Celtic Football Club was the first European club to sign an Indian.
Contrary to what people say, Baichung Bhutia is not the first Indian to transfer to a European club. The correct answer would be Mohammad Salim. Being an Indian, from Calcutta, it was in the 1930’s when Salim was signed to play for Celtic.
At the time Salim was born, Indians were still under the British rule, although the fact that they played barefoot, and didn't have enough players, they managed to defeat the Englishmen, who wore boots.
A member of the renowned Mohammeden Sporting Club, Salim had claimed five consecutive Calcutta senior league titles. Following his title win in 1936, Salim was requested to take part in two friendlies.
His cousin, Hasheem from England, was visiting Calcutta at the time and watched his first friendly. After seeing Salim's spectacular display, Hasheem insisted Salim try his luck at European football.
It must have been tough to take a barefoot, amateur Indian footballer seriously, but due to Hashim’s determination and diligence, the Celtic manager settled with giving him a trial. Salim's skill amazed him, and he decided to play him in a match against Hamilton Academical Football Club.
Soon, he astonished the crowd and supporters alike—establishing himself to be immensely talented. Salim played for a few months in Scotland, after which he said he got homesick and sought to go back to India.
After returning, he played for his preferred Mohammeden Sporting Club in the Calcutta football league.
Rashid, Salim’s son, later revealed that his father was undoubtedly desired by Celtic, "Celtic tried to persuade my father to stay by offering to organise a charity match in his honour, giving him five percent of the gate proceeds. My father did not realise what five percent would amount to, and said he would give his share to orphans who were to be special invitees for the match. Five per cent came to £1,800 [colossal money then] but although my father was astonished, he kept to his word," Rashid said.
Salim’s story should be legendary, but it seems to be buried deep within the pages of the past—fading away slowly into a distant memory.
It is astounding and unjust that he is not referred to as the initial Indian to play for a European team. In his obituary, his celebrated time with Celtic FC seemed to have been forgotten, and only the Indian side of his football has been brought to the reader’s eye.
Several years later, Rashid wrote to Celtic informing them about his father’s distress and poor health due to old age. He wrote of the money required for Salim’s treatment.
Rashid said, "I had no intention of asking for money. It was just a ploy to find out if Mohammed Salim was still alive in their memory. To my amazement, I received a letter from the club. Inside was a bank draft for £100. I was delighted, not because I received the money but because my father still holds a pride of place in Celtic. I have not even cashed the draft and will preserve it till I die."
Salim was an exceptional player whose role was key in bringing his first team, Mohammeden to its' glory. Not only exceptional at winning games, Salim also managed to capture hearts of fans and critics, too.
Although Salim holds a place in the heart of the Celtics, it astonishes me that he is hardly recognised in the history of Indian football.
Was he a nobody? Is this reasonable? Will today’s superstar Baichung Bhutia, be shunned into nonexistence in several years? Will he, too be left out when another young, legend-in-making, comes in to the picture? Or if some controversy happens to place its mark on Mohun Bagan.
What is it about India and mixing sports with politics? Will this ever stop? India is a country filled with passion for sports, whether its cricket, football or hockey. Why should we corrupt this with politics, or money, or even unnecessary cover-ups. It’s time to stand up for football, for its history and make this the start of a new era in Indian football.