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Despite having the second largest population in the world, India has seen a remarkably small number of footballers make the journey to Europe to play in a professional league.

Only 31 Indian players in the entire history of the game have qualified for a professional club in Europe, and most of them are hidden in the lower tiers.

In 1999, Bhaichung Bhutia became the first Indian player to sign a contract with a European professional club when he joined Bury in the English Second Division.

This was seen as a huge advancement for India and caused great pride across the country, but Bhutia, hailed as “God’s gift to Indian football”, made just 46 appearances in the North West of England before returning home.

Although Bhutia was the first to sign, he was actually not the first Indian to play for a European club.

That honor belongs to the legendary Mohammed Salim, who achieved the feat 63 years earlier when he played twice in Scotland for one of Europe’s biggest clubs, Celtic.

Salim made history without ever wearing a pair of football boots. Instead, he played barefoot with only bandages on his feet.

A barefoot message

Salim was born in 1904 in Kolkata, then known as Calcutta, in northeastern India. He started a career as a pharmacist, but this was never his true calling, and he turned to his true love, football.

In 1926, at the age of 22, he joined Chittaranjan Football Club before progressing through Mohammedan Sporting Club, Sporting Union, East Bengal Club and Aryans Club.

It was on his return to Mohammedan Sporting Club in 1934 that he enjoyed his greatest success in helping them win the first of five consecutive Calcutta Football Leagues.

This was at a time when India was struggling for independence from British colonial rule, and the Calcutta League had only ever been won by British teams, often formed from the British Army, including Durham Light Infantry and the North Staffordshire Regiment.

Mohammedan’s 1934 title was a hugely symbolic moment as it was the first time an all-Indian team had won it.

“Many Indians took to football to answer British jokes. Indians were not manly enough to rule themselves,” said Boria Majumdar of the International Journal of the History of Sport. “Indians played barefoot and yet they beat English men in boots, which was seen as proof that Indians are no less than the British.”

Changing teams

After winning his third title with Mohammedan in 1936, Salim was selected to represent an Indian team to play two test matches against the Chinese Olympic side ahead of that year’s Berlin Olympics.

Salim’s Chinese opponents praised his performance in the first game, but before the second game he mysteriously disappeared, leading the Football Association of India to run advertisements in newspapers asking for information on his whereabouts.

Salim was actually on his way to Glasgow to try and arrange a trial with the Scottish giants and reigning champions Celtic.

Salim’s brother Hasheem, a shopkeeper in Scotstoun west of Glasgow, is said to have been holidaying in Calcutta at the time, and after seeing his brother’s action against the Chinese, persuaded Salim to board a British steamer and return with him to Scotland.

Hasheem spoke to legendary Celtic manager Willie Maley, who spent a whopping 43 years in charge from 1897 to 1940, winning 30 major trophies.

“A great player from India has come by ship,” Hasheem told Maley. ‘Would you please put him to the test? But there is a small problem: Salim plays barefoot.”

Towards the end of his long management career, Maley was intrigued by this prospect and decided to put Salim to the test.

The Scottish Football Association had to give permission to play in a league match without shoes. Before the match, Celtic assistant manager Jimmy McMenemy carefully wrapped Salim’s feet in bandages, which was famously captured by a photographer.

More than just a curiosity

On 28 August 1936, Salim played for Celtic against Galston in an Alliance League match at Celtic Park in front of 7,000 fans. Despite being the only player on the pitch without boots, Salim captivated the crowd with his skills and tricks on the right wing, contributing three assists in the comfortable 7-1 win.

“Salim was undoubtedly the star attraction in the Alliance game at Celtic Park last night,” former Celtic player Alec Bennett wrote in The Record. “I dare say most of the crowd showed up out of curiosity than anything else. Wasn’t it something unique to see a man of color in a Celtic sweater and, what’s more, someone doing their thing barefoot?

“The Celtic supporter had made up his mind about the Indian in grind time: however, the game was not very long running before he ‘woot’ the crowd for him and marveled at his cleverness,” wrote Bennett. “He hugged the touchline too much, it’s true, and of course took no chances on the tackle, but on passing he seemed able to place the ball exactly where he wanted, while his cross was simply amazing to say the least.”

The Daily Express ran a headline: “Indian Juggler – New Style”, above a match report praising Salim: “Ten sparkling toes of Salim, player of India’s Celtic FC, mesmerized the crowd last night. He balances the ball on his big toe, run it along the shell to his little toe, spin it around, hop around the defender on one foot, then tap the ball to the center, who only needs to shoot it into the goal.’

Before Salim’s next match, The Evening Times raved about his talent, posting a picture of him in a Celtic outfit and telling his readers he was “worth a look”.

Two weeks after his debut, Salim drew a crowd of 5,000 to watch Celtic’s reserves team match against Hamilton Academicals in which he scored from the penalty spot in a 5–1 win.

“The barefoot Indian biffed the ball hard to the left of the goalkeeper who, although he managed to get his hand on it, was totally unable to avoid going into the net,” reported The Record.

“A thunderous cheer greeted the Indian’s goal, but Salim showed no outward sign of his feelings,” the newspaper said. “… It was clear that the main attraction was Salim. ‘Give the ball to Salim’ was the slogan of the crowd, but the Celtic players have wisely not overworked the Indian, who crosses a beautiful ball, but far from being the complete player.”

The Celtic board, of course, was delighted with the increased crowds and income Salim was generating at the reserve games and offered to give him 5 per cent of future entry tickets.

But he was more than just a novelty, and a fascinated Maley wanted to develop and sign him as a player for the 1936–37 season.

Securing the family name

However, Salim was homesick and after these two matches decided to return to Calcutta and continue playing for Mohammedan Sporting Club, where he won two more titles in 1937 and 1938.

The fleeting experience stuck with him, and in 1949 he wrote to the Evening Times to obtain a copy of Maley’s book The Story of Celtic, which briefly mentioned him.

Very little is known about Salim’s later years before his death in 1989 at the age of 76, but in a 2002 interview his son Rashid recalled contacting Celtic when his father was unwell and in need of medical attention.

“I wasn’t going to ask for money. It was just a trick to find out if Mohammed Salim was still alive in their memory. To my surprise I received a letter from the club. Inside was a bank check for £100. I was delighted, not because I got the money, but because my father still holds a place of honor at Celtic. I haven’t even collected the design and will keep it until I die.

“I just want my father’s name to be listed as the first Indian footballer to play abroad. That is all I want and nothing else.”

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