Soccer Was Once India’s Great Love. What Happened?

The country had all the ingredients to be formidable on the sport’s global stage. But one ill-fated decision changed its trajectory forever.

GettyImages-637427292 soccer
Bare-footed India players walk out at Ilford for their match against France (Photo by Barratts/PA Images via Getty Images)

Ayesha Le Breton


January 9, 2024


10 min

Legend has it that upon qualifying for the 1950 FIFA World Cup, the Indian national soccer team refused to play in cleats and never showed up. 

“I call it the biggest mistake in the history of the All India Football Federation,” said Arunava Chaudhuri, the former COO of Indian soccer club Mumbai City FC.

But India’s decision to withdraw from the tournament had little to do with footwear. Both fans and players continue to rue what could have been had India participated in the global tournament. Instead of large cutout posters of only Messi and Ronaldinho across the subcontinent, perhaps global Indian soccer stars would be ubiquitous, too. How did a sport once more popular than cricket in India get relegated to obscurity?

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