The 1950s were a crazy time to be an Indian. It was the first few minutes with our “trust with destiny” as Prime Minister Nehru so eloquently said. The referee blew the whistle for kick-off in 1947 and we were still getting our side sorted. But in terms of our football heritage and the relevance of Indian football on a world stage, these initial few years might have been our best (yet). Because the trajectory of Indian football has been on a steady decline into mediocrity and eventually into irrelevance on the world stage. But during the 50s, we best represented the young republic on the world stage and really gave an account of what potential Indian football has (Something which we have failed to realise since then).
This story has a lot to do with the way the world looked post world war 2. The colonial powers who once had a colony in practically every longitude had to reconsider the questions of their imperial exploitation. New powers in the forms of the Soviet Union and the United States of America were now the power brokers for the world and they wanted to exert their influence in whatever way they could. This was also a time when colonies started to exert their need for independence. And the next power struggle became the ideological game to get a newly independent country to either be a communist or a capitalist state.
But this was also a time when we needed to represent ourselves on the world stage. A young republic needed to create an identity with which it can introduce itself to the world and what better way to do that than through football.
In the summer of 1953. The 4th World Festival of Youth and Students was held in Bucharest in Romania. These festivals were and still are the world’s largest event involving students, with participants coming here from all over the world. But there is a clear leftist leaning for the event and most of the representatives are from leftist student groups. This particular one in Bucharest was held in protest against the Korean war and to support anti-colonial movements in the French colonies of Algeria and Vietnam.
India sends her best football team to participate in it – The EAST BENGAL team which had been the dominant force in Indian football at that point in time. But we will get to that very soon.
In the tournament held in Bucharest, East Bengal beat a strong Austrian team 2-0, and following that was a 6-1 thrashing of Lebanon. East Bengal already had fans at this point in the tournament. Then they reached the semi-finals, but unfortunately lost to the hosts Romania 4-0. In the third-place game, they lost to East Germany 5-2 even though they were able to level the score to 2-2, eventually finishing the tournament in fourth place.
East Bengal was the surprise dark horse of the tournament. No one expected a team from a young post-colonial country like India to be playing to a level that challenged the footballing heavyweight of the time. This captured the attention of a lot of people. But most importantly of all, it captured the attention of the Soviet Main Directorate for Physical Culture and Sports i.e kind of the Soviet way of saying sports authority.
They invited a team from Albania and they invited East Bengal to play in Moscow. At this point, it is fair to say that, the performances of the team in Bucharest had warranted them the right to play with the best in the Soviet Union. And at that point in time, a team called Torpedo Moscow (A strange name for English speakers, just wait till you see the crest of the team) was one of the top teams in not just Russia, but the entire Soviet Union.
The Soviets also had the foresight to document the entire trip from their time on the plane to the football game. And thanks to those comrades who did that in 1953. We have one of the few existing footage of what Indian football and the very best of it, looked like in the 1950s. The next 5 minutes are a piece of Indian football heritage that every one of us must absolutely watch. Cause this was us at our best (Don’t mind the Russian commentary, I will translate everything in the next part).
The team arrives on an Aeroflot propeller aircraft and the footage starts inside the fuselage. We are introduced to the players, all smartly dressed up in their suits, with what appears to be the flame torch badge which is still the insignia of East Bengal attached to their coats. They land in the Moscow Aerodom and are greeted with bouquets by the committee. Moscow is excited for this really unusual match as, during those days, the curiosity of seeing people from a far-off place like India would have been enough to get people off their seats. And to see them play football would have been something that no one could miss.
The stadium for the match was the Dynamo stadium with a capacity of 35,540 seats and for this game, it was a capacity crowd. The excitement was palpable and white doves were released into the sky before the game by young fans. Then the ceremonial welcome was given by the Torpedo Moscow team to their Indian counterparts.
It would have been at this moment when the capacity Moscow crowd’s curiosity might have been at its peak. When the teams lined up, you can see that majority of the Indian team players were not wearing boots. The defenders and the mid-fielders wore boots. But the forwards on the Indian teams of the 1950s didn’t wear boots and how they fared against their leather-booted opponents is something that must be seen to be believed. This must have been a tactical way of making the forwards get better ball control. But I am sure that this method lost its effectiveness very fast and that is why we don’t see any barefooted teams anymore. If it did serve as an advantage it should have still stuck around.
I think this goes to disprove the myth that India “couldn’t afford boots”. If the defenders and the midfielders can get boots. The entire team can. I think it was more a case of the style of play these players have been playing for so long. The adaptation to boots just might not have seemed worth putting in the effort if they could play to their levels without boots.
East Bengal was wearing their signature yellow and red kit while Torpedo came out in their black and white kit. These colours have not changed for both teams to this day. The Torpedo players handed over bouquets to their counterparts to finish off the ceremonial welcome. Now it was time for the game. The referee was P.Belov from Leningrad and he places the ball in the center of the park. These were those old brown animal bladder balls. This was football at its purest!
But let us look at the tactics and also introduce ourselves to what made East Bengal the best team in India – 19th-century football
Jose Mourinho once accused Sam Allardyce of “playing 19th-century football” after West Ham came away from Stamford Bridge with a draw doing nothing but defending with 11 men behind the ball. But what Jose got terribly wrong in his insult is that the 19th-century football was the polar opposite of what he is accusing Big Sam of doing. It was an all-out attack.
This was the standard formation of that time.
5 forwards was the norm. Not the exception. Modern football formations look like a Mourinho team parking the bus when compared to this. This is why half the team wore boots. The “Full backs” and ” Halfbacks” were the players that wore boots in the team. The strikers went without it. This focus on attacking might looks very strange for us having considered it a dogma that a team needs 4 or 3 defenders at the least. But this was a way in which football could be played too.
The Line up for East Bengal was GK – M. Gatak; Defense – M. Dorailingam, P.Kumar, A. Shaomi; Mid – A.Dutt, N.Ali; Attack – A Khan, Apparao, P Venkatesh. P.B.A Saleh, K P Dhanaraj.
This team was famously called “Pancha Pandavas” (Based on the Hindu epic called the Mahabharatham) – Penta-forward line consisting of Ahmed Khan, Apparao, P. Venkatesh, P.B.A Saleh and K.P. Dhanaraj, who in between 1949-53 won 11 major titles which included 3 back to back IFA Shield titles: 1949-51, 3 Calcutta Football Leagues, 2 Durand Cups, 1 Rovers Cup and 2 DCM Trophies.
The Pancha Pandavas with their attacking prowess, led East Bengal to their first-ever treble when they won the League, the IFA Shield and the Rovers Cup in 1949. Two years later, in 1951, East Bengal became the first Indian team to win the Durand Cup and they bagged the IFA Shield that season as well. Then the English FA annual Almanac 1951-52 judged EB as the best Indian football team.
Torpedo were no slouches either. They were on the way to becoming the team that would go on to dominate Soviet football soon, with a particular player named Eduard Streltsov in the youth ranks at this time. He would go on to be regarded as the “Russian Pele” and would be the most revered Soviet outfield player of all time. A movie on his life was released last year and it paints a picture of what football was like in the Soviet Union in the 50s.
Torpedo lineup: Y. Petrov, M Bychkov, A.Gomes, A. Arkhipov, P. Solomatin, N.Senyukov, A.IIyin, V.Ivanov, E. Malov, A. Fedorov, A. Anisimov
The match starts off quick and it almost seems the Indian side is intimidated by the atmosphere. A pass from the flank for Torpedo into the channel between the center backs gives space for the center forward Malov and he latches on to the ball and calmly slots it into his right. It doesn’t take long for Torpedo to score the second one. A late pass to the outside of the box and the midfielder IIyin runs at it and takes a powerful shot that keeps it to the ground and beats the keeper.
The Indian team looks shellshocked. Two goals conceded early, but they wake up from it after that. A cross from the left to the forward, runs at the keeper who commits and the forward passes it onto the path of Thankaraj who had an open net. And the visitors equalise when they win a foul 25 meters outside the goal. Venkatesh steps in and literally “puts his laces through it” even though he didn’t have laces (no boots) and the goal goes in. A ferocious shot from a free-kick shot with venom.
The newspaper Sovietsky sport writes – It should be noted that unlike the strikers, who play without shoes, the defenders and midfielders of the Indian team play in boots and bravely fight for the ball. – Soviet Sport (08/22/1953)
Going into halftime it is all squared at the Dynamo stadium. The Moscow crowd is loving it. They cheer on the advances of the Indian team and applaud at that moment of genius by Venkatesh. The crowd is entertained.
The second half begins the same way how Torpedo began the first – with total control and they score another one. The left-winger Ivanov goes past the entire Indian backline (2 center backs) and scores it past the keeper. But EB saved the best for last. Venkatesh receives the ball in the box and feints past the defender and lets a powerful shot in. You can see the frustration in the eyes of the keeper as he tries to rally his defence to stop the Pandavas.
But the mutual respect was for all to see! “During the game, both Soviet and Indian footballers more than once helped each other to get up after an unsuccessful fall, exchanged friendly handshakes.” – Soviet Sport (08/22/1953)
The game ends 3-3 and East Bengal has shown that they can play against the best and match them, a far cry from the state of affairs Indian football is at the moment. It was a moment that would go onto reinforce the Soviet – Indian friendship which would be crucial during a lot of key moments in the life of the young republic. Diplomacy through football could be a way to describe this match.
East Bengal would play other games in the Soviet Union. But their impressive run came to an end with that. They got utterly humiliated in their remaining three matches, losing 1-9, 1-13, and 0-6 as fatigue got the better of them.
Torpedo fans remember this encounter between the two teams even today and will always be part of their folklore even though Torpedo is in the second division at the moment.
This was the comment of Torpedo fan Oleg, who has been supporting the club for decades: “Little is left, old fans are dying. But this match went down in the history of Torpedo and the relationship between our countries. Torpedo at that time was not the leader of Soviet football but was among those who fought for medals. They became a leader in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At that time, the USSR supported the national liberation struggle of the countries of South Asia and carried out work to draw them into the orbit of the socialist community, geopolitical factors also took place. Sports and football played an important role in establishing good relation between us and promoting the success of the USSR.”
Hopefully, India will have a team that can challenge the best in the world sooner rather than later. Until then. Little nostalgia capsules like this will keep us going.