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A Brief History of Time: A Vivisection of Indian NT’s Footballing History by Numbers

Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Tulsidas Balaram
Golden Boys of the Golden Era: Chuni Goswami, PK Banerjee, Tulsidas Balaram
India has a long football history stretching back to the middle of the 19th Century when the nation was still a British colony. It is a fantastical tale of a nation’s decline from continental powerhouses into a nation struggling to break the curse of a footballing dark age, a story that comes replete with its own detailed mythology – the crowning jewel of which must be the heroics of “The Golden Era.”

Indian National Football Team at the 1948 London Olympics
Dr Talimeren Ao (down-center) when asked by the British Press
why they played bare-footed at the 1948 London Olympics:
“Well, you see, we play football in India, whereas you play BOOTBALL!”

In the late 40s and early 50s, India started playing major tournaments like the Olympics and the Asian Games and transitioned from playing barefoot to wearing boots. Notably, the AIFF turned down the opportunity to play in the 1950 World Cup held in Brazil citing a wide variety of reasons – from cost of travel (although FIFA agreed to bear most of the expenses) to valuing Olympics over the World Cup. They also implied that since FIFA banned barefoot play, India could not participate. However, the captain of India during that period Sailen Manna stated that the excuse was intended as a cover up.
It was in the immediate aftermath of this period that Indian football experienced its heyday, largely thanks to the work of Syed Abdul Rahim and his teams. The exploits of the likes of PK Banerjee, Chuni Goswami, Tulsidas Balaram and others helped establish Indian Football as Asian powerhouses, or so the story goes.
In this series of posts, I’m going to use the cold, hard world of facts to put Indian footballing history under the scanner and will gauge the level of the Indian National Team over the decades. The goal is to go through our football history with a critical eye by identifying the peaks, the troughs and where possible, try and provide reasoning for these.
Note: Wikipedia defines the Golden Era as 1951-1962, but having looked at the numbers, I am going to redefine the Golden Era as 1951-1968, as this allows for a much smoother process of identifying the various stages of Indian football’s rise and fall.
A detailed account over the years of India’s results with context.
A statistical look at India’s results.
A measure of the difficulty of opposition we faced.

Blow by Blow, Year by Year [A Brief History of Time]

The first place to start this analysis is by taking a macro view of Indian football history. The image below tracks the rolling Goal-Difference of the Senior Men’s team from 1938 to the present. Looking at the tournaments played and the GD allows us to build a rough story-line around what exactly happened back in the day.

Indian National Football Team - Running Total of Goal Difference (GD)
Color of the line indicates GD of a particular year and the thickness is the number of games played in that year.

Symmetric Start – In 1948 our Goal Difference (GD) was 0

As you can see, we did play some games as the British colony of India prior to independence, but a year after independence, at the end of 1948, our rolling GD was 0. In GD terms, that allows us to reset the clock and look at the rest of the numbers as Independent India and ignore everything that comes before.
For the 26 years from 1948-74, we managed to maintain a positive GD indicating that our results were generally on the positive side.

The Path to Glory (1948-1957)

Between 1950 and 1953, we had four excellent years which was marred by a 10-1 loss to Yugoslavia in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and to a lesser extent the loss to Pakistan in the 1952 Colombo Cup Final. During this period, we played mostly against South and Southeast Asian teams and picked up some silverware – the Asian Games title on home soil in 1951 and the Colombo Cup in 1953, 1954 and 1955.
The crowning glory in the 50s was easily the 1956 Olympic games where the Indian NT managed to finish in fourth place despite winning just one game in the tournament. Unbelievably, India received a “bye” against Hungary in the first round, before beating Australia 4-2 to setup a semi-final clash against heavyweights Yugoslavia in the semis. India got cleaned out 4-1 in that game and then again by Bulgaria in the Bronze medal match to finish in 4th place.
Aside from these tournaments, there’s not much information about international matches played by India, but over the next few years (1954-57), India would compete with the best teams in Asia and Eastern Europe. We got spanked by almost every Eastern European team, but wins against Australia and Japan, and a narrow loss to China indicate that the team was still competent in Asia.

False Start (1957-1960)

In terms of our Goal Difference, the games from 1957 to 1960 actually had a slightly negative effect. Sure, we did well in the Merdeka Tournament in Malaysia in 1959 (2nd place) and generally performed well against South and Southeast Asian sides, but the qualifying round for the 1960 AFC Asian Cup exposed us against quality sides.
Our Asian Cup qualifying campaign against Israel, Pakistan and Iran saw us finish bottom of the group with just 2 wins in 6 games (at home to Pakistan and Iran).
This period is the first indication of stat padding in Indian football, where we play weaker sides more often and then struggle when it really matters. For so called powerhouses in their golden era, to perform so badly in a qualification group is a damning sign.
We did beat Indonesia home and away to qualify for the 1960 Rome Olympics where we faced off against the mighty Hungary, European giants France and Peru. India succumbed against Hungary and Peru, but did manage to salvage a 1-1 draw against France courtesy an 88th minute Balaram equaliser, a huge result on paper.

The Peak Golden Era (1961-1968)

 The 60s start with further evidence of the 50s being just stat-padding against lower quality sides.

In 1961, the only notable talking point is the Merdeka Tournament in Kuala Lumpur where we lost to Vietnam and Japan and finished bottom of our group.

The 1962 Asian Games was where this side began to really show their class. In a tough group with South Korea, Japan and Thailand, the Indian side started with a loss to the Koreans, but then comfortably beat the Thai (as usual) and the Japanese to progress to the knockouts.

In the semis, the team met Vietnam and managed to avenge the loss from the previous year’s Merdeka Tourney, setting up a rematch of their first game in the finals against South Korea.  The Indians managed a narrow win over South Korea and earned themselves their second football gold at the Asian Games. There is a remarkable article from The Indian Express that provides a blow-by-blow account of the match here. This moment probably marks the peak of Indian football and is unquestionably an excellent achievement. 

In 1963, India just played a couple of Olympic qualifiers, where we brushed aside Sri Lanka. We would then be knocked out in the next round against Iran, 6-1 on aggregate.   In 1964, we qualified for the AFC Asian Cup as the only team from West Zone (all other West Asian teams pulled out). The tournament only had 4 participants and India finished second behind hosts Israel after beating South Korea and Hong Kong and earned themselves a silver medal. It is worth remembering that most of the Arab nations pulled out because the tournament was being hosted in Israel and India had finished bottom of their qualification group in the previous edition.

We also participated in the 1964 Merdeka Tournament where we finished as runners-up after a 1-0 loss to Burma in the final. We drew against Malaysia in the preliminary round and beat Cambodia, Thailand and  second string South Korean XI and Japan XI in the group stage of the tournament. 1965 is only notable for another Merdeka Tournament where we finished joint 3rd alongside Burma and behind South Korea and hosts Taiwan.

In 1966, stat-padding against weaker sides came to the foreground again. India started the year with a 3-0 spanking of Japan in their first game in the Merdeka Tournament. This time, India would go ahead and clinch the Bronze medal after defeating South Korea 1-0 in the third place match. It must be noted however, that these were probably weakened/heavily rotated Japanese and Korean sides and India would then go on to lose to Japan in the Asian Games later the same year. India would also get spanked by Iran and get eliminated in the first round of that tournament despite beating Malaysia.

In 1967, India once against participated in the Merdeka Tournament where we finished 3rd in a group containing Vietnam, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Western Australia and Thailand. We would then draw 1-1 with Taiwan and lose 3-0 to Indonesia to finish 8th overall. India then went on to contest for qualification for the 1968 AFC Asian Cup, where we were put in a group with Burma, Pakistan and Cambodia and ended up finishing at the bottom.

In the golden era, India’s AFC Asian Cup history is as follows:
1960 – Didn’t Qualify; 1964 – Silver; 1968 – Didn’t Qualify
In 1968, we once again went to the Merdeka Tournament where we finished 6th overall. India finished 3rd in a group containing Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, South Vietnam and Hong Kong. We defeated South Vietnam and Burma, drew against Hong Kong and lost to Malaysia and Thailand. We would then beat Japan B and lose to South Korea in the 5th-8th place playoff.

The Beginning of The End (1969-1974)

India’s results begun tapering off in the late 60s and the early 70s went on to prove just how far behind we were. This was the time period in which more West Asian/Arab teams began participating in Asian tournaments and India fell further down the pecking order.
Once again, in 1969 we participated in the Merdeka Tournament where we finished 3rd in a group containing Singapore, Burma and Western Australia. We then lost to Thailand and beat Western Australia to finish 7th overall. This was followed up by a 7-3 humbling against Singapore, in Singapore.
What was to be a successful 1970 started with another Merdeka Tournament, this time slightly bucking the trend as we managed to finish in 3rd place beating Hong Kong in the third place match. India finished 2nd in a group containing Burma, Malaysia, Taiwan, Western Australia and South Vietnam. The second place in the group stage meant we qualified for the semis where South Korea ended Indian dreams with a 3-2 win.
India would follow that up with another 3rd place finish, this time in the 1970 Asian Games. India came from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 against Thailand, courtesy a Subhash Bhowmick brace and a win over South Vietnam was enough to see the NT finish top of the group. In the next round (6 teams), India were grouped with Japan and Indonesia where a 3-0 victory for the latter meant India would progress in second spot. India would lose the semi 2-0 to Burma before avenging their loss against Japan to clinch the Bronze medal.
1971 started with a tournament in Indonesia where India lost to Thailand and South Korea and were eliminated. We followed this up with the annual Merdeka Tournament where we finished 5th in an easy group and then lost 1-0 to Japan in the 9th place playoff. The NT followed up this disappointment with the Singapore Pesta Sukan Cup where we defeated Malaysia and Indonesia and drew against Vietnam in the final to finish as joint winners. The year was then rounded off with a 5-0 thumping by the Soviet Union.
In 1972, the National Team played in the Munich Olympics qualifiers where they ended up losing all three matches to Burma, Israel and Indonesia. In the group stage of the Merdeka Tournament in 1973, India won against Cambodia and Thailand, drew against South Korea and lost to Malaysia and finished third in the group. India ended up playing in the 5th place playoff where they lost 5-4 on penalties to South Vietnam.
And finally onto 1974 where India once again finished 6th at the Merdeka tournament after losing on penalties to Indonesia. India had finished bottom of their group after losing to Malaysia and drawing against Hong Kong. This was followed up by the 1974 Asian Games. India started in a group with Iraq, North Korea and Taiwan. India lost all 3 games conceding 14 goals and scoring just 2.

Tournament Overview

The following image is an overview of India’s performance in each tournament, between 1950 and 1974. It’s no surprise to see that besides the Asian Games, India has very mediocre overall performance statistics in most competitive tournaments. It must also be clarified, that the Asian Games at this time were mainly played between South and South-East Asian nations, with Iran, Korea and Japan the other usual participants.

Indian National Football Team - Tournament Performance

In fact, if you split the games into eras, you can see a pattern of decline as our win percentage drops. This is largely because as time passed, more and more new teams entered the competition and India coincidentally dropped further down.

Indian National Football Team: Tournament-wise Performances

Between 1950 and 1974, India only managed to qualify for one Asian Cup (in 1964). I say qualified, but what I mean is India were allowed to participate because all other West Asian teams withdrew due to political reasons.
India played in 3 Olympics games (1952, 1956, 1960). We lost all our games except for a 4-2 win against Australia in ’56 and 1-1 draw against France in ’60. Once the Olympic qualifiers were introduced, we did not make it to another Olympics tournament.
In the Asian Games, our performances were better, but again it must be emphasized that barely any West Asian sides participated in this tournament. Japan and Korea, on the other hand, were ever-present. India managed to win Gold in 1951 and 1962, Bronze in 1970 and 4th place in 1958. In the other 4 editions that took place between 1950-1973, India exited in the group stages (1954, 1966 and 1974).

Elo Ratings

One way to judge a team is to look at results and make your own conclusions, but it would be ideal if we had a way to quantify the level/difficulty of games across the eras. Enter Arpad Elo and his Elo Ratings.
The Elo rating system allows us to measure a team’s strength based on the goals scored and conceded and the strength of the opponent in each game. Currently, Elo ratings form the basis on which the FIFA rankings system is built and is a very useful tool to help us monitor how the strength of the Indian NT and their opponents has changed over time, on a global scale.
Elo Ratings, of course, has its disadvantages: a team could, in theory, stat-pad against lower quality sides and improve their overall rating. This would just take a really long time to do as the system does correct for strength of opponent, home advantage and margin of victory.
Note:- I used a mix of the methodologies mentioned in the two articles mentioned here and here. I did not correct for the strength of the tournament because there were just too many tournaments, spread across too large a period of time.

Indian National Football Team - Elo Ratings

The Elo ratings actually describe India’s decline pretty clearly. In the 50s, we were mainly playing South and South-East Asian sides that were newly formed countries and hadn’t established themselves and as a result, we managed to grow our rating to its peak in 1959. As these nations progressed along their football journeys and got more comfortable with international football, they managed to reduce the gap on India and our Elo rating started dropping as a consequence.
The crash in the 1970s can be attributed to the fact that India were in transition after a strong group of players ended their careers as well as the emergence of new nations, such as the West Asian sides onto the international stage.

Were India ever Asian powerhouses?

The 50s-70s was when most modern nations were forged. To quantify what I was saying earlier about India only dominating in a world where most Asian teams were not even playing the game, I present to you the below chart. This tracks the top 10 teams across the periods we have been discussing.

Indian National Football Team: FIFA Asian Rankings, Elo Ratings over the years

As, is clearly visible, aside from the period between 1950-57, India’s ranking dips as more Asian teams start taking international football more, and more seriously. In the 7 year period where our ranking rises, India mainly played against other sides from the sub-continent and cushioned up their overall team strength.

In Conclusion

  1. Were India Powerhouses of Asia? (NO)
    Thanks to the British, India got an early start and hence, were better prepared for international football than other Asian sides. Asian countries had a whole host of political problems throughout this period and most nations were too busy experiencing existential crises to think about playing football. When the East Asian sides came out of this phase and West Asian nations emerged on the scene, we crashed and burned.
  2. Lack of Professionalism & Long-Term Thinking
    India did not participate in FIFA tournaments and stuck to tournaments with lax standards and professionalism. The bigger Asian nations took these as training ground tournaments and regularly sent B teams to develop and nurture their football population. We did not have any such long term thinking or planning.
The Indian NT were just not as good as we think they were during “The Golden Era.” To be Asian powerhouses, you need to dominate other sides, but we never achieved that. Yes, we won our fair share of matches, but they were always punctuated by regular losses and setbacks that resulted in the team never managing to consolidate their position.
India did take the Asian Games and Olympics seriously, but even back then there was international recognition that the World Cup was the most competitive tournament. FIFA didn’t recognize these tournaments because they wanted to promote the World Cup, but also because these were usually amateur tournaments and marred by poor standards and controversies.
My personal opinion is that team of the 90s or the current crop is the peak of Indian football, all things considered. In the 50-70s, too many non-footballing events had an effect on international football, especially in Asia, for it to be taken seriously. Given that everything the golden gen has achieved is actually marked with an asterisk in real life, I don’t think that they are worth the hype.
I do understand that there are emotional reasons to that group being labeled as they have and there are times when numbers and facts don’t always do justice to the story, but I personally think that in this situation, the facts and stats are vital to paint a more complete and accurate picture.

I will (eventually) be continuing this series with a deep dive into the team of the 90s next. If you have any feedback or suggestions in the meantime, send them over to @SgtSaltnPeppa on Twitter.

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Indian Football: All Things Considered
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