Indian Football
A bloodless coup that left our rivals bleeding
27 Apr 2024

Fifty years ago, on April 30, 1974, India created history when they won the Asian Youth Championship title jointly with Iran. Starting today, will run a series of articles on this momentous achievement. The opening piece has been written by winger Harjinder Singh, known as the Man with a Golden Left Foot in Indian football in the 1970s and 1980s.

Harjinder Singh

We did not know that more drama awaited us back in the dressing room.

It happened 50 years ago; April 30, 1974, to be exact. On that day, India staged a kind of coup d’etat in Asian football, when they won the Asian Youth Championship title jointly with Iran in Bangkok. I was a part of the playing eleven. Nobody in this world would bet a dime on us when we took the pitch to play Iran in the final.

Ultimately, we played out a stunning 2-2 draw and forced the defending champions to share the trophy with India. We were a bunch of teenagers who unknowingly wrote a new chapter in the century-old history of Indian football.

Now, let me return to the dressing room again. As we stormed into the room immediately after the gruelling encounter, our coach, Arun Da (Arun Ghosh), hugged each of us tightly. Then he simply fainted. He was emotionally so drained that he could not take it anymore.

After a few minutes, Arun Da regained consciousness. He sat on a chair and cried like a child. He said he was an Asian Games gold medal winner, but nothing brought him more pleasure than this title.

I tell you, Arun Da was not exaggerating. I have played enough football in my life with big clubs. My stint with the Senior National Team was a fairly long one. But never in my career have I played for a side that displayed more team spirit than the 1974 Indian squad for the Asian Youth Championship.

We did not have a Mental Coach. Nobody has ever delivered a motivational speech to us. We never underwent any training for developing focus and concentration. We were 18 happy-go-lucky teenagers, who were simply determined to protect our pride and wanted to win every match, no matter how strong the rivals were. It turned us into a fiercely cohesive unit.

When I look back five decades later, I wonder how everything fell into place. Our team was packed with ball-players and a host of players, whose individual talent was above average. We had a tough time against hosts Thailand in the semi-finals and Iran in the final. But we won the ball in the middle and never lost our nerves.

Individually, I had a great tournament. My performance was noticed and both coaches were happy with me. Once the tournament ended, the accredited journalist covering the meet prepared a list of the 20 best players in the 1974 edition. I and our full-back, CC Jacob, were the two Indians, who made that list that was named Asian Youth All-Star.

Harjinder Singh (representational image)

I scored a goal in the tournament against Singapore in the quarter-finals. In the final, I created lots of problems for the Iran defence from the left. They were frustrated and one of their defenders punched me in the stomach. The referee did not notice. It was a nasty foul and for a few minutes, I couldn’t even breathe properly. As I was lying half unconscious on the ground, Arun Da rushed in for my on-ground treatment and told me, ‘Harjinder, don’t forget, you are the son of a Sardar. They can’t get you so easily. Just get up and fight.’ I jumped on my feet and told the referee I was ready to resume.

It was a dream run. We played six matches; Laos, Burma, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand and Iran. We overcame it all. True, we were not runaway winners, but none of our opponents could lower our colours. Iran came to the final after scoring 16 goals in five matches without conceding any. We breached their citadel twice and left them thoroughly frustrated. Iran were a mighty side. They won the title in 1973, 1975 and 1976. They won the 1974 edition too, but had to share it with us.

Sharing the trophy also had its share of problems. The organisers had 20 gold medals and an equal number of silver medals ready for the prize distribution after the final. They were in a fix when the two teams were declared joint champions. We were given 10 gold medals and 10 silver medals and the team management was told to distribute them among the players. The coaches then held a lottery to identify who should get the gold medals. I was one of the lucky ones.

No, we received no prize money from the All India Football Federation. I have no regrets. Those were the amateur days. Money was not plenty. But there was no lack of professional attitude from our side. The local Indian community in Thailand was thrilled. They showered us with lots of gifts.

The style of football has changed. So have the coaching technique, approach, and attitude of the players. What has not changed is the hunger to win. That makes all the difference.  That’s the reason why we made all the difference in Bangkok 50 years ago.

(As told to Jaydeep Basu)

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