Did lack of financial support by Nehru govt force Indian football team to play barefoot in 1948 Olympics?

A Facebook page, Social Tamasha, shared an image with text stating, ऐसे थे कांग्रेस नवाबों के ठाठ (such was the pomp of Congress’ nawabs -translated).” The text inscribed in the image describes two different pictures. On the left, two sportspersons can be seen shaking hands with each other, while the adjacent image shows India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru debarking with his pet. The post claims that the Indian football team did not have shoes to play football during the period when Nehru’s dog was travelling in aeroplanes.

ऐसे थे कांग्रेस नवाबों के ठाठ

Posted by Social Tamasha on Thursday, 19 July 2018

Another Facebook page, Bharat Positive had shared the same image with their page logo on November 4, 2018. At the time of writing this article, it had accumulated close to 6,900 shares and 10,000 likes. Many Facebook users also shared similar claims.

Were Indian footballers made to play barefoot?

Alt News reverse searched the images on Google and found them to be true. An article published by Frontline had an image where Talimeren Ao, India’s first football captain was shaking hands with G. Robert, captain of the French team. Whereas, Nehru’s photograph was found on a website owned by The Times of India Group called Times Content. According to the website, this image was clicked around January, 1961. So, while the images are true, is there any truth tot he claim that Indian players were forced to play barefeet because of lack of finances and support from the Indian Government?

Indian players had boots: Selection camp, Calcutta

Before the Indian football team was selected for 1948 Olympics on May 7, 1948, the players had to play two trial matches for team selection. An Indian Express report published on the same day stated, “The first of the two trial matches for the selection of the Indian football team for the London Olympics was played today on the Calcutta F.C ground before a fairly big crowd. All the players turned out in boots, owing to the ground having become greasy after a heavy mid-day shower. Based on this report, it was evident that the players had soccer boots even before the tournament started.

While the players definitely had boots before the tournament, did they carry it along with them to London? Alt News found a copy of the 1948 schedule of the Indian Olympics football team tour of Europe. Based on the schedule of matches, we looked up reportage for various matches.

We found a September 1, 1948 report published in the British daily Birmingham Daily Gazette by a English sports journalist called John Camkin. The report was about the match between India and Boldmere St Michaels FC on August 31, 1948 in which Camkin reported that the Indian players were forced to play in boots because of the damp ground – “The tourist had been compelled to take to boots, a most unusual item of football gear to them, because of the heavy rain that fell throughout their game with the heroes of last season’s Amateur Cup……..The Indians were undoubtedly handicapped by the boots and general conditions-one said afterwards that normally they would have scored another four goals- but their snappy ground passing left no doubt as to their formidable quality on dry pitches.” Based on the below reportage, it was evident that Indian players had boots during the tour of which London Olympics was a part of.

We also found further evidence of Indian players having access to boots during London Olympics. In his book, ‘Stories from Indian Football’, journalist Jaydeep Basu has also quoted a statement from B.D Chatterjee, Indian football coach, according to which Chatterjee said, “they had boots with them in case they prone too yielding in which case they would wear them but they prefer to play in their bare feet”. According to a report by The Hindu, this statement was given to Reuters during one of the pre-Olympics friendly matches that India played against the Metropolitan Police on July 16, 1948.

Alt News contacted Jaydeep Basu to confirm the reference of this quote. In a conversation with Alt News, Basu, author of Stories from Indian football said, “In one of the chapters in my book, which dealt with barefoot football, I had cited a Reuters report to quote B D Chatterjee. Whatever you have been hearing about the rumours that they(Indians) didn’t have boots to play, it’s absolutely rubbish. Indians used to play barefoot those days. They played the 1948 Olympics, 1951 Asian games and 1952 Olympics barefoot. After the 1952 Olympics where India was beaten by Yugoslavia 10-1, All India Football Federation realised that they should use boots. In India, nobody used to play in boots except for a few. Also, the FIFA regulation came later which said that anyone who has to play International football has to play in boots. Even in 1911, when Mohun Bagan won the historic IFA shield, all but one of the players were barefoot. Indians used to play barefoot that’s all. If they can travel to London, they can also buy boots. It is simple logic.”

In the historic match between India and France on 31 July, 1948 which India lost by 2-1, Indian Express report stated that 8 out of the 11 players played barefeet.

Indians preferred to play without boots

In his book Nation at Play: A history of sports in India, Ronojoy Sen writes, “For the Indians, playing(barefoot) against booted footballers wasn’t unusual; in fact, it contributed to their on-field skills……Manna(Indian football player) replied that it was easier to keep the ball under control.

Source: Nation at Play by Ronojoy Sen (Page 191)

In the 1948 Olympics, majority of the Indian sportsmen had played barefoot as can be seen in the photograph below. However, the player on the extreme left can be seen in shoes.

Source: Barefoot to Boots by Novy Kapadia

It is, thus, clear that the Indian football team was not forced to play without boots because of a lack of financial support but preferred to remain barefoot during the games because that is what they were accustomed to. The players continued to play barefoot till the change in International regulations mandated them to wear boots. Social media narratives suggesting otherwise are an attempt to portray India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as apathetic to the conditions of the country’s players. As we have observed in the past, history has often been distorted to malign Nehru – him being the favourite target of the right-wing.

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