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This legendary footballer was the first Indian to play for a European club

This legendary footballer was the first Indian to play for a European club

Sayan Chatterjee

Published: 30 Jan 2021 6:00 AM GMT

“Ten twinkling toes of Salim, Celtic FC’s player from India, hypnotised the crowd at Parkhead last night. 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,” wrote the Scottish Daily Express on August 29, 1936 about Mohammed Salim.

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu recently made the news when he became the first Indian to feature in the Europa League while playing for FC Stabæk in Norway. Before him, it was Sunil Chhetri who joined Sporting Club de Portugal in 2012 but couldn’t really break into their first team. Then of course there’s Bhaichung Bhutia, who became the first Indian player to sign a professional contract with a European club when he joined FC Bury way back in 1999. However, the man who was the pioneer in terms of Indian footballers stepping out of their comfort zone and trying their luck abroad was the legendary Mohammed Salim.


Born in 1904 in Kolkata, at the height of the nationalist movement against British colonialism, Salim harnessed football as a medium to stand up against the British. He started his professional career at 18 and played for the likes of Chittaranjan Club, Bowbazar Club and Sporting Union. However, it was at Mohammedan SC that he had the most successful spell of his career.

An effervescent winger who preferred playing barefoot, Salim was one of the stars of the Mohammedan side that won five consecutive Calcutta Football League titles between 1934 and 1938. After their victory in 1936, he was picked as part of an All India XI who were to face the Chinese Olympic side that was visiting Kolkata at that time. He played spectacularly well in the drawn first match but destiny had something else in store thereafter. A close friend of his named Hasheem, who worked in shipping and had some sources in England, convinced him to set sail in search of a new opportunity there. Both of them stayed a few days in London before they eventually turned up at Celtic FC’s iconic stadium in Glasgow.

Salim somehow managed to get a trial with the side which was at that time being managed by their legendary coach Willie Maley. No one there was familiar with his exploits back home in India and the Scottish media focused more on the fact that he was someone who played in bandaged feet instead of football boots which was the norm. Even Maley had laughed off the idea that an Indian player playing barefoot could think of forging a career in Europe.

On the day of the trial, Salim played in front of 1,000 club members, absolutely enchanting them with his wide array of skills. According to a 2013 article from The Shamrock, the trial went so well that the club members and coaches were “convinced that an exceptional talent had arrived”. They had no choice but to offer him a chance to play for the club in reserve Alliance League matches against Galston FC and Hamilton Academical. He scored a goal and assisted three more in those two games, further cementing his credentials as a generational talent.

A true patriot at heart, all the adulation and fanfare surrounding his performances in Scotland wasn’t enough to convince him to extend his stay there. Salim opted to return to India soon after and upon his return, helped Mohammedan to their CFL title victories in 1937 and 1938. Even so, one cannot help but wonder how far he could have gone had he decided to play there professionally. What is even more interesting though, is how he managed to capture the imagination of the whole of Scotland during his short stay there. Although there are very few images and written records of his time there, history will always remember him as the first Indian footballer to dazzle Europeans at their own game and in their own backyard.

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