There was a time in history when football served to unify the Indian army – and the country. Under the guidance of legendary Syed Abdul Rahim, India had become one of the best teams in Asia. City Spidey rekindles the glorious past of Indian football and the country’s memorable performance in 1956 and 1960 Olympics in a tête-à-tête with 1960 Olympian footballer, SS Hakeem, at his hostel in Sports Authority of India.
‘It felt like a win’
Hakeem shares, “I was not a part of the 1956 Melbourne team, but do remember every detail of our team’s win. We got the fourth position and my father was the coach. In Rome, in 1960, I was a part of the team and it was a matter of immense pride for me. Though we finished sixth, we played extraordinarily against giants like Hungry, France and Peru. The victory in Rome, I feel, was way more important in terms of performance.”
During the 1960 Olympics, India had to play against Hungary in the semi-finals. The entire country had braced itself for a defeat by a margin of 10-12 goals. Hakeem recollects, “We were trained hard so that we could manage a draw or even a loss by minimum margin. We lost by a margin of 1-2 goals! We were defeated but we had won the heart of Europe. The entire European media declared us a dark horse. It was a great surprise for all that we could stop Hungry at 1-2. It felt like a win. We had managed to astonish Europe and our team was all over the papers .This was the best-ever performance in the last 100 years.”
Moments of pride
Hakeem remembers his stay in Rome like it was yesterday – the proud mothballed memories never leaving his side. Recounting one such experience, he says, “When we were marching on the grounds, I felt like I had achieved everything – all that I ever desired. I remember meeting our icon Mohammad Ali. He had this singular habit -- he would roam the Olympic village and pay sudden visits at camps. One night, at around 1.30 am, he dropped into our room and we were speechless! He talked to us and praised our game.”
Worried about the future of such a great game in this country, he puts forth pertinent questions: We have the same climate as South America and Africa, why then are we not producing footballers? Why after 1960, the country never qualified for the Olympics again -- even after more than half a century? He feels government schools and the mohalla gallis are the breeding grounds for footballers. He adds, “All great players are from the streets -- Pele, Ronaldinho, Rivaldo, Eusébio. These kids need to be given a chance. What is required is to make football compulsory in schools, and bring back those primary-level tournaments, which used to be organised in the country decades back. Why are the authorities not doing anything about the game, which, at one point, had brought home a gold medal for India at Asian Games?”
But he never lets his frustration get the better of him. Though in his seventies, he still loves spending time on the ground. “I spend an hour with the ball every day. I take 70-80 kicks on the ground, which is the most important routine of my day. I feel young in my mind. Agreed, physically I am not at the same efficiency levels, but in my mind and heart, I am still the Hakeem who played for India in Rome,” he says smiling broadly.