India’s gold medal at football in the 1962 Asian Games is still considered to be our best ever result in the international arena. Wins against Japan and South Korea seem like a far-fetched dream today but both countries were overcome more than half a century back as India staked a claim to being the best team in the continent at the time.
What was already a tough assignment was made harder by the comments made by the head of the Indian contingent, G.L. Sondhi, who criticised the hosts, Indonesia for excluding both Israel and Taiwan for political reasons. As a result, India faced hostile crowds at its matches. Ace defender, Jarnail Singh, was conspicuous by the turban that he wore and would sit on the floor of the team bus whenever they travelled to escape unwanted attention.
Jarnail had already made his name at Mohun Bagan and despite being a defender, had achieved star status. In the 1960 Olympics at Rome, Jarnail was given the task of marking Florian Albert of Hungary, who would end up being the top scorer at the 1962 World Cup. He had Albert on a leash for large parts of the game, and though the forward scored once, Jarnail did his burgeoning reputation no harm.
By the time the semifinals came around in Indonesia, Jarnail had suffered a deep cut on his head and received six stitches. While this ruled him out from playing in defence, such was the influence Jarnail had on the team that he was considered indispensable and was deployed as a striker by coach, Syed Abdul Rahim. He held up the ball admirably against South Vietnam linking up play with the forwards and also scored a goal in a 3-2 win.
In the final, he scored again, this time with his head as India held on for a 2-1 win against South Korea in front of an openly hostile capacity crowd. His head was bleeding towards the end of the match but he refused to come off the pitch.
Jarnail Singh returned home a bigger hero than when he had left the shores. In a poll organised by Indian Express in 1963, he was voted the most popular sportsperson in India. Such was his reputation in the continent that he was selected as the captain of the Asian All Stars team in 1966. In 1970, he captained Punjab to their first Santosh Trophy win. He repeated the feat in 1974, this time as player coach.
Jarnail Singh put Punjab and Northern India on the footballing map like no one else has since and is rightly considered to be one of the most influential players the country has ever produced.