Indian Football’s Finest Hour – 1962 Asiad Gold in the Shadow of Political Tensions

With the Indian football team for the 2023 Asian Games finally announced and – as mentioned by RevSportz – including the three seniors, Sunil Chhetri, Gurpreet Sandhu and Sandesh Jhingan, it is pertinent to look back at Indian football’s finest hour, the gold-medal winning effort in the 1962 Asian Games in Jakarta. However, this campaign was anything but pleasant, a story not much known in sports circles.

The Asian Games was organised, and continues to be organised, under the larger umbrella of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). They are Asia’s mini-Olympics and, as in the story of the Olympics itself, the Asiad is a playground for international power plays and diplomatic one-upmanship. If the 1951 Delhi Asiad was about India staking a claim to Asian leadership, the fourth Asian Games in Jakarta in 1962 – followed by Sukarno’s revolt against the IOC with his Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GANEFO) in 1963 – were about Indonesia laying claim to that legacy. The story of GANEFO is the story of Sukarno’s efforts to do a Nehru and become the pre-eminent leader of the post-colonial countries of Asia and Africa.

India was central to this fascinating interlude in the global Olympic movement. When Indonesia failed to allow Taiwanese and Israeli athletes to take part in Jakarta, it was Indian officials who took on Sukarno’s regime, and the resultant confrontation led to Indonesia’s expulsion from the IOC. Sukarno, with Chinese support, responded with the creation of GANEFO, explicitly linking it to his global leadership aims. Again, it was Indian officials who lobbied the hardest against him at the IOC. China, which had just humiliated India in the border war of 1962, played a crucial role in funding and supporting Sukarno. Seven years after the bonhomie of Bandung, the Asian Games became the arena for the fight for Asian leadership. India and Indonesia were the protagonists, and China the silent mover in the backdrop.

On the morning of September 3, the Indian Embassy in Jakarta was ‘stormed’ by an irate mob. Half an hour later, by 10:30am., another mob gathered outside the hotel of GD Sondhi, the man who had led the Indian opposition against Indonesia. They were in search of the Indian who wanted to withdraw Asiad status from the Games in their city. They searched the hotel room by room for the hapless Mr Sondhi who, fortunately, had left just a short while earlier. With Jakarta now unsafe, Sondhi flew out of the city that very evening and returned to India.

Also Read: I am Obsessed with Taking India to the World Cup: Igor Stimac

The day after Sondhi’s enforced escape from the city, India were playing in the football finals. But anti-Indian passions were so high that the Indian team was treated virtually like an enemy nation. As the official Indian report put it, “Unfortunately, it was worse than the worst for when we…looked like winning a very large section of the crowd of a hundred thousand persistently booed the team. Not satisfied, it continued to boo when the Victory Ceremony to present the Gold medals to our team was performed. The National Anthem was drowned in the booing.”

Ironically, India’s greatest success in international football was eclipsed by what was until then the greatest crisis to engulf India–Indonesia diplomatic relations. The booing continued even at the closing ceremony when the Indian team entered the stadium for the march-past.

If the first Asiad in Delhi had sounded the drumbeats of the Indian bid for Asian leadership, the fourth Asiad in Jakarta represented in microcosm the challenges it faced from Indonesia. Just seven years after Nehru and Sukarno jointly declared their bid for Asian-African unity in the Indonesian town of Bandung, an Indonesian crowd sacked the Indian embassy, forced the Indian sports representative to flee Jakarta and booed not just the Indian football team but also the national anthem.

To win gold defeating South Korea in this politically charged environment was no mean feat. It is time to remember this win more because there are a lot of similarities between what happened in 1962 and now over the issue of sending the Indian football team to Asian Games.

This is how The Times of India reported the final, “The brilliant Jakarta sun shone fiercely on the arena in the Senajan stadium here this afternoon, but it could not dim India’s great moment of triumph in the Asian Games soccer championship with India’s ascending soccer star long in eclipse after the success in New Delhi in 1951 reaching its zenith with a victory over Korea that was as surprising as it was welcome. And to think that the footballers were almost offloaded as expendable cargo from the contingent to Jakarta.”

While it is not expected that the team led by Sunil Chhetri will finish on the podium, every Indian football fan will be hoping for a credible finish from the team to sustain the momentum the sport now has in India. And for the current team, there can be no better motivation than to find out what happened in Jakarta in 1962.  

Also Read: “It Means a Lot to See this Wave of Support for Indian Football” – Igor Stimac

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *