The first Indian footballer to play for a European club.. The legend of Mohamed Salem, “Barefoot” | sports

Despite having the second largest population in the world, India only knows a small number of footballers who travel to Europe to play in the professional league for many reasons, including the modest living conditions in British India.

Only 31 Indian players in the entire history of the game have played for a top club in Europe and most of them have been restricted to the lower levels of the game.

In 1999, Baechong Bhutia became the first Indian player to sign for a professional European club when he joined Bury in the English second division.

Bhutia was considered a great achievement for India and a source of great pride across the country, but the Indian player, hailed as ‘God’s gift to Indian football’, played just 46 games for North West England before returning home (retired). international play in 2011)

Although Bhutia was the first to sign a professional contract, he was not actually the first Indian to play for a European club, Sam Pilger tells Al Jazeera English.

He was overtaken by the Indian legend Mohamed Salem who achieved this 86 years ago when he played twice in Scotland for one of the biggest European clubs, Celtic, so his story becomes attractive to every rising footballer.

Salem made history without wearing a pair of football boots as usual. Instead, he played barefoot with only bandages wrapped around his feet.

Not only that, but his athletic brilliance during the reign of the empire on which the sun never sets had a huge impact on his society after achieving an achievement that went beyond the stadium to challenge British colonialism on the playing fields.


Salim was born in 1904 in Calcutta, in northeastern India. He started his career as a pharmacist, but that did not distance him from his true passion, as he quickly switched to football.

In 1926, at the age of 22, he joined Chittaranjan Football Club before moving on to Mohammed SC, Union Sports Club, West Bengal Club (Indian State) and Aryan FC.

On his return to the Muhammadan Sports Club in 1934, he celebrated his then greatest success, helping them win the first Calcutta Football League.

The victory came at a time when India was fighting for independence from British colonial rule, and only British teams, often made up of sports teams from the British Army, including the Durham Infantry and the North Staffordshire Regiment, won the Kolkata League.

Winning the championship title for the Mohammedan team in 1934 was a very symbolic moment, as they were the first team from India to win such a tournament.

The Muhammadan Club – which was founded in the early years of India’s independence movement – was a symbol of a progressive and open Islamic identity in the country and lived through the turbulent period of rebellion and struggle that ended with partition (India and Pakistan), and had great popular support in West Bengal and Kolkata.

“Many Indians saw football as a way to respond to the British mockery of them…” by achieving victory on that field, Puria Majumdar told the International Journal of Sports History. This was seen as proof that Indians were not inferior to the British.”

Jamie McMenemy, Celtic assistant manager, carefully bandages Salem’s feet (Celtic FC)

difference change

After winning his third title with Mohammedan in 1936, Salem was selected to represent the Indian team to play two exhibition matches against the Chinese Olympic team visiting India ahead of that year’s Summer Olympics held in Berlin.

Salem’s Chinese opponents praised his performance in the first game, but before the second game he mysteriously disappeared, prompting the Indian Football Association to issue newspaper advertisements seeking information on his whereabouts.

Salem was already on his way to Glasgow to try his luck with reigning Scottish champions Celtic.

It is believed that Salim’s brother Hashim, a merchant in Scotston, west of Glasgow, was on holiday in Calcutta at the time, and after seeing his brother’s performance against the Chinese, persuaded Salim to board a British steamer and return with him to Scotland .

Hashem spoke to legendary Celtic manager Willie Malle, who managed the club for an incredible 43 years from 1897 to 1940 and won 30 major trophies.

“A big player came from India by boat,” Hashim told Mali. “Could you please try it on? But there’s a small problem. Salem plays barefoot.”

Towards the end of his long managerial career, Mali became enthusiastic about the idea and decided to give Salem a try.

The Scottish Football Association had to give consent for him to perform in a competitive match without boots, and before the game Celtic’s assistant manager Jamie McMenemy carefully wrapped Salem’s feet in bandages, which is known in the photograph.

Mohammedan SC
Indian Muhammadan Club, founded in 1891 in Calcutta, is one of the oldest football clubs in Asia (island)

More than just curiosity

On 28 August 1936, Salem played for Celtic FC against Galston FC in an Alliance League match in front of 7,000 fans. Despite being the only player on the field without boots, Salem captivated the crowd with his skills and trickery on the right wing and registered 3 assists in a comfortable 7-1 win.

“Salem was undoubtedly the star of the crowd at Celtic Park last night,” former Celtic player Alec Bennett wrote in The Record. “Most of the audience, I dare say, came more out of curiosity than anything else. Isn’t it something unique to see a man painted in a Celtic shirt, and what’s more, someone who did it all barefoot?”

In Britain’s Daily Express, the headline, “Indian acrobat…new style,” ran over a match report filled with wide-eyed praise for Salim “10 glittering fingers of Salim, the Celtic player from India, who was the last to charm the crowd on the night. He balances the ball on his big toe and let it run on the scale to the little toe, then spin it and hop on one leg around the defender, then kick the ball to the midfielder who just has to send it into the goal.”

RB Leipzig vs Celtic FC: Group F - UEFA Champions League
The record of ancient Scottish club Celtic includes the name of an Indian player, Mohamed Salem, among its players (Getty Images)

Before Salem’s next game, The Evening Times took an interest in his talent, showing his picture and telling its readers he was “worth watching.”

Two weeks after making his debut, Salem attracted a crowd of 5,000 to Celtic’s reserve team match against Hamilton Academical FC, where he scored the winning penalty to give his side a 5–1 victory.

“The Record” newspaper wrote in its report of the match: “The barefoot Indian struck the ball hard to the left of the keeper, who, though he managed to get hold of it, was totally unable to prevent it from reaching the net.”

And the newspaper continued: “Resounding cheers greeted Al-Hindi’s goal, but Salem showed no emotion. It was clear that the main attraction of the match was Salem.”

“Give the ball to Salem” was the crowd’s motto, but Celtic’s players wisely did not burden the Indian, who is a fantastic passer but is far from a complete player.

Celtic’s board were pleased with the increasing attendances and income Salem was earning from the reserve games and offered him 5% of the gate earnings.

More than that, team manager Mali wanted to develop him as a player and signed him for the 1936-1937 season.

Return and family legacy

However, Salem felt homesick and after these two matches decided to return to Calcutta and continue playing for the Mohammedan Sports Club, where he won two more titles in 1937 and 1938.

The passing experience stayed with him, and in 1949 he sent the Evening Times to secure a copy of Scottish manager Malley’s book, The Story of Celtic, in which he was mentioned.

Little is known about Salem’s final years before his death in 1980 aged 76, but in a 2002 interview his son Rashid got in touch with Celtic when his father was ill and needed medical attention.

“I had no intention of asking for money,” Rashid said. My dad is still at the top of Celtic. I didn’t cash the account and I’ll keep it until I die.”

“I just want my father’s name to be named as the first Indian footballer to play overseas. That’s the only thing I want and nothing else.”

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