Melbourne Olympic football heroes felicitated

February 23rd, 2009 - 8:09 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Feb 23 (IANS) They belonged to the golden era of Indian football. Barely nine years after Independence, they had stormed into the semi-finals of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics — the best showing by an Indian football team. Call it a commemoration of the great performance fifty years ago or guilt, the sports ministry in an appreciable gesture felicitated the surviving members of that team here Monday.
Only half the 18 members of that fabulous team are around pushing 80 and seven of them were present to receive their cheques for Rs.150,000 and a silver plaque in recognition of their splendid showing 52 years ago. Alas, one of the heroes of that side goalkeeper Peter Thangaraj passed away in November.

Skipper Samar Bannerjee and his Bengal team-mate Nikhil Nandy, who proudly sported their Olympic blazers, goalkeeper S. S. Narayan, Syed Abdus Salam, Ahmed Hussain, Mohammed Zulfikaruddin and Pradeep Kumar Bannerjee talked of the great time they all had, remembering those who were not there to share their joy this day.

Krishna Chandra “Keshto” Pal couldn’t make it due to ill health and Tulsidas Balaram preferred to stay away from the event as he has done in the past, making no secret of his resentment over the way the great Indian footballers are treated.

They all had plenty of tales to narrate of their playing days and the Olympics, particularly about their coach Syed Abdul Rahim, who turned a bunch of no-hopers into household names.The pain of waiting for so long to gain some recognition was palpable on their faces. They missed their teammates who are no more.

Skipper Samar spoke for them all: “We have been depressed. We didn’t get any recognition for what we have done. I am lucky to get the recognition now but feel sorry for my teammates, who couldn’t get it. I wish they were with me today.”

The septuagenarian went into a rewind mode and recalled the chilly conditions when they landed in Melbourne on a November morning.

“We had six forwards in that team. It was an attacking team and it was Rahim saab, who inspired us to play well. His critics used to call him a slave driver, but for us he was the best coach we ever had,” said Samar.

India started by beating hosts Australia 4-2 with Neville D’Souza scoring a hat trick and Kittu got the other goal. The win took India to the semi-final, where they played the 1954 World Cup quarter-finalists Yugoslavia.

Unfortunately, despite leading 1-0 till the 60th minute, India conceded four goals in the last 30 minutes. In the third-place play-off, India lost 0-3 to Bulgaria to finish fourth.

Nandy said that Australians, after their loss, were shattered and said the Indian team was substandard.

“But we proved them wrong. Coincidently while returning, we had to come via Sydney. There the Australians invited us to play an exhibition match and we crushed them 7-1. As a mark of respect the Australian players came to our dressing room after the match and exchanged jerseys with us,” said Nandy.

Even to this day Nandy and his teammates cannot reconcile to their defeat against Yugoslavia.

“We had them on the ropes and yet we couldn’t beat them. We led 1-0 till the 60th minute and all of a sudden the struck four timesin the last 25 minutes and we couldn’t stop them. If only we had pulled that game off, football would have been a big sport in this country,” he said.

Concurring with Nandy, Hussain attributed the reverse to the lack of stamina.

“We were not accustomed to playing 90 minutes because back home we played matches for 60 minutes. Against Yugoslavia we played pacy football and after sixty minutes we ran out of steam. We had stomach cramps and to stop them we had packed the defence with nine men and yet we couldn’t stop them,” said Hussain.

The trip to Melbourne also taught the players some lessons as P. K. Banerjee recalled.

“In Melbourne we were walking down the street littering it with food and chocolate wrappers. Then we saw that a group of children were picking up the wrappers and putting them in the dustbin. It was a great lesson for me and after that day I always make sure that I put waste papers and wrappers in a bin,” he said.

The memories of the 1956 Melbourne Games are still fresh and enough to inspire a generation of Indian footballers. Some felt if only the members of the deceased Olympians were there to share their fond memories.

The squad:

Goalkeepers: Peter Thangaraj, S.S. Narayan; Defenders: S.K. Azzizuddin, Syed Abdul Latif, A.T. Rehman; Midfielders: Kempiah, Syed Abdus Salam, Nikhil Nandi, Ahmed Hussain and Noor Mohammed; Forwards: Pradeep Kumar Banerjee, Samar Banerjee (captain), J. Krishnaswamy “Kittu”, Muhammad Kannayan, Krishna Chandra “Keshto” Pal, Neville D’Souza, Tulsidas Balaram, Mohammed Zulfikaruddin

Coach: Syed Abdul Rahim; Manager: Khalifa Ziauddin

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