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Melbourne 1956: When India became the first Asian team to play in Olympic semi-finals

History was created in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when India Football team became the first Asian team to reach the Olympic semi-finals

Last updated: 21.02.2019
Indian Football team celebrating

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The day was December 1, 1956, and the occasion was the Melbourne Olympics. India had become the first Asian nation to reach the Olympics semi-final after defeating Australia 4-2. It was arguably their best result on the global stage, six years prior to the 1962 Asian Games gold medal at Jakarta. It was undoubtedly their best result on the global stage, a match in which Neville D'Souza became the first Asian to score a hat-trick in the Olympics.

The Blue Tigers went into the Melbourne Olympics supported by the impact of two key decisions of national football federation a couple of years previously: 1) Boots were made compulsory in all domestic tournaments from 1954 and 2) the duration of the matches was increased to 70 from 60 minutes. The Indian football federation was initially reluctant to send the national team to Melbourne. However, it gave its consent after an IFA XI defeated a stronger Chinese Olympic team 3-1.

The squad was selected by the legendary coach Syed Ahmed Rahim was young (average age 23) and had opted for a 3-5-2 formation. Only Azizuddin and Noor Mohammed had managed to retain their spots from the 1952 Olympic team. Samar (Badru) Banerjee and J Kittu were appointed as captain and vice-captain respectively.

The Indian team had a tough draw as they were to go against the strong Hungarian side. Hungary, in those days, was one of the big names in the world of football and was known for its direct and fast-paced game. They came into the tournament as the runner-up of the 1954 World Cup. 

Interestingly, India were lucky enough to get a walkover as Hungary withdrew from the tournament because of political tension in the country.


India was pitted against the hosts, Australia. They were everything that the Indians were not. The Socceroos were taller and stronger were had defeated Japan 2-0 in the opening round. 

The quarter-final was played at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground. India had a strong quick start and it took them only nine minutes to open the scoring. Samar Banerjee's screamer hit the post and it was D'Souza send the ball home. 

Nonetheless, the Australians equalised eight minutes later, when Peter Thangaraj was beaten by Bruce Morrow in air from a George Arthur free kick just outside the box. India, post 20 minutes into the game had started asserting their dominance over the Australian side. In the 33rd minute, PK Banerjee made a long run on the right flank and delivered an inch-perfect cross. At the receiving end was D'Souza who collected the ball after Australian keeper Ron Lord failed to grab it and scored India's second goal. Australia once again equalised after a defensive lapse between Abdus Salaam and Thangaraj.

D'Souza had completed his hat-trick in the 55th minute after a shrew pass by Kannayan. The final nail in the coffin was put by the vice-captain Kittu who scored in the 80th minute after a 25-yard sprint. India won the match 4-2 and marched into the last four.

India's performance in the Melbourne Olympics should be assessed within the perspective of the Asian football of the 50s. Japan and Thailand failed to make their mark in Olympics with the former losing 2-0 to Australia and the latter 1-9 to Great Britain. In comparison, India performed exceptionally and coach SA Rahim fielded the team in a 4-2-4 with Samar Banerjee (captain) and later Nikhil Nandy playing as withdrawn forwards.

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