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Despite boasting the second largest population in the world, India has seen very few players travel to Europe to play in professional leagues.
Only 31 Indian players in the history of the game have qualified for a professional club in Europe, and most of them have been hidden in the lower ranks.
In 1999, Bhaichung Bhutia became the first Indian player to sign a contract with a European club when he joined Bury in the English Second Division.
This was seen as a huge step forward for India and inspired national pride, but Bhutia, hailed as “God’s gift to Indian football”, played 46 games in north-west England before returning home.
Although Bhutia was the first signing, he was not the first Indian to play for a European club.
The honor belongs to the legendary Mohammed Salim, who achieved the feat 63 years ago when he played twice in Scotland for one of Europe’s biggest clubs, Celtic.
Salim made history by never wearing football boots. Instead he played barefoot with only bandages around his feet.
A message without shoes
Salim was born in 1904 in Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, in north-eastern India. He started working as a pharmacist, but this was not his real calling, and he turned to his true love, football.
In 1926, at the age of 22, he joined Chittaranjan Football Club before moving on to Mohammedan Sporting Club, Sporting Union, East Bengal Club and Aryan Club.
It was on his return to the Mohammedan Sporting Club in 1934 that he enjoyed his greatest success, helping them win the first of five consecutive Calcutta Football League championships.
This was a time when India was struggling for independence from British colonial rule, and the Calcutta League had been defeated only by British units, often drawn from the British army, including the Durham Light Infantry and the North Staffordshire Regiment.
The Mohammedan title in 1934 was a great symbolic moment as the first time the Indian movement had won.
“Many Indians took up football as a response to British colonialism,” said Boria Majumdar of the International Journal of the History of Sport. “The Indians played barefoot, and despite this, they defeated the English men wearing shoes, which was considered as proof that the Indians were not inferior to the British.”
After winning his third title with Mohammedan in 1936, Salim was selected to represent the Indian team to play two exhibition games for China before that year’s Olympics in Berlin.
Salim’s Chinese opponents praised his performance in the first game, but before the second game, he mysteriously disappeared, prompting the Indian Football Association to place advertisements in newspapers asking for information about his whereabouts.
Salim was on his way to Glasgow to try and arrange a trial with Scottish giants and champions Celtic.
Salim’s brother Hasheem who runs a shop in Scotstoun west of Glasgow is believed to have been on holiday in Calcutta at the time and after seeing his brother’s behavior against the Chinese, persuaded Salim to board a British train and return to Scotland.
Hasheem spoke to legendary Celtic manager Willie Maley, who was in charge for 43 years from 1897 to 1940 and won 30 major trophies.
“A great player from India has come by train,” Hasheem told Maley. “Can you be tested with him please?” But there is a small problem – Salim plays barefoot.”
At the end of a long period of leadership, Maley became interested in this and decided to impeach Salim.
The Scottish Football Association had to give permission for competitive matches to be played barefoot. Before the game, Celtic supporter Jimmy McMenemy carefully wrapped Salim’s feet in bandages, which were famously photographed by an artist.
More than just curiosity
On August 28, 1936, Salim played for Celtic against Galston in an Alliance League match at Celtic Park in front of 7,000 fans. Despite being the only player on the pitch with no shoes, Salim wowed the crowd with his skill and tricks on the right and scored three assists in a comfortable 7-1 win.
“Salim was undoubtedly the highlight of the Alliance game at Celtic Park last night,” wrote former Celtic player Alec Bennett in the Record. “I suspect more people came out of curiosity than anything else. Wasn’t it something special to see a blind man wearing a Celtic jersey and, moreover, doing his thing in bare feet?”
“Celtic’s support made up their minds about the Indian during the game: The game didn’t last long, but the crowd started to “surround” him and marveled at his cunning,” said Bennett. “He hugged the rope a lot, it’s true, and naturally he didn’t take any risks, but in passing he seemed to be able to place the ball at will, while his crossing of the ball was, to say the least, just amazing.”
In the Daily Express, the headline read, “Indian Juggler – New Style”, above a sports report that was full of praise for Salim: “The ten-finger twinkling of Salim, the Celtic FC player from India, put the crowd to sleep last night. He catches the ball on his big toe, lets it drop to his little toe, spins it, hops with one foot around the defender, and then throws the ball into the middle where he just sends it into the goal.
Before Salim’s next game, The Evening Times raved about his talent, showing a picture of him in Celtic gear and telling its readers he was “one to watch”.
Two weeks after his departure, Salim drew 5,000 people to watch Celtic’s Reserve team play Hamilton Academicals, where he scored from the penalty spot in a 5-1 win.
“The barefoot Indian punched the ball hard to the left of the goalkeeper who, although he managed to catch it, was unable to keep it from going into the net,” said the Record.
“Great cheers greeted the Indian’s goal but Salim did not show his conviction,” said the newspaper. “… It was clear that the main attraction was Salim. ‘Give the ball to Salim’ was the slogan of the crowd, but Celtic’s players did not overwork the Indian, who crosses the ball beautifully, but is not a complete player.
The Celtic board were happy with Salim’s attendance and income from reserve matches and promised to give him 5 percent of future receipts.
But he was more than average, and the ambitious Maley wanted to develop him as a player and signed him for the 1936-37 season.
Protecting the family name
Salim, was homesick and, after these two matches, decided to return to Calcutta and resume playing for the Mohammedan Sporting Club, where he won two more titles in 1937 and 1938.
The brief experience stayed with him, and in 1949, he wrote to the Evening Times to obtain a copy of Maley’s book The Story of Celtic, in which he was briefly mentioned.
Little is known about Salim’s early years before his death in 1989 at the age of 76, but in an interview in 2002, his son Rashid recalled that he arrived at Celtic when his father was ill and needed medical attention.
“I didn’t want to ask for money. It was the only way to know if Mohammed Salim was still alive in their memory. I was very surprised when I received a letter from the group. Inside was £100 in cash. I was happy, not because I got the money, but because my father is still proud to be at Celtic. I didn’t even spend money on writing it and I will keep it until I die.
“I just want my father’s name to be mentioned as the first Indian footballer to play abroad. That’s the only thing I want and nothing else.”