The 1951 Asian Games in New Delhi was meant to announce to the world the emergence of a newly independent India. Much like Nelson Mandela at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, understood what a symbolic sporting victory could do for a nation trying to pick up the pieces.
The Indian football team, which had won many admirers at the 1948 London Olympics, was the star attraction. They beat Indonesia and Afghanistan convincingly to set up a final with Iran. With the score deadlocked at 0-0, Nehru reportedly walked into the Indian dressing room at half-time to have a chat, especially with star centre forward, Sheoo Mewalal. It seemed to have the desired effect. Mewalal scored the lone goal in the second half and a packed National Stadium witnessed a historic victory. He also emerged the top scorer at the tournament, scoring in all three games.
Sheoo Mewalal was born in Bihar and not unlike a lot of footballers from this region, found his way to Calcutta. He was only seven when he moved though, his father having found a job at Fort William, the centre for the British army. He learnt the basics of the game watching these soldiers and soon had a first coach in Sergeant Barnett, who was impressed by his talent.
Barnett found him a place in the Morning Star club and his career took off from there. He graduated to the second division of the Calcutta Football League and word of his prowess in front of goal spread. J.C. Guha of East Bengal approached him and was politely turned down because Mewalal’s dream was to play for the club he supported as a child, Mohun Bagan. In a sign of the times, Guha informed Mohun Bagan’s coach about this development and the dream move transpired.
Footballers were not paid enough in those times and Mewalal stayed at Mohun Bagan for only one season. In 1947, he moved to Eastern Bengal Railways and stayed there for most of his career. He found a place in India’s first post-independence squad and was top scorer in the team’s tour of Europe, scoring 18 goals, including two against Ajax Amsterdam.
Mewalal was a certified goal-machine. He ended his career in 1958 with a reported 1032 goals and 32 hat-tricks in official and exhibition matches. Fifty years later, he passed away in a Kolkata hospital after having initially been refused admission. India’s first bonafide star striker was treated with general apathy by officials throughout his career and in retirement. He died the same way, forgotten and discarded by a history he helped write.