FOLLOWING MOHAMMED SALIM’S death in 1989, in a brief obituary the Amrita Bazar Patrika declared:
Mohammed Salim (Sr) a member of the legendary Mohammedan Sporting Club side that claimed five successive Calcutta senior football league titles in the thirties died in Calcutta on Wednesday morning. He was 76. A right winger in his playing days, he was intimately connected with many sports clubs and took active interest in training youngsters. He is survived by his wife, four sons and three daughters.
When his obituary ignores his feat of having played for Celtic FC with distinction, it is hardly surprising that he remains unmentioned in most works on Indian football. This treatment is unjust, more so in view of his extraordinary performances for Celtic. While Baichung Bhutia played for a second division club in the UK, Bury FC, and failed to win a permanent place in the club’s first XI, Salim, during his brief stint at Celtic, had established himself as a key member of the team and was pled with by the club authorities to stay on for another season in 1937-38. Further, while Baichung was forced to return to India, Salim returned to India to help his favourite club Mohammedan Sporting continue with its famous run in the Calcutta Football league in the 1930s.
Commenting on his extraordinary skill, the Scottish Daily Express had declared:
Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic F C’s player from India hypnotized the crowd at Parkhead last night in an alliance game with Galston. He balances the ball on his big toe, lets it run down the scale to his little toe, twirls it, hops on one foot around the defender, then flicks the ball to the centre who has only to send it into goal. Three of Celtic’s seven goals last night came from his moves. Was asked to take a penalty, he refused. Said he was shy. Salim does not speak English, his brother translates for him. Brother Hasheem thinks Salim is wonderful—so did the crowd last night.
This comment, published on August 29, 1936, is now a yellowing, almost faded piece of history breaking up in pieces at the slightest of touch. Rashid Ahmed, Mohammed Salim’s second son, handed it over to us with a request—he wanted readers to know the truth—that his father was one of the earliest Indian footballers to have played in Europe.
Asked whether Celtic had rewarded Salim monetarily, Rashid narrated a fascinating tale. When, after a few months in Scotland, Salim began to feel homesick and was determined to return to India, Celtic FC pled with him to play for one more season. “Celtic tried to persuade my father to stay by offering to organise a charity match in his honour, giving him 5 per cent of the gate proceeds. My father did not realise what 5 per cent 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 [a lot of money then] but although my father was astonished, he kept his word.” In doing so, Mohammed Salim earned a unique recognition for himself and his country in the eyes of Westerners. Alongside, his performances for Celtic in the limited number of matches he played demonstrated that barefooted Indians could match the British. This belief may have inspired his colleagues at Mohammedan Sporting to win five straight Calcutta Football League titles (1934-38), defeating leading European teams in the process.
Many years later, Rashid wrote to Celtic stating that his father was in distress and needed money for his treatment. In his words: “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 pride of place at Celtic. I have not even cashed the draft and will preserve it till I die.”
In colonial India, trying to challenge the British was the most difficult task of all. Salim had achieved this seemingly impossible task through his football. In a nation plagued by religious violence, political and economic uncertainties, his football served a purpose that went beyond the boundary. It helped colonised Indians reinvent themselves, reassuring them that the might of the colonial state could be successfully subverted on the sporting field. While on earlier occasions, achievement in sport helped colonised Indians capture the imagination of the West, Salim’s triumphs, nationalist successes on the sporting field, have hardly been given their due in the annals of our history.
Salim, during his brief stint at Celtic, had established himself as a key member of the team and the club authorities pled with him to stay on for another season in 1937-38. But Salim returned to India to help his favourite club Mohammedan Sporting continue with its famous run in the Calcutta Football League in the 1930s. In his years at the Club, Mohammedan sporting achieved unmatched success, winning the coveted Calcutta Football League title five times in a row
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Mohammed Salim was born in Metiaburuz, a lower middle-class locality in Calcutta, in 1904. Uninterested in formal academic training, he displayed great football skills since childhood. At a time when communal harmony was the major cry in Bengal, Salim did not find it difficult to join the Chittaranjan Club in Central Calcutta. His stay at Chittaranjan was brief and within a couple of years he had left the Bowbazar Club. His new club, managed by a group of educated Bengali middle-class patrons, instilled in Salim the fervent desire to beat the European in his game. These patrons, leaders of the movement against the partition of Bengal, had contributed in no small measure to the development of British sports, cricket and football, in Bengal.
Mohun Bagan’s IFA Shield triumph in 1911 also contributed to drawing the young Salim to football. Even Muslim newspapers like the Mussalman hailed the victory as a cause for celebration. It was declared that although Mohun Bagan was a team composed of Bengalis only, its success had brought a sense of universal joy.
Having learnt the basics at Bowbazar, Salim proceeded to join the B team of Mohammedan Sporting. Mohammedan Sporting, established in 1891, was an institution of progressive Muslims and was gradually carving out a niche in Calcutta’s football scene. His first stint with Mohammedan was short. Struck by Salim’s exceptional talent, Pankaj Gupta, Bengal’s legendary sport administrator, recruited Salim to play for his club, Sporting Union. After a couple of seasons, Salim moved to the Aryans Club under the auspices of Choney Majumdar, a leading sportsman of Bengal. He played for the Aryans in 1932-33 and finally joined the senior team at Mohammedan in 1934. In his years at the club, Mohammedan Sporting achieved unmatched success, winning the coveted Calcutta Football League title five times in a row. Key to their spectacular success was Salim:
Salim joined Mohammedan Sporting in 1934. This year marked the beginning of glory days in the club’s history. With Salim in their ranks, the Club for the first time in its history won the Calcutta Football League. Winning soon became a habit. For the next four years Mohammedan went on to win the coveted title with Salim spearheading the attack. Exceptionally talented, Salim was winning thousands of hearts with his ball control, dribbling, correct passes and lobs. He knew at what height a pass should be given. His passing was one of the greatest attractions for Mohammedan supporters. This winning spree continued for five years and Salim was at the forefront in most of these years. With each triumph the number of his fans multiplied. The more people wanted to touch him and embrace him the more emotional he became. He celebrated his fifth straight league win by shedding a couple of teardrops and by thanking god for having helped him achieve what he wanted.