The 1962 Asian Games: when India conquered the continent

The 1962 Asian Games: when India conquered the continent

Cyril Radcliffe was a civil servant who was little known outside British bureaucratic circles before 1947. However, the events which transpired in August of the same year would etch his name into eternity. On 17 August 1947, details about the Radcliffe Line were published, dividing 450,000 square kilometres to partition India and Pakistan. Chaos and civil disorder ensued, resulting in millions of deaths and the largest mass migration in history.

The scars remain bloody. India and Pakistan have fought multiple wars and continue to have a relationship which perennially rests on a razor’s edge. Needless to say, this national enmity seeps into the field of sports. Both multiple Olympic gold medal and World Cup winners, India and Pakistan’s hockey teams have a rich history of rivalry while one of cricket’s great battle royale also involves the two nations.

Yet there are those unique examples of bitterness taking a back seat. One such famous instance came on 4 September 1962, at Jakarta’s Senayan stadium. As the Indian team lined up against South Korea for the Asian Games final in front of an overtly partisan crowd baying for their opponents, support from stands came from an unlikely quarter: the Pakistan hockey team. Ironically, they had defeated India to win gold a day before and promptly came down to support the Indian football team. This was just one of many incredible facets of India’s greatest triumph in the beautiful game, a story worthy of a Bollywood script.

India’s success in 1962 was not a one off but had its seeds sown in 1948 when the newly independent country participated in the London Olympics. The bare feet Indians’ creditable performance against France – when they missed two penalties to lose 2-1 – earned rave reviews during the Games. Several reasons led to India refusing to participate in 1950 World Cup but they were still one of the best teams in Asia. This fact was established in 1951 when India won their first major title in inaugural Asian Games. Playing in front of a crowd which contained the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, India sneaked past Iran thanks to a goal from ace striker Sheoo Mewalal to secure the gold medal.

A transition period in terms of both tactics and personnel followed and would last until the mid-1950s. With a new-look team and mirroring the Hungarian strategy of a withdrawn centre-forward, India famously defeated Australia 4-2 in 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Powered by a hat-trick from the stylish Neville D’Souza, India became the first Asian country to reach an Olympic semi-final. The 1960 Rome Olympics brought further cheer as they performed out of their skins against Hungary and France. If India wanted to recapture the gold they won in 1951, the 1962 Asian Games was their best chance. For this was the greatest Indian team of all.

Between the sticks, India had the gentle giant Peter Thangaraj, voted as the best goalkeeper in Asia in 1958. Standing over six feet, Thangaraj was a commanding shot-stopper and his added weapon was a long and flat throw which would often start attacks. The defence was marshalled by the powerful Jarnail Singh, arguably India’s most consistent performer in international matches. Singh was an intimidating and fearless defender whose man-marking on Hungarian legend Florian Albert in Rome had won rave reviews. He was beautifully complimented by Arun Ghosh, a calm and technically sound tackler blessed with supreme distribution skills.

In midfield, ‘the bearded horse’, Yusuf Khan, was a versatile footballer who could effortlessly slot into multiple positions. Franco Fortunato was a fierce competitor and performed the bulk of the defensive duties in midfield. Ram Bahadur Chhetri was an all-action midfielder whose superb passing range was vital to India’s offensive build-ups.

India had a solid defence, an effective midfield and a highly-talented reserve bench which spawned the likes of Prasanta Sinha and Prodyut Burman, who would play invaluable roles. The squad depth ensured a fierce competition for starting places, as Arun Ghosh confirmed in a 2013 interview: “Such was the level of competition that we had to make sure that we played to our full potential otherwise we could have lost our places in the team.” The greatest strength, however, lay in a star-studded attacking line-up, led by three of the greatest players to ever come out of the sub-continent.

Tulsidas Balaram played as one of the inside forwards and was the most tactically intelligent player of his team. An expert in setting up goals, Balaram’s off the ball movement made him an extremely difficult player to mark. Pradip Kumar “PK” Banerjee had a sudden burst of pace and could shoot lethally with both feet. He would end his career as India’s all-time top scorer, a record he held until the 1980s. Despite their incredible talent, neither player had the fame and popularity of the third musketeer: Chuni Goswami. Possibly the most skilful Indian footballer of all-time, Goswami was a master dribbler and a prolific scorer – his record of 145 goals in regional Kolkata Football League will likely never be broken. During his best years, Goswami even got an offer from Tottenham Hotspur for a trial, which he declined.

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The only thing missing in this team was a clinical centre-forward like D’Souza or Mewalal, a flaw which would be ironed out ingeniously during the tournament.

The most important man, though, sat on the bench. Syed Abdul Rahim managed the national team for long periods in the 1950s and ’60s and, with a 61.9 percent win rate coupled with half a dozen trophies, was largely responsible for India’s dominance in that era. A great admirer of the Hungarian team of early-1950s, whom he had watched during 1952 Olympics, Rahim Saab, as he was fondly called, was the architect of most of the early tactical changes in Indian football. He was revered by his players and had assembled this team bit by painstaking bit after a lengthy preparatory camp.

The camp took place in Hyderabad where 25 of India’s best footballers lounged in a utilitarian police quarter, sharing a dormitory with two toilets and a common kitchen. Spending two months in such a Spartan setting forged an unshakeable team spirit among the players. In sharp contrast to contemporary Indian coaches, Rahim focused more on tactical training instead of endless physical drills. This ensured that his team was able to seamlessly transition from a 4-2-4 to a 3-3-4 based on the situation. A news clipping from the Indian Express of one of the trial matches that took place as part of the camp gives a fair impression of the team’s tactical approach: “The coach SA Rahim (Andhra) showed keen interest in the Brazilian system of play wherein four forwards always remain in attacking zone, two half-backs in the interception area while four defenders man the deep defence.”

The final team list of 16 players had a potent mix of youth and experience, with some players having already played in Olympics and Asian Games. Chuni Goswami was selected as captain as India left for Jakarta on 15 August 1962, as the nation celebrated its’ independence day.

Typically, India’s campaign faced setbacks even before it began. To start with, the football team was almost shunted sideways at one point due to a lack of foreign exchange to bear the costs of travelling to Jakarta. The next problem was purely political. Under pressure from Arab countries and China, the Indonesian government had decided to not send identity cards (effectively the visa to enter Indonesia) to athletes from Taiwan and Israel. This drew sharp criticism from several quarters, including Indian official Guru Dutt Sondhi, a member of IOC. Sondhi, who was one of the founders of Asian Games movement, pointed out that since countries from Asia were barred from participating, “Jakarta Asian Games” should be called just “Jakarta Games”.

Sondhi insisted that he meant no offence to Indonesia but his statement caused such uproar that he had to leave Jakarta in haste. The local crowd was sparked into an anti-Indian frenzy by the newspapers and Indian athletes were routinely jeered and barracked. The Indian High Commission office in Jakarta was ransacked by angry mobs. The situation was so tense that the turbaned Jarnail Singh had to sit on the floor of the team bus to prevent getting stoned by passing crowds.

The pre-tournament jitters seemed to have got to the players as India slumped to a timid 2-0 defeat against South Korea in the first match on 26 August. Thangaraj was absent due to influenza and the Indian defence lost focus despite Jarnail Singh trying his best. Chung Yeong Hwan struck in the first-half with Cha Tae-Sung rounding off the scoreline in the second. India were outclassed in every department as most players had an off-day.

Desperate to bounce back, India needed a strong performance against Thailand in the second match. Doing justice to his reputation Goswami opened India’s scoring with a beautiful goal before PK doubled the lead just before the half-hour mark with a screeching long ranger. PK’s second goal and another from Balaram in the second-half meant India had returned to form with a fine 4-1 win. India won but also suffered a major blow as Jarnail Singh picked up a serious head injury after a collision. The defender had to get half a dozen stitches and was ruled out for the vital last group game.

The fixture list was relentless. Just 20 hours after defeating Thailand, India faced off against Japan, and had to win to keep their hopes of progress alive. In the first-half, the script went as badly as possible. The Japanese had four days’ rest and they ran riot as the Indian defence tried to adjust to Jarnail Singh’s absence. Unheralded custodian Prodyut Burman made three vital saves, including a dangerous one by diving on the legs of striker Saburo Kawabuchi while Chandrasekaran put up a brave fight in defence. It was a miracle that the score remained 0-0 at half-time, and Rahim was livid during the break. He was particularly furious at the senior players, singling out PK Banerjee for his lacklustre performance.

Rahim’s fiery team-talk hit the bullseye as India came back a completely different team after the break. Ram Bahadur assisted Banerjee to put his first-half ghosts to rest by drawing first blood before Balaram took advantage of an error from the Japanese goalkeeper to complete a brilliant 2-0 victory. A day later, Japan lost to Korea to send India to semi-finals.

In last four, India were to face South Vietnam, who had notched up nine goals in group stages and conceded just once. The Indian coach made three risky but important decisions. Firstly, he brought back Jarnail Singh into the squad, only to change his position completely – to a centre-forward. Singh had started his career as a forward and Rahim, who first hatched this idea during the training camp at Hyderabad, didn’t want to keep one of his most inspirational players out. The dependable Ram Bahadur was injured and he was replaced by greenhorn Prasanta Sinha. The third change saw Arun Ghosh, a wing-back until then, move to a more central position to fill Jarnail’s void. Rahim’s complete understanding of the strengths of his players was evident in the latter two changes as both Sinha and Ghosh would go on to have decorated careers for the national team.

India toyed with their opponents in the first half of the semi-final as Goswami latched onto a Balaram pass to make it 1-0 in the 12th minute. Balaram then hit the post and saw another shot narrowly go wide. After a series of misses from the other forwards, it was Jarnail Singh who doubled India’s lead four minutes before the break. All of Rahim’s changes were working wonders. Singh with his speed, strength and aggression had solved the problem of the absence of an accomplished centre-forward.

Vietnam, however, came out stronger after the break, and seven minutes into second-half Phan Duong Cam converted a spot-kick to make it 2-1 and Do Thoi Vinh made it 2-2 in the 64th minute. Refusing to lose their nerve, India responded bravely and at the 75 minute mark, Goswami scored the decisive goal with a cheeky lob which caught the Vietnam goalkeeper off guard.

Playing their first major final in 11 years, India were drawn against their nemesis South Korea. India had never beaten them before, losing to them in the 1958 Asian Games semi-final as well as the opening game of 1962. The Koreans were in a prosperous period of their own and were the defending AFC Asian Cup champions, having sealed their second consecutive title in 1960.

Deep into the night before the final, tensed Indian players couldn’t sleep and so they went out for a stroll. At the training ground, they saw a spark of light from the tip of a cigarette – it was Rahim. In a rare show of emotion, the coach would gather his players and ask them to win the gold medal as a gift for him. His appeal hit home – the players would not disappoint the man who was a father figure to most.

And so it turned out that 4 September 1962 would be a golden day for Indian football. The Indian team made their way to the stadium while singing songs tinged with nationalism on the team bus. As the players made their way onto the field, the imperious Jarnail Singh got them together and said: “Today we have to do or die. We have to give our life for the nation today.” A few hours before the kick-off, Rahim made a dubious decision. The barely-fit Thangaraj was picked while Prodyut Burman, who had played so well during the tournament, was ignored for this huge game.

Burman passed away on 29 October 2016 and his death once again rekindled the debate about Rahim’s decision. Some speculated that Rahim was pressurised by officials in Indian High Commission who were fans of Thangaraj. Others pointed out Rahim’s preference towards players from his native city of Hyderabad. A third theory says that he wanted to use Thangaraj’s superior physical stature as an advantage over the shorter Koreans. Even the great coach knew that a grave injustice was done to his reserve goalkeeper, however, and after the Games, Burman was the only player to receive a wrist watch personally gifted by his coach, with a message, “Bless you, my son”.

The 100,000 strong crowd at the Senayan Stadium in Jakarta were strongly anti-Indian. Every Indian touch was booed, every Indian attack jeered – when the Indian national anthem was played the crowd broke out into jeers in unison. But the players refused to bow down to this gargantuan pressure and came out of the blocks with all guns blazing. Playing with an offensive fervour that few expected the underdogs to showcase, India pegged back South Korea with a dazzling display of attacking football in the first-half.

With 17 minutes gone Balaram gained possession on the left wing, moved forward and found Chuni Goswami in the penalty box. With defenders closing in, Goswami kept his cool, dodged a challenge and found an onrushing PK Banerjee, whose shot was never in danger of being saved. As India took the lead, the entire stadium fell silent.

Three minutes later, India were awarded a free-kick as Franco Fortunato stepped up and found Jarnail Singh in the Korean box. Singh received the ball, bullied his way past two markers and scored with a left footed shot. Rahim’s experiment of utilising Singh as a forward had worked to perfection. With Jarnail Singh as the fulcrum, India’s fleet-footed trio of attackers caused havoc in Korean defence. A match report after the final whistle noted: “The Indian forwards Balaram and Goswami shone in the front line. Their fluid combination and almost telepathic mutual understanding left the Koreans standing most of the time.”

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India created a number of chances in rest of the first-half but the forwards were not clinical enough to extend the lead. Korea barely threatened the Indian goal and their attempts were easily smothered by Thangaraj, who made one outstanding save to deny Korean inside-right Yoon Ok Cho, which received applause from even the hostile crowd.

The pattern of play remained largely same in the second-half. Buoyed by the two-goal cushion, India played without pressure and made frequent forays in the Korean penalty area but failed to finish their moves. The Indian defence also held firm and it looked as if India would exact the perfect revenge of the 2-0 loss in group stages. But there was one last twist in the tale.

Five minutes before the final whistle Korean inside-left Kyung Hwa Park swung a teasing cross for Cha Tae-Sung. Thangaraj, largely flawless until then, failed to anticipate the header as the Koreans pulled a goal back. A nervous last few minutes ensued but the Indian defence made sure there were no more mistakes. By this time, Jarnail Singh’s bandage had come off and he kept on playing with blood streaming down his face – a perfect symbol of the determination of that team. Another beautiful example of their commitment came from defender Trilok Singh, who played without a toe-nail. Every kick of the ball brought excruciating pain but Singh, an army man, still dished out an error-free performance.

Back in 1951, under Rahim’s coaching, the Hyderabad City Police team had defeated Mohun Bagan in a famous final of Durand Cup, one of the India’s most important club tournaments. Rahim was so overwhelmed with emotion that he had fainted that day. The win in 1962 didn’t bring out such an extreme reaction from the primary architect of this triumph but the usually reserved Rahim was found in one corner of the dressing room, quietly shedding tears of joy.

In India there was considerable ecstasy regarding this win. Indian federation official K.K Ganguly said: “I am thrilled at our boys’ performance. We were almost left on the sidelines when the government refused foreign exchange to our footballers. We should have no reason for regrets now, I am sure.” M.N Dutta Roy, the federation president, remarked that India’s victory meant that, “We are certainly worthy of participating in international engagements. There are many people in the country who had thought otherwise. I am sure they will now change their opinion.”

What could have been a defining moment in India’s football history sadly became a false dawn. A chain smoker who rarely took care of his health, Rahim was already very sick when India won the Asian Games. It turned out that he was suffering from lung cancer and little could be done before he passed away on 11 June 1963. “With him,” as Fortunato mentioned in a later interview, “he took Indian football to the grave.”

The momentum of 1962 earned India a runners-up spot in the 1964 Asian Cup, but the downside was already in motion. Between 1951 and 1962 India reached the semi-finals of three of the four Asian Games, winning gold twice. Since then, India have reached the last four just once, in 1970. Tactically in sync with rest of the world until the 1960s, a revolving door of coaches saw India lose touch with advancements over the few next decades, gradually falling down the pecking order in Asia. The great irony is that, during their best years, the Indian national team didn’t even participate in World Cup qualifiers.

A number of players from the class of 1962 have passed away in recent times. PK Banerjee and Arun Ghosh later went on to have long coaching careers. Banerjee and Goswami were also conferred as Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian awards granted by the Indian government. For others, life didn’t pan out as fortunately. The lion-hearted Jarnail suffered from various personal tragedies while Yousuf Khan was afflicted with Parkinson’s due to head injuries he suffered as a player, and later died in impoverishment. Balaram came agonisingly close to being awarded the Padma Shri but was deprived thanks to political meddling.

The surviving players, many of whom are now ailing in poverty, were initially promised financial aid, which eventually didn’t come to fruition. Sadly, Rahim’s memories have been lost in the sands of time.

India have won a few trophies since 1962 – the Pesta Sukan Cup in 1971, bronze in the 1970 Asian Games, a bunch of local SAFF Cups and Nehru Cups, the LG Cup in Vietnam in 2002 and an AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 – but the win in 1962 remains their greatest triumph, unlikely to be eclipsed again in the near future.

By Somnath Sengupta @baggiholic

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