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Memories of Mohammed Salim, India's first international footballer

To mark the week of his 40th death anniversary, Lounge looks back at the first Indian footballer to play professionally in Europe and his journey to Celtic Football Club

The Celtic Park 'Parkhead' stadium where Mohammed Salim played two matches in 1936-37. (Photo credit: Alamy)

Did he ever tell you why he played barefoot, I ask Rashid Ahmed, the son of the late Indian footballer Mohammed Salim. “I think he just had this habit of playing barefoot,” says Ahmed, over the phone from Kolkata. “One strange thing with him was, when he used to play football in the rainy season, not a drop of mud would fall on his clothes. At the end of the match, other players would come and smear mud on his back. He was so perfect in his practice. He never used to slip,” the 73-year-old recalls.

Before Bhaichung Bhutia played for Bury FC, Sunil Chhetri found his way to Sporting Lisbon’s B team and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu signed for Norwegian club Stabæk, it was Mohammed Salim, a fabled legend from Mohammedan Sporting, who represented Celtic FC for a short stint during 1936-37.

He was Celtic’s first Asian player, and the first from undivided India to play for a European club. This week marks his 40th death anniversary—he died on 5 November 1980, after a stroke. But his achievements as a footballer who spearheaded Mohammedan Sporting’s golden years and mesmerised fans in Glasgow, live on.

Salim was born in 1904 in the Metiabruz, Garden Reach area of Calcutta (now Kolkata) and started his professional football career at the age of 18. He played for the likes of Chittaranjan Club, Bowbazar Club, Sporting Union and the Aryans Club but it was at Mohammedan Sporting that Salim made the biggest impact as a dazzling winger. There is no record on how many appearances he made for the club over three different stints, but he was part of a trail-blazing squad that won five consecutive Calcutta Football League titles between 1934-38. The 1930s were undoubtedly one of the highest points in Mohammedan Sporting’s history and Salim was a crucial part of this phase.

After their 1936 league title triumph, Salim was picked in an All India XI to face the Chinese Olympic side that was visiting Kolkata to play exhibition matches against select teams from the Indian Football Association, which is now the state association for the sport in West Bengal. Salim excelled in the first match, a 1-1 stalemate, against the Chinese side. The Indian forward line, apart from Salim, featured some stellar names—Syed Abdul Rahim and Abbas Mirza, among others.

But before the second match, Salim went missing. Multiple anecdotes, including one from Ahmed, note that Salim was persuaded by a close friend, Hasheem, to accompany him to the UK and try his luck in European football. There’s no clarity on what Hasheem actually did or his actual relationship with Salim. According to Ahmed, Hasheem was in the shipping industry and had some “known sources” enough to get Salim a trial with Celtic FC, which was then being managed by legendary coach Willie Maley, under whom the club won 30 major honours.

“At the time, the Scottish media seemed unaware that he (Salim) was already a successful footballer back home in India. They also believed erroneously that he was a sailor — when in actual fact he had come all the way to Scotland in the hope of playing a trial match… There was also a lot of confusion about his real name,” says Paul McQuade from The Shamrock, a retro fanzine by Celtic supporters. “Salim was very well received by Scottish football fans and there was a lot of interest about the fact he played in bandaged feet and not football boots as was the norm here,” McQuade says on email. In fact, one of Salim’s rare pictures in the club’s famous white and green colours shows his bandaged feet being inspected by then Celtic assistant manager and trainer Jimmy McMenemy.

Mohammed Salim (left). One of his rare pictures in the club’s famous white and green colours shows his bandaged feet being inspected by then Celtic assistant manager and trainer Jimmy McMenemy.
Mohammed Salim (left). One of his rare pictures in the club’s famous white and green colours shows his bandaged feet being inspected by then Celtic assistant manager and trainer Jimmy McMenemy.

Maley initially batted away the idea of giving Salim a trial, but eventually agreed. There were, however, some complications. The trial took time to be set up given that permissions were needed from the local football federation to allow Salim to play barefoot. According to a 2013 article from The Shamrock, the trial went so well that the club members and coaches were “convinced an exceptional talent had arrived”.

Salim was chosen to play for Celtic in reserve Alliance League ties against Galston football club and the Hamilton Academical. He managed three assists and one goal (scored from the penalty spot) but it was his performances, especially his ball control and ability to deliver pin-point crosses, that won over the fans who saw him play at Celtic Park, also known as Parkhead. “There is every indication that he was given a warm welcome at Celtic and, like any football club, there was an eagerness to appreciate a new talent and see if he could add something to the team. In that respect, his fine performances for the Celtic reserve team opened many eyes that talent could be found in the most unexpected places,” says Dunblane-based football historian Andy Mitchell, who adds how Salim would have encountered “significant cultural differences” when he arrived in Glasgow—the language, “the Scottish accent is strong,” and not to mention the food and climate.

It was his performances, especially his ball control and ability to deliver pin-point crosses, that won over the fans who saw him play at Celtic Park, also known as Parkhead.

Despite reportedly getting offers to extend his stay in Europe, Salim opted to return to India, just in time to help Mohammedan Sporting win a fourth Calcutta Football League title. A fifth title followed in 1938. Mitchell says today Salim is still remembered in Scotland as a pioneer who could have gone on to achieve much greater things if he had persevered.

In his 2015 book, Nation At Play: A History Of Sport In India, author Ronojoy Sen mentions how Salim wasn’t the only Mohammedan Sporting player gaining recognition in the late 1930s. Defenders Jumma Khan and Noor Mohamed became household names after featuring in tea advertisements.

It’s not easy to trace Salim’s journey. Historical anecdotes are scattered across books, journals, fanzines and defunct “Indian Football Hall of Fame” websites. Photographs from his time at Celtic are also few and far between. “People know him, of course. But most of the people from his generation have passed away. The younger generation, some of them, have come to know about him now,” says Ahmed, who adds that a biopic and book on Salim’s journey are in the works.

In the world of sports, players can achieve the impossible with fans on their side. In August 1936, by winning Celtic hearts, Mohammed Salim did exactly that.

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