July 22, 2022 Akshanth Gunda

The Indian Juggler who played for Celtic FC

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An Indian footballer made a mark in Europe more than 80 years ago, when an exotic aspirant from Calcutta created a major buzz at Celtic FC, the famous Scottish club. The amazing story of Mohammad Salim.

The IFA Shield final of 1911 is a landmark incident in not just Indian sports but also in the independence movement. According to folklore, Salim’s story also began on that fateful afternoon. 

Barely 6 or 7, Salim was purportedly in the audience as Mohun Bagan sealed their historic triumph. It gave wings to his footballing dreams and from that day, he made it his life’s ambition to achieve footballing glory. 

Salim’s first break came in 1926 when he signed for Chittaranjan Football Club. However, he really came into prominence after joining Mohammedan Sporting in 1934. The club was then in the process of assembling the first ‘galacticos’ in Indian football, bringing together talents from different parts of the sub-continent to create an all-conquering side. 

Mohammedan became the first all conquering Indian side as they won the Calcutta Football League 5 times in a row. Salim was one of the key members of this team. But in the midst of this dream run, something interesting happened. 

In 1936, a Chinese team visited Calcutta to play a couple of exhibition matches. In the first match, Salim’s brilliant display earned praise even from the opponents. But before the second match, Salim went missing. 

Appeals were made in newspapers for him to return. Missing posters were put up all over the city but to no avail. The man was by then in Egypt, hustled away by a close relative who wanted him to try out with Celtic FC. 

After arriving in Glasgow, Hasheem, Salim’s relative, went to meet Willie Malley, the club’s manager. On hearing Salim played without boots, Malley apparently could not hold back his laughter. However, maybe out of kindness considering his long journey, Malley agreed to give him a trial. 

In front of three registered coaches and nearly a thousand fans, Salim produced a display in the trial that wowed every individual present in the stadium. He was chosen to appear for Celtic FC in two upcoming friendly matches.

The first match was won by Celtic 5-1 with Salim netting a penalty. The newspapers the next day hailed him as the “Indian Juggler.” During the match, Celtic fans shouted for the other players to pass the ball to Salim. 

The next match was a bigger success. Celtic won by 7 goals with 3 of them created by Salim. After this match, Salim was offered a professional contract with Celtic and reportedly even received feelers from German clubs. 

However, Salim refused the offers. Suffering from extreme homesickness, he desperately wanted to return to Calcutta. Celtic FC even offered to arrange a charity match for him with 5% of the gate proceeds but Salim refused – requesting the club to donate the money to a charity instead. 

Salim returned to Calcutta and a couple of seasons later, brought the curtains down on his footballing career with Mohameddan Sporting. In the seventies, when Salim was suffering from age-related complications, his son wrote to Celtic FC asking for financial support. 

Surprising the family, a letter and a £100 bank draft arrived in response. Nearly 40 years after he appeared at the club, his impressions were still strong at Celtic. Salim’s story came to a close in November 1980 when he breathed his last. 

If Salim had accepted Celtic’s offer and signed for the club, it may have changed the history of Indian football. His story will possibly remain the biggest ‘what if’ of Indian football.  

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