The night of August 15, 1971, was one of the worst moments in Indian football. While the nation celebrated its 24th Independence Day, a pall of gloom descended on the camp of the Indian National Football Team in Kuala Lumpur. Only a few hours ago, India played the last league match of the 1971 Merdeka Cup and it ended in a resounding 1-9 defeat against Burma (now Myanmar). It was one of India’s biggest defeats in international football.
Hell broke loose the next day. The Union Ministry of Education in New Delhi, which then looked after the Sports Department, too, shot off a not-too-kind letter to the All India Football Federation asking to explain the humiliating defeat. In turn, the AIFF asked the manager of the team, N Vittal, to file his report on the disaster.
The AIFF was rattled by the Government’s letter. It sent a cable to the Indian team in Malaysia to return home immediately and not proceed to Singapore to play the Pesta Sukan Cup. More defeats against stronger teams would only worsen the situation, feared the AIFF.
The story didn’t end here. In fact, it turned out to be one of Indian football’s greatest ‘comeback stories.’ As the two coaches, PK Banerjee and GMH Basha, along with the manager, informed the footballers of the AIFF instructions, a few senior players stood up and said going back home was an unacceptable decision.
Mohammed Habib, Amar Bahadur, Syed Nayeemuddin, Subhash Bhowmick – all had only one thing to say. Let us go to Singapore and try to give our best. We would not come back from the Pesta Sukan Cup empty-handed. Too many injuries in the team cost India dearly against Burma. It would not happen again.
The footballers kept their word. India returned from Singapore as the joint winner of Pesta Sukan. It included a massive 6-0 victory over Malaysia. Mohammed Habib and Subhash Bhowmick scored two goals each, Nataraj and Swapan Sengupta struck the other two. The Union Sports Ministry didn’t press for a report on the Merdeka massacre.
But make no mistake. India’s story in Merdeka is not about defeats only. Since 1959, India have played in the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia 17 times till date. Over the years, they have had some remarkable wins under their belts that would go down in history among India’s all-time best matches. One of them was in the 1986 Merdeka when India stunned mighty South Korea 4-3 to reach the semi-finals.
South Korea made the World Cup final rounds in 1986 and nobody gave India a chance against them. The Koreans were simply stunned when India shot into a 3-1 lead before anyone could realise what was actually happening.
“Nobody expected us to win, not even we,” said midfielder Mauricio Afonso with a laugh. One of India’s four goals came from his boot. “Koreans warmed up when we took a 2-1 lead, but my long ranger made it 3-1. They were desperate and narrowed the margin, but our fourth goal gave us more confidence. We won 4-3, finally,” Mauricio said.
Apart from Mauricio, the goals were scored by VP Sathyan and Krishanu Dey, who found the net twice. One of the two goals was yet another example of amazing skills: he dribbled past a host of defenders before beating the goalkeeper. Krishanu was in devastating form that season. In the next match, he ripped open the Thailand defence to score a hat-trick as India raced to a 3-1 victory before falling to a selection side from Czechoslovakia by a solitary goal in the semi-final.
Mauricio, a star midfielder and India captain in the later days, is a humble person and spends his days quietly in Goa. “I was an ordinary player, but I feel proud to have played with legendary players like Sudip Chatterjee, Krishanu Dey, Camilo Gonsalves and others. All I would like to say is that the 1986 India team in Merdeka was an absolutely solid one and had a big bunch of talented players. Beating us was not an easy job,” he said.
“Sadly, out of the three goalscorers in that unforgettable encounter against South Korea, two (Krishanu Dey and VP Sathyan) are no longer with us. Only I am still there to tell the tale,” Mauricio concluded as his voice dropped and turned softer.
India’s regular participation in the Merdeka Cup has given birth to many folklores of Indian football. Some of the players are still fondly remembered by old-timers in Malaysia. Chuni Goswami’s mesmerising skills, Jarnail Singh’s hair-raising hard tackles, Magan Singh’s opportunism and Inder Singh’s breathtaking proficiency to outwit the rival defenders are some of those. A few Malaysian clubs in the 1960s were determined to rope in Inder for their clubs, but the Punjab tiger refused to budge despite lucrative offers.
Out of the 17 times they played in Merdeka, India returned home with the runners-up trophy twice and finished third three times. Two more times the Blue Tigers made the semi-finals. In 1959, India were unbeaten runners-up in their maiden entry in the Merdeka Cup. In 1964, the title slipped away when Chuni Goswami’s India lost by a solitary goal against Burma in the final. A yet-to-be fully fit PK Banerjee was not in his usual self in the final. To add to India’s woes, Goswami was injured early in the match and performed far from his best for the rest of the outing.
Slowly, Indian football’s close association with the Merdeka Cup became a thing of the past after 1986. For the next 15 years, India didn’t participate for various reasons. The next time the Indian football team was in Kuala Lumpur was in the new millennium in 2001 under head coach Sukhwinder Singh with Jo Paul Ancheri as the captain.
Twenty-two years have passed since then. A lot of water has flown through the Ganges and the Klang River in Kuala Lumpur. Football has changed, and so has the international calendar. Instead of 10 nations playing a two-week-long tournament at a leisurely pace, it is all about four teams getting to play two matches each within the limitations of the specified FIFA window. The Indian campaign this time would be different and maybe difficult, too.
But the legacy will live on and Blue Tigers will have to live up to it.