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Was Inder Singh India’s greatest forward?

Was Inder Singh India's greatest forward?
Inder Singh | Source: Sports Lounge

Indian football has seen many luminaries light up the hearts of its fans. However, very few can match Inder Singh – an inside right forward who was not only a brilliant goal scorer, but also a scorer of barely believable goals. He is our Messi, he is our Ronaldo, he is our Neymar; over his career, Inder Singh had grown accustomed to embarrassing opposition defenders and mesmerizing every spectator in sight with his silky, skillful moves and glorious goals.

Nowadays, when I see players being transferred and swapped around for big bucks, I wonder how many of them would measure up to this legend. In his active football career, he must have scored at least 500 goals. In Indian football, only Sheoo Mewalal could lay claim to matching his fabled scoring abilities. Sadly, his legend remains largely unknown, as he spends his retired life nursing bruises from the past and brushing memories of an era bygone.

Inder’s father, Bhagat Singh was a farmer. His mother, Tej Kaur was a homemaker. None of his family members ever played football. He attended Government High School, Phagwara where he began playing football with his fellow schoolmates.

It didn’t take long for Inder to show his mettle as his skill with the ball was quite obvious and noticeable among selectors and spectators alike. He was the top goal scorer in the All India School Games in 1960 and 1961 and was also a sprinter in state-level school competitions. While at school, he started playing for Leaders Club as a guest player. This was to be an important turning point in his life. After passing out of school, he was awarded with his first professional contract at the tender age of 19 with the same club.

Inder Singh by Mythri
Inder Singh | Artist: Mythri

The Kozhikode Chapter

I can vividly picture him with the No. 9 Jersey on his back when he dazzled the Kozhikodan football crowd. Sudhir Karmakar, the best defender in our country during his generation, paid homage to Inder Singh in an article in Khela Magazine in 2001 – He possessed blistering pace and had an uncanny ability to turn the ball around quickly; this combination of speed and power was absolutely lethal to his opponents.

In 1967, when Kozhikode hosted the India-Burma football match, his goal in the second minute at the Southern goalpost of the Corporation Stadium remains evergreen in my memory. Another that elicits deep admiration was his awe-inspiring performance in the early 70s when he completed a hat-trick for Leaders Club and broke into a traditional Punjabi dance near the Northern goalpost of the stadium to celebrate his feat. That third goal was one of the greatest pieces of individual dribbling Kozhikode Stadium had ever witnessed. He was my inspiration, my love and carved out a special place in my heart with his flair and rhythm.

I had taken this Pride of India to my alma mater – Malabar Christian College when my energetic friend and fellow member of The Feasto who was former Calicut University goalkeeper and now Chairman & C.E.O. of Dubai based Confido Group, Azeem was the General Captain. He was very keen to get Inder Singh as the chief guest for the Annual College Sports Day as he and his team were already in Calicut for the upcoming Sait Nagjee Tournament.

Even though I had left college three years prior to that, the task of inducting Inder into this college was entrusted to me, which I gratefully accepted. My meeting with Inder to formally extend this invitation was at Vrindavan Tourist Home, Kozhikode where J.C.T. Mills were staying. When we met each other and chatted for a few minutes, I saw that he could communicate only through a translator as his linguistic skills were limited to Punjabi and a little bit of Hindi. While I sat there watching this down to earth Sardarji with his pure love and immeasurable passion for the game, my mind began to drift further.

Yes, Inder, an indomitable magician in football who can leave opposition players completely bereft of confidence now stood before me revealing his human side. Before taking leave, as a token of my respect and reverence, I bowed and touched his right foot which had booted in hundreds of goals past confused defenders, equally befuddled goalkeepers and displayed tricks and feints that immensely entertained the adoring masses. When I lifted my head again and looked up, I could sense his shyness and simplicity reflected in his face.

Hey-Day

Singh played for Punjab from 1962 to 1967 and for India from 1963 to 1975. He captained the Indian team thrice in 1969, 1973 and 1975. Inder was declared the ‘Best Right Out’ in the Asian Cup held at Tel Aviv in Israel in 1964 when India became runners up with Inder having scored 2 goals to become the joint top scorer in the tournament. He was selected in the Asian All Star Team in 1967-68 and won the Arjuna Award in 1969. He was only the second player after the great Yousuf Khan to win the award despite never having played for the big Kolkata Giants or for clubs outside the state. He was the recipient of Delhi Sports Journalists Award in 1974 and Pride of Phagwara Award in 2003. Inder was nicknamed Bullet Train by the Japanese who were awed by his speed, ball control and shooting prowess.

In his 24 years of professional football, scoring became a habit and won him laurels. In 1974, when Punjab hosted the Santosh Trophy, they became champions under the coaching of Jarnail Singh. The home team scored as many as 46 goals in the tournament of which 23 goals came from the boots of Inder – a record that still stands. That tournament is famously referred to as Inder’s Santosh Trophy.

Post-Retirement

Following his retirement from professional football as a player with J.C.T. Mills, he went on to manage J.C.T. for 16 years till 2001 passing on all his peerless knowledge to the club’s up and coming strikers. His former teammate, Sukhwinder Singh was the coach during that period. During his tenure as manager, JCT won Federation Cup twice as well as the inaugural season of the National Football League. Following his spell as a manager at his former club, he was made the honorary secretary of the Punjab Football Association, a post that he held from 2001 to 2011 till he resigned for personal reasons. Unfortunately, while he was active in football, he saw two of his beloved clubs, Leaders and JCT get disbanded.

Inder Singh was a true son of Punjab soil. He never accepted any offers originating outside the state. There are very few players in the history of Indian football to have played for the country over a decade despite never having played for the Kolkata giants.

There are even fewer who would reject an offer made by the Malaysian Prime Minister Thumku Rehman in 1973 with a Rs. 23,000/- per month contract to play for his country on a five year citizenship or turn down a lucrative chance to play for Khalsa Sporting Club in Canada. He stuck to his roots.

It can be safely said that Jarnail Singh was the greatest footballer to emerge from Punjab and his exploits inspired local youngsters and popularised the game in Punjab. Often referred to as a gentleman of football, he was famous for his sportsmanship and was very rarely booked in his career.

After his retirement from active football and public life, he has embraced a secluded lifestyle with his family, keeping a low profile away from the public eye, in his hometown Phagwara.

Now, he is a stranger to the younger generation and even his hometown is unaware of the greatness living in their midst.

The Man, The Myth, The Legend – Inder Singh

By K.G. Raghunandanan


This article was originally published as part of the seventh edition of Kalpanthu’s newsletter Vuvuzela. The newsletter costs just $7 or 550 rupees a year and empowers us to keep our YouTube channel for Indian football documentaries free for all. To subscribe/check out our content, visit https://theawayend.co/kalpanthu/


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Raghunandanan’s passion for sports history can be traced back to his college days when he brought out a sports magazine in 1976 depicting the wonderful sports history of century old Malabar Christian College, Calicut. He served as editor for several sports souvenirs including VI Jawaharlal Nehru Invitation Football Tournament in 1987 and Silver Jubilee Celebration Souvenir of Kozhikode District Sports Council in 1983.

K.G. is the first Calicut-born qualified national official from Amateur Athletic Federation of India in 1981, a sport he took competitively at the youth level. He is the present secretary of The Feasto, Calicut, a sports organization that regularly contributed players, officials, coaches and organizers to the game of basketball at state and national level.

By profession, he was formerly a manager at South Malabar Gramin Bank and is now a book publisher.

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