Senior National Team
Indian Football Down the Years: Looking back at the glorious moments
15 Aug 2022

AIFF Media Team

NEW DELHI: As India celebrates it’s 75th year of Independence, we take a look at the past, when Indian Football had excelled, and held the tri-colour high on the international stage. From the Golden era of the Chuni, PK and Balarams, to the current era of the Bhaichungs and the Sunils, and the likes of Shanti Mallick, Chitra G, and more recently Bembem Devi flying the flag high on various occasions for the Indian Women’s Team, it’s been quite a journey for Indian Football. Below, we present to you a pleasant look back at some of the best moments.

1951 Asian Games: A Golden Beginning

S Mewalal (File Photo)

A young nation took the bold step to host the inaugural Asian Games and won the football gold medal beating mighty Iran by a solitary goal in the final. With Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru watching from the stands, it was a proud moment for the newly independent nation. The team, skippered by Sailen Manna and coached by SA Rahim, had some highly skilful players in the squad, but the man who made the difference in the final was diminutive, but prolific striker S Mewalal. His fine second half volley clinched the deal in favour of the hosts.

1956 Melbourne Olympics: A Surprise Semifinal Spot

India in action at the 1956 Olympics.

Four years ago in Helsinki Olympics, India courted disaster as they suffered a humiliating first round defeat. Yet in Melbourne, India, captained by Samar Banerjee, reached the semifinals and eventually finished fourth. The 4-2 victory over hosts Australia with Neville D'Souza scoring a hat-trick was the high point of India's campaign. He remains the only Indian to score a hat-trick in the Olympics. This was the period when coach SA Rahim started building up a team, and a system, that finally resulted in India doing creditably in Olympics and winning the gold medal in 1962 Asian Games, Jakarta.

1962 Asian Games: Persuasion and Determination

Indian players exult after winning gold at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games.

It was indeed one of Indian football’s greatest moments in the post-Independence era. The Government was initially reluctant to clear the team for the Jakarta Games, but relented after much persuasion. The team, however, led by super-skilled inside forward Chuni Goswami, brought glory for the country as they defeated South Korea in the final to win the gold medal. With a hostile crowd of close to hundred thousand rooting for India’s rivals, Rahim Sahib’s wards scored two early goals to win the match 2-1. While redoubtable Pradeep Kumar Banerjee, more famous as PK, opened the account, Jarnail Singh, slammed the second with a powerful shot.

1964 Asian Cup: Impressive Run Continues

India lift the second-placed trophy after finishing 2nd in the 1964 Asian Cup in Israel.

After winning the Asian Games gold in Jakarta 1962, India continued to impress at the continental level when they finished second in Asian Cup. In the four-team round robin final rounds, the only match Chuni Goswami’s boys lost was against hosts Israel. The other two ties against South Korea and Hong Kong were duly won. However, the team this time had a British coach in Harry Wright as legendary SA Rahim, the man credited for building up this side, lost his battle against cancer a year before. Also missing from the squad was mercurial striker Tulsidas Balaram, who, by then, had retired from football on medical advice.

1970 Asian Games: ‘Asia’s Finest’

The Indian Football Team poses for a photo with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi after clinching bronze at the 1970 Asian Games.

India won their last Asian Games football medal - a bronze - in Bangkok after beating 1968 Olympic medallist Japan by a solitary goal. Despite suffering the setback of not having key striker Inder Singh in the squad because of an injury, Syed Nayeemuddin led a balanced side in Bangkok. The team had some quality forwards like Subhas Bhowmick, Mohammed Habib, Magan Singh, Shyam Thapa and Amar Bahadur. But the man who stood out in the bronze medal match against Japan was right-back Sudhir Karmakar. In the end, the then FIFA president Sir Stanley Rous took the microphone to call Karmakar “Asia’s best defender”.

1971 Pesta Sukan Cup: Turning Disappointment to Delight

The Indian players sing the National Anthem at the official dinner after winning the Pesta Sukan Cup in 1971.

After suffering an unpleasant defeat in the 1971 Merdeka, the Indian team was advised by the AIFF officials to return home immediately. The team management, however, decided against it and travelled to Singapore to play the Pesta Sukan tournament, despite injuries to several key players. As the fans back in India watched anxiously, the players performed in style to win the title jointly with Republic of Vietnam (South) after a goalless draw. India’s finest performance was against Malaysia, a stunning 6-0 victory, with Subhas Bhowmick and Mohammed Habib at their best. It was, incidentally, India’s last triumph at the Asian level in the last century.

1974 Asian Youth Championship: Proud Champions

India became joint-winners of the Asian Youth Championship with Iran.

Led by prolific scorer Shabbir Ali, India surprised their fans when they returned home with the title, although jointly with Iran after a 2-2 draw in the final. It was a memorable win in the sense, very few expected the team to return home with a podium finish, leave alone the joint champions’ tag. Coached by Arun Ghosh and SA Salam, the team, however, was a combination of wonderfully skilful footballers and many of them, like CC Jacob, AC Devraj, P Kumar, Prasun Banerjee, Harjinder Singh and Shabbir Ali, soon became part of the senior national team in the years to come.

1980 Asian Women’s Championship: The Women Take Charge

The Indian Women's Team ahead of their Asian Women's Championship campaign in Kochi, in 1980.

India made its first appearance in continental championship in women’s football as hosts of the Asian Women’s Championship in 1980. Two teams were fielded— India S, the primary team, and India N, the second-string unit, at the EMS Stadium in Kozhikode. While the inexperienced India N could only gain one victory, India S excelled in the tournament, finishing the Group Stage without any defeat, and subsequently qualifying for the semifinals, where they defeated Hong Kong 3-1 to make it to the summit clash against the Republic of China (Chinese Taipei). While the final ended in a 0-2 defeat, this performance will always be remembered as a milestone in women’s football as it was the first appearance of the Blue Tigresses in a major tournament, which yielded a second-place finish.

1981 Asian Women’s Championship: First Medal Away from Home

The Blue Tigresses won their first medal away from home, a bronze, at the Asian Women's C'ship in Hong Kong. (Photo Courtesy: Chitra G/ Representational Image)

Two years later, the Blue Tigresses made their first appearance in the Asian Women’s Championship away from home in Hong Kong, where they finished top of their group. After this, a defeat at the hands of Thailand in the semi-finals meant they faced hosts Hong Kong in the bronze medal match, which was won 2-0 by India, to keep their medal run in the competition alive.

1983 Asian Women’s Championship: A Hattrick of Asian Medals

India completed a hat-trick of medals in the Women's Asian Championship in 1983. (Photo Courtesy: Chitra G/ Representational Image)

Moving on to Thailand two years later, the Indian Women’s Team performed admirably in the round-robin stage, finishing second, to make it to the Final, alongside the hosts. However, they faced a defeat in the summit clash against Thailand, settling for another silver medal, their second silver in three championships.

1984 Asian Cup: Return to Top-Flight

Shabbir Ali leaps for the ball in India's Asian Cup qualifiers against Yemen in Kolkata.

It took India another 20 years to make the final rounds of the Asian Cup again. The achievement, however, came in the most creditable fashion as India battled hard in the four-team qualifiers in Kolkata to make the final rounds in Singapore. Captained by Sudip Chatterjee, India defeated Yemen Arab Republic and Pakistan and lost the other game against South Korea by a solitary goal. Legendary Yugoslav coach Ciric Milovan was at the helm of affairs with the Indian team and he certainly did wonders with the boys. In the final rounds, India lost to UAE and China, but surprised everyone by holding mighty Iran goalless.

2002 LG Cup: Comeback in Style

India exult after winning the LG Cup in 2002.

After failing to make a mark at the international circuit for many years, India finally won a trophy defeating hosts Vietnam 3-2 in a seesaw battle. Captain Bhaichung Bhutia had a great campaign with a team that mostly consisted of youngsters. It was a kind of turning point for Indian football, under newly-appointed coach Stephen Constantine, who joined less than two months before India left for Ho Chi Minh City to play the LG Cup. In the final, India trailed Vietnam 0-2, before Bhaichung brought his side back with two fine goals and Abhishek Yadav took the score to 3-2 minutes from extra-time.

2007 Nehru Cup: Triumphant in Delhi

Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri lead the celebrations for India after winning the Nehru Cup at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi, in 2007.

The iconic Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi was in its full glory in 2007, after being refurbished for the Nehru Cup, where it played host to Syria, Kyrgyz Republic, Bangladesh and Cambodia, along with the Blue Tigers. India finished second after the round robin stage, having only suffered a 2-3 loss at the hands of table-toppers Syria. However, as the two sides faced off in the final, it was a solitary goal by NP Pradeep that gave India it’s maiden Nehru Cup title.

2008 AFC Challenge Cup: Elite Return

Victory in the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup ensured India's Qualification for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup.

This victory was a game changer for Indian football in recent years. As Sunil Chhetri struck a stunning hat-trick in the final against Tajikistan at Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium, Bob Houghton’s India made the final rounds of the 2011 AFC Asian Cup after 24 years. Chhetri was the hero in the semifinal too against Myanmar in Hyderabad. Played under heavy rain and a slushy pitch, the youngster took the field with stitches on his forehead, but jumped in the nick of the time to head in the only goal of the match. The final was shifted to Delhi, and Chhetri once again displayed his firepower to help India win the title. In the final rounds in 2011 Qatar, India fought gallantly and goalkeeper Subrata Paul was nicknamed “Spiderman” for his exceptional performance. 

2009 Nehru Cup: Turning Defeats into Victory

India after winning the 2009 Nehru Cup Trophy.

The final against Syria was truly a tough battle especially after the visitors cancelled Renedy Singh's lead in extra time. But the Indians held their nerves to clinch the issue in tie-breaker. India didn’t have a great run in the league stage as they lost two matches against Lebanon and Syria to make the final with just six points. In the final, however, Bob Houghton’s men played a different game and were unlucky not to clinch the issue in the stipulated time. The tie-breaker went down to wire before Subrata Paul put on the hero’s cap with three saves to give India a famous triumph at home.

2012 Nehru Cup: Winning a Cliffhanger

India lift the Nehru Cup in 2012.

The last edition of the Nehru Cup was again held in New Delhi, this time at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, as India put up victories against Syria and the Maldives in their first two matches before a stalemate against Nepal and a 0-1 defeat to Cameroon meant they finished second after the completion of the round robin stage. The final between India and Cameroon was an enthralling affair with the visitors taking a 2-1 lead in the second half, before Sunil Chhetri’s 78th minute goal took the match into extra time. After it ended on level terms, the match went into penalty shootout, where the Indians converted all their five spot-kicks to win the Nehru Cup for the third time.

2016-2017: Unbeaten in 12 matches

Sandesh Jhingan leads the chants for India at the Mumbai Football Arena.

A giant leap of faith saw the Blue Tigers rise from 173 (March 2015) to 96 in (July 2017) in the FIFA Rankings under Head Coach Stephen Constantine. Breaking all barriers, the Blue Tigers stayed unbeaten for an official 12-match streak from June 2016 to November 2017, a record which stands till now. During the phase, the Indian National Team achieved some noteworthy results including breaking a 64-year jinx of beating Myanmar in Myanmar, an away draw against China, a 4-1 victory against Puerto Rico, amongst others.

2018 Hero Intercontinental Cup: Milestones and Targets

India lift the Hero Intercontinental Cup in 2018 at the Mumbai Football Arena.

India wrapped up an outstanding performance in the Hero Intercontinental Cup at the Mumbai Football Arena in Mumbai, where they faced the likes of Kenya, New Zealand, and the Chinese Taipei. While the Blue Tigers defeated Kenya and Chinese Taipei in the group stage, a defeat at the hands of New Zealand was not enough to keep them out of the final, where they faced Kenya. In the midst of this, their match against Kenya also marked a milestone in the career of captain Sunil Chhetri, who completed 100 internationals. A brace by Chhetri ensured a victory for the Blue Tigers in the final.

2018 AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifiers: One Step Closer

Ashalata Devi vies for the ball in India's match against Bangladesh.

The Indian Women’s Team created history in 2018 when they made it to Round 2 of the AFC Women’s Olympic Qualifiers for the first time, finishing second in Group C, where they faced the likes of Nepal, Bangladesh and hosts Myanmar. While they lost their last match 1-2 against the hosts, a previous draw against Nepal (1-1) and a massive victory against Bangladesh (7-1) were enough to take India through. The same team further went on to script a perfect record in South Asia, winning it's fifth consecutive SAFF Championship in 2019.

2019 Asian Cup: Hope

Indian players after defeating Thailand 4-1 in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup.

True, India didn't qualify for the second round, but the formidable victory in the opener against a skilful Thailand firmly established the fact that Indian football was on the rise again. The last time India won a match in the final rounds of the Asian Cup was in 1964. In UAE, the Group was a tough affair, but India raised hopes after defeating Thailand. In the final group match against Bahrain, India needed only a point to make it to the knockout stage. They did everything to achieve the target, but conceded a last-minute penalty and lost by a solitary goal.

2022 AFC Asian Cup Qualifiers: Perfect Qualification

Sunil Chhetri after scoring against Hong Kong at the VYBK in Kolkata.

Never before India made the Asian Cup final rounds with such commanding performance - three back-to-back wins underlined India's superiority in the qualifiers in Kolkata. True, all three rivals, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Hong Kong, were ranked below India, but they showed enough grit and determination to stop India in their tracks. But then, Igor Stimac’s boys had other ideas. Captain Sunil Chhetri once again was in tremendous form – his outstanding free-kick against Afghanistan was a testimony of his versatility and ability to rise to the occasion even after representing the country for 17 years. Having finished at the top of the group, India qualified for the AFC Asian Cup for the fifth time in history.  

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