On 30th June 2016, Gurpreet Sandhu became the first Indian to play at the UEFA Europa League qualifying round when he started for Stabæk F.C. against Connah’s Quay. This article, however, is not about him. This is rather about the first Indian to have played abroad.
Yes, an Indian had played for Celtic. The same club where legends like Paul Elliott, Henrik Larsson, Paul Lambert and the current Liverpool and Holland centre back Virgil Van Dijk played. I am talking about Mohammed Salim. He was the only footballer ever to have played barefooted for the Scotland club.
Born in 1904, Salim started his career at the Bowbazar club in 1926. He joined the Mohamedan Sporting B team by the end of that year, and moved to Sporting Union next year. He spent 4 years at Sporting Union. It was ages before football became a profession, and Salim worked as a chemist for a living. He joined the East Bengal club in 1932, and spent a year there before joining the Aryans next year. After 2 seasons at Aryans, Mohamedan Sporting picked him up in 1934. That kicked off an explosive stint that saw Mohamedan Sporting pick up their first Calcutta League.
In 1936, a hastily prepared Indian XI played against the Chinese Olympic team in Calcutta. The Chinese coach and officials were so impressed by Salim, Rahim and Abbas from the Indian side that they proposed a second such match next year. Before this match was organised, however, Salim seemingly vanished from the face of the earth. It later emerged that one of his relatives, who was settled in Glasgow, urged him to accompany them to Scotland and try at Celtic.
At Celtic Park, Salim went barefeet for trial. The officials were so impressed that they let him start the next match against Hamilton Accies. He was the first Indian not only to play at Europe, but also to score at that match which Celtic won 5–1. He even scored at the next match that Celtic won 7–1. These two games were enough for the Celtic people to anoint him “Twinkle Toes”.
Following this, however, he became homesick and, despite what was arguably the most generous offer in British professional football those days (an 1800 pounds contract) and another offer at Bundesliga, he came back to India and joined Mohamedan Sporting in 1936.
Celtic F.C., however, never forgot him. When he fell sick in 1980, his helpless son wrote a letter to the club seeking help. They obliged by sending him a 100 pounds bank draft. However heartwarming that gesture might have been, it was fruitless, as Salim died in 1980.