Did India withdraw from the 1950 World Cup because they were not allowed to play barefoot?
SOCCER/FOOTBALL LEGEND: India withdrew from the 1950 World Cup because they were not allowed to play barefoot.
India surprised the world with their performance in the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, England. The Indian national football team, with every player playing without footwear (some players played in socks while most played barefoot), lost to France in the first round by the razor thin margin of 2-1 (and actually were tied with France at 1 all 70 minutes into the match) . This match already drew a great deal of attention as the 1948 Summer Olympics was the first time that India was performing in an international tournament as an independent nation (after gaining their independence from Great Britain). However, the fact that the Indian team did all of this in bare feet drew the most attention.
Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) made it clear to India that they would not be allowed to play in the 1950 FIFA World Cup without footwear. Then a curious thing happened. You see, when determining the make-up of the 1950 World Cup, FIFA determined that obviously the two defending finalists, Brazil and Italy, would be guaranteed spots. That left fourteen spots that needed to be filled. FIFA decided that seven of those spots would come from Europe, six would come from the Americas and one would come from Asia. The problem was that of the four Asian teams that were invited to the World Cup, three of them (the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma) withdrew from the tournament before the qualification round. Therefore, India earned an automatic spot within the World Cup. It would be India's first time appearing in the World Cup (and, indeed, as of 2011 they still have never appeared in the World Cup), but India, too, withdrew from the tournament.
For years, the story has been that India withdrew from the World Cup because FIFA would not allow them to compete barefoot.
Is that true? Let us find out!
First of all, the World Cup in 1950 was being held in Brazil. In 1950, it was not a simple matter to travel from, say, Burma, to Brazil. In fact, the team from Turkey withdrew because of financial concerns over traveling to Brazil. So teams withdrawing from the World Cup over financial reasons would be quite reasonable. In fact, that is an alternate theory that has arisen over the years - that India withdrew because they could not afford the trip. This appears to be false, as the organizers offered to pay most of the travel expense to get India to Brazil (as if India did not come, they would not have a representative from Asia, which is exactly what happened - the tournament ended up playing with 14 teams instead of 16, with one group having just two teams in it).
According to India's Sports Illustrated magazine, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) announced that the team would not attend the World Cup, citing "disagreements over team selection, and insufficient practice time." However, as Kaushik Bandyopadhyay, associate editor of the journal Soccer and Society, put it Sports Illustrated:
A careful study reveals that beneath the apparent financial difficulties given as cause of withdrawal lay the AIFF's unusual failure to appreciate the importance of participating in the Cup, despite assurances from the organizing committee to bear a major part of the tour expenses.
This general idea, that the AIFF just did not take the World Cup seriously, considering the Olympics to be the ultimate goal, is backed up by Sailen Manna, who would have been the captain of the team. As he told Sports Illustrated, "We had no idea about the World Cup then. [H]ad we been better informed, we would have taken the initiative ourselves. For us, the Olympics was everything. There was nothing bigger."
Nowhere in any of the discussions at the time was the barefoot issue. It might certainly have been something that would have annoyed the Indian team, but it did not appear as though it was the main reason for the team refusing to travel to Brazil. It seems much more likely that the Indian football officials just did not think that the World Cup was a big enough of a deal to warrant sending their players halfway across the world. Again, do note that 3/4 of the Asian teams had already withdrew!! Clearly, the World Cup was not some significant draw at the time if so many of the other Asian countries did not even try to get into the tournament.
So I am willing to believe Manna and the research of the Indian Sports Illustrated when they say that bare feet was not the major reason India did not attend the 1950 World Cup. Sadly, though, their decision not to attend clearly did affect Indian football. Manna reflected sadly that, "Indian football would have been on a different level had we made that journey."
So as for the truth of the legend....
Thanks to Arindam Basu for the great Sports Illustrated article and the amazing research (including interviewing the octogenarian Manna) and thanks to Prem Panicker for linking to the article on his football blog. India, by the way, competed in the 1952 Olympics with bare feet. They were beaten badly.
NOTE: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly said the 1950 World Cup was held in Uruguay.
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Photo: India's national soccer team in 1950. Credit: Monojit Chandra.