Skip to main content

India, the second most populous nation with over 1.3 billion people, the biggest democracy on earth and heavyweights of crickets and hockey have never been to a football World Cup.

Like China, India - currently 102 in Fifa's world rankings - lie dormant as anomalous sleeping giants on the international scene, with reservoirs of potential untapped talent.

As such the Blue Tigers' participation in the world's biggest sporting event - and even their participation in football in general - has been reduced to one questionable anecdote. Namely, India gave up their spot at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil as they refused to comply with Fifa's rules about players being required to sport footwear.

As football legends go, it is an enduring one. It is also not without some merit.

(You may also be interested in 'World Cup Countdown: 17 Weeks to Go - Alcides Ghiggia, the Man Who Silenced the Maracana')

A country of contrasts; 'whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true' goes the famous Joan Robinson quote. Did the India national team of the time play barefoot? Yes. Was it the reason they did not attend the World Cup in 1950? No, not really.

In reality, India - a brand new nation, after achieving independence from the UK just three years prior and still suffering the raging hangover of World War II - had several reasons for turning down Brazil and Fifa's invitation to be the second Asian side ever at a World Cup.

One, not unreasonable, objection was the length of trip half way around the world by ship and the costs of doing so. Turkey too gave up their place at the tournament, for similar reasons, while European sides Scotland, Ireland, Portugal and France all chose not to participate.

Another occasionally cited reason is the fact that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) used to play 70 minute games domestically, rather than the Fifa standard 90, and would have been at a fitness disadvantage going into the tournament. However, perhaps above all is simply the fact that the AIFF simply didn't care and grossly underestimated the significance of the tournament.

The World Cup was still a new affair. The 1950 games in Brazil would only be the fourth ever iteration and only the first time the fathers of the sport England had bothered to show up.

(You may also be interested 'World Cup Countdown: 17 Weeks to Go - 1950 Year in Review')

India's qualification process too was not exactly taxing either, and the AIFF was presented with an invitation after all their regional competitors withdrew. For the AIFF, the Olympics was still the pinnacle in football and this new-fangled World Cup an unnecessary, potentially humiliating and probably expensive side show.

Team captain of the time Sailen Manna, told Sports Illustrated (via the LA Times), "We had no idea about the World Cup then. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger."

SI Recommends

Brazil kept contact with the AIFF until the last minute and made promises about the expenses of their voyage. India, however, did not turn up and left group three with just three teams.

The decision not to attend in 1950 now seems like an obvious own goal by the AIFF. Not only could successful participation have kickstarted an early push towards the sport's professionalism in the country, but the national team might even have become a positive symbol for a nascent nation amidst self discovery under Prime Minister Nehru.

However, India did not go in 1950 to make their mark at the Maracana, and the enduring myth about boots that followed is not only misleading, but hides a more amazing story.

(You may also be interested in 'World Cup Countdown: 17 Weeks to Go - 'Maracanazo', the Day Uruguay Silenced the Samba'

Not only did India play barefoot, but they played well barefoot. 

At the 1948 Olympics, the Blue Tigers (in only their second year of existence) may have been eliminated at the first round, but the entire team playing - either completely barefoot or in socks - held France to 1-1 until the dying moments at Lynn Road, before an 89th minute strike from the French followed two missed penalties by the Indians and ended any medal hopes.

Despite their early exit, it is reported that King George VI, among the 17,000 spectators, even invited coach Syed Abdul Rahim and the Indian team to Buckingham Palace after the match, after being impressed by their hardy display. Forward Ahmed Khan was dubbed the 'snake charmer' by the British media for his mesmeric ball control.

Two years after the World Cup in Brazil, India again went footwear-free to the 1952 Olympic Games (their self-identified most prestigious tournament), this time in Helsinki. While the firm ground in London tested India's ability without footwear, the cold turf and quality of the opposition proved too much at Töölön Pallokenttä, as Yugoslavia (eventual silver medalists) won 10-1.

The embarrassing defeat was the catalyst for the AIFF to make the wearing of boots compulsory in 1953. Suited and booted appropriately for the occasion, India went on to achieve their greatest moment as a footballing nation in 1956 at the Melbourne Olympics as they finished fourth, becoming the first Asian side to reach the semi finals and narrowly missing out on a medal.

India's Neville D'Souza joint top scored at the games with four, including a hat-trick as India beat Australia 4-2 on their own patch in the quarter-finals. 

The withdrawal from the 1950 World Cup, boots or no boots, remains the major setback in Indian football. While the sport remained hugely popular until the latter half of the 20th century, despite the national team's decline, cricket became the undisputed national game in the 1980s as the Men in Blue took home the World Cup and hosted the tournament, prompting millions into sporting allegiance and stamping clear the wicket's dominance over the goalpost in the sub-continent.

“Had India participated in the 1950 World Cup, it would have had a positive impact on the development of football in the country,” Ahmed 'Snake Charmer' Khan, the last surviving member of the India team told the Indian Express, before the 2014 tournament again in Brazil. 

“Playing against world class footballers would have motivated us to improve our standards, which would have paved the way for younger players to emulate players of my era.”