India plays football and she plays it with heart and soul. If cricket is undoubtedly the religion of India, football is certainly the lifestyle of all Indians. Living up with this statement, a marketing professional, Anik Dasgupta, writes about the emotion and the adrenalin that is associated with this game and the ‘Celtic’s barefooted juggler from India’,Salim.
Does India play football?- This was the question asked by the Prince of Football, Maradona, when contacted by the officials of CELEBRITY MANAGEMENT GROUP to inaugurate a Football School at Kolkata. It is baffling to digest the fact that India, once considered the Powerhouse of Asian football, is now languishing at 147th position in the latest FIFA RANKINGS. But the rankings do not reflect the true story if one looks at the enormous football fan base nor does its rich history associated with the game. Let’s walk down memory lane and get to know the story of one such forgotten heroes of Indian football- Mohammed Salim.
Termed as “Celtic’s barefooted juggler from India” Salim was born to a lower middle class family in Calcutta, in 1904. He was born at a time when Indian nationalists were fighting for independence from British Colonial rule, and many Indians, especially people from Bengal, took to football to answer British jibes that Indians were not “manly” enough to rule themselves. Salim’s football career began in 1926 when he joined Chittaranjan club of Bowbazar, Central Calcutta. He then represented Sporting unions club, Aryans club, East Bengal club. But his main success came when he joined Mohammedan Sporting Club in 1934 and played a pivotal role in winning the CALCUTTA FOOTBALL LEAGUE (the oldest football league of Asia) five times in a row. Thus, Mohammedan SC became the first Indian club to win the then prestigious CFL. Salim was known for his excellent ball control, dribbling, correct passes and lobs. His passing was one of the greatest attractions for the supporters.
After the league win in 1936, Salim’s relative Hasheem who used to live in London, saw him playing in a friendly match. Mesmerised at his skills, he convinced the 32 years old wizard to try luck at European football. After a short trip to London from Cairo, the cousins ended up in Glasgow. His cousin announced to then Celtic Manager Willie Maley that “A great player from India has come by boat” and convinced him to give Salim a trial. Maley agreed to this, even after he had heard that the player plays without boots, his feet tightly bound in bandages. But his bare footed skills startled them and he was given a chance to represent CELTIC FOOTBALL CLUB in two alliance matches. He made his debut for CELTIC in a 5-1 victory against HAMILTON ACCIES, where a scored a goal via penalty. He thus became the first Indian player to represent a European Football club. On 28 August, 1936, he helped CELTIC win 7-1 against GALSTON. He thus made an impact on supporters and the press alike with headlines such as “Indian Juggler – New Style” appearing in the Scottish Daily Express the next morning.
Salim soon became homesick and was determined to return to India. The officials attempted to keep the player at CELTIC, but to no avail. In the words of Rashid, Salim’s son, “Celtic tried to persuade my father to stay by offering to organise a charity match in his honour, giving him five percent of the gate proceeds. My father did not realise what five percent would amount to, and said he would give his share to orphans who were to be special invitees for the match. Five per cent came to £1,800 but although my father was astonished, he kept to his word.” Finally he returned to India and helped his former club to clinch two more CFL titles. Had he continued playing at CELTIC, who knows the world could have viewed Indian Football from a different angle.
The juggler left us on 5th November, 1980 after a prolonged period of illness. But sadly, he did not get his due credit. Even his obituary failed to mention his stint with CELTIC club. When he fell ill due to old age, his son wrote to Celtic informing them about his father’s distress and poor health . He wrote of the money required for Salim’s treatment.
He said, “I had no intention of asking for money. It was just a ploy to find out if Mohammed Salim was still alive in their memory. To my amazement, I received a letter from the club. Inside was a bank draft for £100. I was delighted, not because I received the money but because my father still holds a pride of place in Celtic. I have not even cashed the draft and will preserve it till I die.”
All he wants is that the nation recognizes his father’s achievement and contributions towards Indian football, and so do the millions of crazy football fans who want to see their country perform at the top arena.