If the death of a person has ever coincided with the decline of football in a country, one wouldn’t have to look beyond India. From 1951 to 1964, the national team put forward various teams that mixed it up with the best in Asia, bringing laurels to the nation. The common thread that ran through these teams was one man, Syed Abdul Rahim.
After taking over as the manager of the national team in 1950, his team immediately delivered a gold medal at the inaugural Asian Games in 1951. However, it was only following the team’s debacle at the 1952 Olympics that he earned his keep. A 10-1 mauling at the hands of the mighty Yugoslavians convinced him to move away from the traditional 2-3-5 to a more modern 3-2-5 system with a withdrawn centre-forward.
Realising that he did not have the players for the European system yet, he gradually bedded it in. By the time the next edition of the Olympics came around, he had the team he wanted and India impressed with their best performance to date on the international stage. It may only have been a fourth placed finish, but the quality of the field was world class.
He was constantly keeping up with the rest of the world in terms of tactics. He also adopted a variant of the 4-2-4 formation that Hungary introduced and then Brazil made famous at the 1958 World Cup. While using these modern methods, what stood out was his pragmatism. He realised that Indian players had neither the technical prowess nor the physicality of the Europeans or Brazilians and always employed them in a manner that would suit his players.
It made him a trailblazer of sorts in Asia and his teams were often lauded for the quality of football they played. His final bow came at the 1962 Asian Games at Jakarta. A cancer stricken Rahim had to contend with numerous injuries to his players and improvised brilliantly, most famously when he converted centre-back Jarnail Singh into a striker for the semifinal and final. Jarnail scored in both games. The gold medal won at those Games is still considered to be India’s greatest triumph from a results perspective.
Rahim Saab, as he was popularly called, passed away in 1963 and Indian football took decades to recover from that setback. The Englishman, Harry Wright, took Rahim’s team to a second placed finish in the 1964 Asian Cup. He struggled to make an impact however and left soon after.
Between 1964 and 1972, India did not have a permanent manager. A decade is a long time in football and the game in the country fell into an abyss. A major power in Hyderabad football, of which Rahim was a doyen, fell off the map forever.
Today, the Syed Abdul Rahim Award is handed out at the end of every season to the best coach in the I-League. Some of India’s finest managers played for and were influenced by him and he is rightly called the architect of modern Indian football.