goswami, S.S. Hakim, S.S.H. Hamid, Arun Lal Ghosh, Simon Sunder Raj. Peter Thangaraj, the towering goalkeeper who passed away in 2008, and forward Dharmalingam Kannan, who passed away in 2006, were represented by their wives.
The family members of Yusuf Khan, Dev Das, Jarnail Singh, Ram Bahadur and Kempiah, as also of S.A. Latif, who migrated to Pakistan, couldn't make it.
The former footballers were honoured with a shawl, plaque and a cheque of Rs.1.5 lakh, but for them, the recognition after 50 years mattered a lot.
Even after all these years, for these footballers their coach Syed Abdul Rahim remains the inspiration. The fecilitation venue was apt as it was at the same ground were India won the football gold in the 1951 Asian Games under Rahim.
Banerjee, named Indian Footballer of the 20th Century by FIFA, said that team was being prepared for the 1962 Asian Games and their performance in Rome helped them to win gold two years later in Jakarta.
'Rahim saab was building the team for the Asian Games and the way we played in the Olympics set the tone of our performance in Jakarta. There were lot of expectations from us since we had finished fourth at the previous Olympics in Melbourne -- India's best ever Olympic performance. Though we couldn't better Melbourne, Rahim saab, who was also there in 1956, told us that we have improved our game a lot. His words were always an inspiration for us,' said Banerjee, a recepient of FIFA Centennial Order of Merit.
India posted its best performance at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, finishing fourth. They failed to make it to the last four at Rome, drawing one and losing two of their three group matches. In the half century since then, India has never qualified for the Olympics main draw.
'After the Olympics some of the teammates went on tour of Europe, but I told Rahim saab to release me immediately as my father was suffering from cancer. Rahim saab told me not to worry and asured me that I would see my father. His words proved prophetic as my father passed away within three days of my return home,' he said.
Balaram, who scored the goal in 1-2 loss against Hungary, said India were on the verge of pulling off a shock win against France, but a silly defensive lapse allowed them to equalise 1-1.
'We had a great match against Hungary and that gave us the confidence against France. We nearly pulled off a stunning upset, but a mistake in the defence allowed Gerard Coincon to score the equaliser in the 82nd minute,' said Balaram.
Goswami, who won the best striker award at the 1962 Asian Games, said sharing the room with Banerjee during the Olympics was a great experience.
'PK had a great sense of humour and that kept us all in high spirits. He was an inspiring leader and used to lead by example. It was great playing alongside some of the heroes of Indian football,' he said.