On 1 December 1956, at Melbourne’s Olympic Park Stadium, an Indian team lined up against Australia for a place in the semi-finals of the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in front of an overtly partisan home crowd. It was a miracle that the Indian team even participated at the Games. Prior to the tournament the Indian Olympics Association refused to sponsor their football team’s entry to the Olympics; they even demanded a certain deposit from the All India Football Federation (AIFF) with the threat of cancelling their entry.

The AIFF was also forced to make its own travel arrangements for the journey to Melbourne. AIFF president Pankaj Gupta arranged credit facilities from a travel company by remortgaging his house in Kolkata. This was just one of many incredible adversities Indian football faced on the road to its greatest ever triumph.

India became the first team from Asia to reach the last four at the Olympics. India’s success in 1956 was not a one off but it was the pinnacle of the nation’s “golden age” in the game; the seeds of this success were sown in 1948 when the newly independent country participated in the London Olympics. The Indian team played barefoot and received rave reviews when they narrowly lost to France.

With a fitter squad and a fresh tactical and philosophical approach towards the game, the Indian national team embarked on a decade long continental dominance in the 1950s. At the helm of this was a man way ahead of his time – Syed Abdul Rahim.

Early career as coach

Syed Abdul Rahim was born on 17 August 1909 in Hyderabad – a hotbed of football during that era. They produced great players like B.K. Iyengar, Riasat Ali, Aftab Ali, Sher Khan and Mehboob Khan who challenged the established order of Bengal football. Football in this region received patronage from royalty. As a player Rahim was part of the group which set up Qamar club, which became one of the best teams in the local league.

It was as an administrator and coach that he created his lasting legacy. He took over as secretary of the Hyderabad Football Association in 1943, holding the post till his death. Rahim started coaching at a time when formal coaching was almost non-existent. A teacher by profession, he was well-read, a practical psychologist, great tactician, motivator and disciplinarian. As a coach he turned Hyderabad City Police into arguably one of the greatest club teams in Indian football history. He also successfully coached Hyderabad/Andhra Pradesh in the Santosh Trophy before becoming the coach of the national team in late 1950.

Rahim’s coaching style was methodical. Moves were first theoretically explained on a blackboard and then rehearsed on the training ground till the players perfected them. Rahim ensured that his players’ conduct on the field and dedication were impeccable.

Like the late Sir Alf Ramsey, Rahim was always fiercely loyal to his players and had a very paternalistic attitude towards those he coached. In that respect he was very much an authoritarian figure.

National team and Golden Age

Rahim’s biggest achievements, perhaps, lay in his success with national team. India won four Quadrangular tournaments from 1952 to 1955 under Rahim. In the 1959 Merdeka Cup, India finished as unbeaten runners-up in the four-team final-round group.

India’s victory over Australia at the 1956 Melbourne Games became part of sporting folklore. India emphatically defeated the hosts 4-2 in the quarter-final to book a place in the semi-finals. But it was in the Asian Games that Rahim achieved his greatest glory. He guided India to two gold medals – the inaugural 1951 edition in Delhi and later, in 1962, in Jakarta.

The inaugural Asiad will go down as one of the finest moments for Indian football. India won their first major title by defeating favorites Iran 1-0 to win gold at the National Stadium in New Delhi, cheered on by a boisterous home crowd and watched by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

On their way to the 1962 Asian Games final, India defeated Thailand 4-1 and Japan 2-0, before beating a formidable South Vietnam 3-2 in an epic semi-final. The great team spirit and self-belief in that squad,  allied to the exemplary fitness levels they displayed were all testament to the bond Rahim had with his players during that time.

The Indian side showed remarkable dedication and adaptability to win the final 2-1 against the tournament favorites South Korea. Incidentally, in an earlier preliminary league match the Koreans had beaten India 2-0. The gold was a fitting but ill-timed farewell to the most influential figure in modern Indian football.

Under S.A. Rahim, India established their supremacy as the finest team in Asia. A team whose style and finesse was appreciated by the likes of Willy Meisl and Sir Stanley Rous.

A visionary

What made Rahim so special? There were several factors. In terms of tactics, Rahim was ahead of his time in Asia. In a country which still clutched on to the archaic 2-3-5 and British long ball tactics, it was Rahim who thought differently. He was an eager learner, in sync with the recent developments in the football world. And he was impressed by the style of perhaps the greatest football team of all time – Gustav Sebes’ Hungary, the “Magical Magyars”. He closely observed the team which won an Olympic gold medal in 1952. Rahim saw the revolutionary tactics used by his opponents – a withdrawn centre-forward. He slowly incorporated this new tactic in the national team.

He also adapted the three-back system; delaying it just enough to let his players get acclimatised. He had the ability to think outside-of-the-box and he was open to try out new systems and tactics.

He was also pragmatic in his approach to man management. He encouraged players to spend their free-time reading and thinking about the game. He was ruthless when it came to non-performers, often discarding established players who didn’t fit his team any longer. He deconstructed the 1948 Olympics team, assembling a new batch of players for the 1951 Asiad.

He had a knack for developing young players and groomed the likes of Chuni Goswami, Balram, Samir Banerjeee and Prashanta Sinha wonderfully. He was also renowned for his brilliant motivational skills. His teams often rejuvenated themselves after some tough talking during half-time break.

Fight against authority

Rahim’s appointment as the coach of the national team was not smooth. In that era, specialised football coaches were not very common in India. Coaching duties were handled by officials or team captains. In the 1948 London Olympics, India was led by an influential official – Balai Das Chatterjee. He initially opposed Rahim’s appointment. However, Rahim’s track record saw him through as he took over the team for the 1951 Asian Games.

The 1952 Olympic Games was an anti-climax. BD Chatterjee came to the fore, meddling with the affairs of the football team, reducing an ailed Rahim to a powerless spectator. Things didn’t end well, as India lost 10-1 to Yugoslavia.

That loss, in a way, was a blessing in disguise; it established Rahim as the unquestioned coach of the Indian team. He was given a free rein in selections as he built up his own team from scratch.

Rahim was a man who had immense belief in himself. Just before the selections for the 1956 Olympics took place, Hyderabad defeated Bombay in the final of the Santosh Trophy, winning the game 4-1. Rahim wanted to take more players from Hyderabad, deviating from the tradition of taking more players from Bengal. Bechu Dutta Roy, then a powerful official, was involved in a heated exchange with Rahim saying Hyderabad won only because Bengal didn’t make it to the final. An irate Rahim challenged Dutta Roy to organise a match between two sides. The match took place at the BNR ground in Kolkata, and Hyderabad won by three clear goals. Rahim’s faith was repaid by his players.

Contribution as an administrator

Apart from being the greatest ever Indian coach, Rahim was also a football administrator par excellence. He was an administrator whose focus was more on the grassroots level. He went about starting football tournaments all across Andhra, in different age groups. Tournaments like the Nizam Gold Cup and Majeed Challenge Shield paved the way for hordes of Hyderabad players who dominated Indian football. Most interestingly, Rahim knew the exact problems plaguing Indian football. He organised non-dribbling youth tournaments to encourage kids to sharpen their sprint speed, strength and stamina.

The non-dribbling tournaments also helped players to improve one-touch passing and combination play. There were also weaker-leg tournaments where a player was only allowed to kick and tackle with his weaker foot. This enabled players to become adept at using both feet.

His legacy

Syed Abdul Rahim died from cancer on June 11, 1963. He was the backbone of modern Indian football. After he passed away, the game slowly entered a comatose phase. The foundations he put in place were ignored. Indian administrators bungled the handling of football, especially in his beloved Hyderabad, a city which has slowly been erased from the game’s map. The football league which carries his name is stuck in a political quagmire. Some of the tournaments Rahim started were stopped a long time ago. The long ball tactics which Rahim discarded became the norm of the National team.

He was only 54 when he passed away, yet he had given Indian football almost all of its fondest memories during his lifetime.