An Olympic high and an Asian Games gold - Indian football's memorable moments

They may be few and far between, but Indian football did score some historic moments, post independence.
By Utathya Nag

Touted as the sleeping giants of world football by many, India, perhaps, is yet to make its lasting mark on the biggest stages of the beautiful game.

However, there have been occasional sparks, prompting the world to stand up and take notice of India’s football team.

Here, we take a trip down the memory lane to relive five memorable Indian football team matches which made the nation proud.

Barefoot Indians win hearts at 1948 Olympics

In perhaps what is one of the most talked-about Indian football team matches of all time, India faced European giants France in their Olympics debut at the 1948 London Games.

It also marked Indian football’s first big international appearance post its independence in 1947.

As 11 Indians, mostly barefooted, with only bandages strapped around their ankles, strutted onto the Lynn Road football ground in London, the crowd looked on in awe.

The doubts, however, soon turned to wonder as they saw Balaidas Chatterjee’s men go toe-to-toe against their much-fancied European opponents.

France took the lead at the half-hour mark through René Courbin while the Blue Tigers squandered an opportunity to draw level just before half time as Sailen Manna missed a penalty.

The Indians started the second half with intent and drew parity in the 70th minute, as Sarangapani Raman became independent India’s first-ever international goal scorer.

India won another penalty 10 minutes later, but this time, French goalkeeper Guy Rouxel denied Mahabir Prasad. Though the Indians looked the likelier of the two to clinch a late winner, it was France’s René Persillon who found the deciding goal in the dying minutes.

Despite the loss, India won hearts.

As legend has it, King George VI was so impressed with the performance that he invited the team to Buckingham Palace and asked Sailen Manna to roll up his trousers to check if he had legs of steel.

The team also became a darling of the British media after captain Talimeren Ao, answering a journalist’s question on why most of his team played barefoot, said, “It’s football, not bootball.”

Result: India 1-2 France

Beating Australia down under at 1956 Olympics

India’s best-ever run at the Olympics till date is a fourth-place finish at the 1956 Games in Melbourne.

Up against the home team Australia in the quarter-finals, India produced a masterclass and outplayed their opponents 4-2. India striker Neville D’Souza scored three of India’s four, making him the first Asian to score a hat-trick at the Olympics.

D’Souza and Australia’s Bruce Morrow bagged a brace each in the first half, but India seized control in the second with D’Souza grabbing his third and Krishna Kittu completing the scoreline.

Indian football legend PK Banerjee, who set up D’Souza’s second goal, later recalled, “Neville was fantastic on the night. After we beat Australia 4-2, the Aussies challenged us to a rematch in Sydney. Do you know the result? We won 7-1.”

Result: India 4-2 Australia

Making star-studded Hungary sweat in Rome

In the group stages of the Rome 1960 Olympics, India were up against a star-studded Hungary side.

The Hungarian team featured players like Ernő Solymosi, János Göröcs, Kálmán Mészöly, and others who would later go on to lead Hungary to the 1962 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals.

Among them was one Florian Albert, who would go on to finish the 1962 World Cup as the joint top-scorer and was chosen as the best young player of the tournament. He also won the European Player of the Year award in 1967.

Grocos and Albert gave Hungary a 2-0 lead by the hour mark, but what followed was an incredible display of skilful football by the Indians.

Led by PK, Tulsidas Balaram and Chuni Goswami, India made life uncomfortable for Hungary and even pulled a goal back through Balaram in the 79th minute.

The Indian ascendancy in the final minutes didn’t culminate into a point, but the team’s performance against a team of Hungary’s calibre certainly grabbed a few eyeballs.

“We were outplayed in the first-half, prisoners of our inferiority complex. But when coach Rahim saab gave us a clear plan for the second half, we actually dominated them,” Balaram recalls about the match.

We lost the game, but the Italian media, the world football media to be precise, came up with the headline: 'Another football power is rising, India'.

In the very next match, India carved out yet another famous result, holding France to a 1-1 draw.

Result: India 1-2 Hungary

1962 Asian Games final against South Korea

India's Asian Games final triumph at the 1962 edition in Jakarta, is, by far, the most memorable for the Indian football team matches.

With a 100,000-plus hostile crowd against them at the Senajan Stadium, India, led by Chuni Goswami, took the field against South Korea, who they had never beaten before, in the final.

With both history and fans against them, the Indian football team took the field spurred on by a passionate rallying cry by defender Jarnail Singh, who was playing the match despite a serious head injury.

PK opened the scoring and Jarnail doubled India’s lead shortly after.

Some fantastic defending by Arun Ghosh and Chandrasekhar Menon barely gave the Koreans a sniff at goal until Cha Tae-sung pulled one back with five minutes to go. But India ended the day with the gold medal.

I was a lucky captain that I had such brilliant players with me. Of course, I contributed a bit myself, having scored two goals (in the semis) to bring us into the final. - Chuni Goswami

Result: India 2-1 South Korea

Holding Qatar to a stalemate at World Cup qualifiers

One of the best Indian football team matches in recent times came when they held 2019 AFC Asian Cup champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw in their own backyard.

Up against the reigning Asian football champions in their joint 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and 2023 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers campaign, Igor Stimac’s Blue Tigers put on a near-flawless display to eke out a historic result.

Missing the team’s talisman, striker Sunil Chhetri, due to an illness, India were banking heavily on their defence to deliver on the day and it didn’t disappoint.

Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was the star of the show, making a total of 11 saves throughout the match.

Centre back Sandesh Jhingan, defensive midfielders Rowllin Borges and Anirudh Thapa, too played out of their skins to keep the dangerous Qatar attack at bay.

Chhetri, who was down with a virus and had to watch the match from his hotel room at Doha, later noted, “I was screaming and I lost my voice. The hotel people came up to ask what happened.

“I was just so happy and proud to be a part of that team. Somebody asked me 'Who played well?' I took 14 names since they were all very good.”

Result: India 0-0 Qatar