Barefooted Indian who left Calcutta to join Celtic
GIL HERON'S death last month saw focus trained on the question of Celtic's first black player, although correspondents to The Scotsman have been quick to make known the case of Mohammed Abdul Salim. As well as being from Calcutta, his penchant for playing without boots distinguished him further. Salim was certainly Celtic's first Asian player.
It is hardly surprising that little is known about the forward if even in his home country his trip to Scotland is regarded as a "lost episode". This is how a recent book, A Social History of Indian Football, described the tale of Salim, who is credited with being the first Indian to play professional football anywhere in Europe. He was unhonoured in his own country, although the issue is complicated by political circumstances, with his career coinciding with the last years of the British Raj.
A Social History of Indian Football, written by Boria Majumdar and Kausik Bandyopadhyay, seeks to "resuscitate" Salim's place in Indian football, and explores why he faded into oblivion in his own country. Salim's death, in November 1980, provided the spur to learn more of his achievements both at home and abroad. Indeed, his son, Rashid, revealed he contacted Celtic to highlight his father's deteriorating health.
It seems he was not sure about his own motivation for doing so. It wasn't for money, because when Celtic, stirred by this reminder of someone who occupies a significant place in the club's history, sent him back 100, he was surprised. "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," he recalled. "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 had been a key player as the Bengal team Mohammedan Sporting won five Calcutta league titles in a row in the 1930s. After their league success in 1936, the players took a break. But, with the Chinese Olympic side due to visit Calcutta for games against two Indian select teams, Salim was not expected to pack away his boots – or at least the bandages he wrapped around his feet in the absence of such footwear. Salim played in the first match but had disappeared by the second. Police were instructed to look for him, and adverts placed in the local press.
It was soon learned he had left by ship for Britain, via Cairo, having been convinced by a friend that he must try his luck in British football. A few days in London were followed by a trip to Glasgow, where the pair found themselves outside Celtic manager Willie Maley's door. "A great player from India has come by ship," the no doubt surprised Maley was told. "Will you please take (him on trial]? But there is a slight problem. Salim plays in bare feet."
The notion of a barefooted amateur playing among seasoned Scottish professionals might have seemed ludicrous, but Maley was prepared to look beyond the norm. A trial was arranged – though only after it had been confirmed by the Scottish Football Association that he would be allowed to play with bare feet during games – and Salim duly impressed. "(The Celtic coaches] were convinced that an exceptional talent had arrived in Scotland," wrote Majumdar and Bandyopadhya. Maley later described him as "a Lascar seaman who scorned football boots and merely bandaged up his bare feet".
But Salim's time in Scotland proved short. He played only two 'A' (reserve) matches, hence his omission from many Celtic reference books. His first appearance came against Hamilton Accies, over whom Celtic triumphed 5-1, and the second against Galston, which was also won by a large margin – 7-1. His performances were covered by the Daily Express, where he was described as the "Indian Juggler". The name stuck, and was the title for a poem, which recalls how a "man from India/Where traditions are steep/Stepped onto Parkhead's hallowed turf/Wearing only bandages on his feet."
Homesickness, combined with Salim's desire to return to India in time for the 1937 league season, cut short his Celtic career, but, in the words of Alan Breck's Book of Scottish Football, published in 1937, he "saw the boots off" many of his team-mates.Yet he wasn't even the first player in Scotland to play in bare feet. This claim belongs to Tewfik Abdullah, an Egyptian who played for Cowdenbeath, and was described, in the Who's Who of Cowdenbeath FC, as "the man who swapped the pyramids of Egypt for the coal bings of Fife". That, though, is another story.
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