The first known official international tour of the Indian team which at that time consisted of both Indian and British players was in 1924, when it was led by legendary Indian footballer Gostha Paul. teams consisting of entirely Indian players started to tour Australia, Japan, Indonesia, and Thailand during the late 1930s. The first international match India played before independence is yet to be verified, but the very trace of it can be found in the match India played overseas against in 1933. It was India's second international tour, where Gostha Paul led his side to victory by 1–0 score. On 4 July, 1936 India played against visiting team, which was held at Calcutta. The match was a draw of 1–1. After the success of several Indian football clubs abroad, the (AIFF) was formed in 1937.
In July 1938, Indian team led by K. Bhattacharya, played a international charity match against a visiting all European team at Calcutta, where the European side won by a solitary goal. In September, the same year, India made an official tour to Australia where they played matches against many clubs and the Australian national side too. From 3rd September 1938 at Sydney, India played 5 friendly matches with Australia. At the Sydney match they saw a defeat of 5–3. Second match was at Brisbane, where the Indians fought back for a draw of 4–4. In the third match at Newcastle, on 17th September India registered their first win by a margin of 4–1. But the Australians defeated India in the next two matches held at Sydney and Melbourne with a score line of 5–4 and 3–1 respectively.
Indian team at
, T.Ao sitting at centre of front row, goal scorer S.Raman sitting next to Ao and Coach Balaidas Chatterjee, extreme right
On their way to , Chinese team again visited India, where they played Mohammedan FC, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan then finally on 17th July 1948, a friendly match held at Kolkata, where they were defeated by the Indian national side by a score of 1–0. The was India's first major international tournament, where a predominately barefooted Indian team lost 2–1 to , failing to convert two penalties. The Indian team was greeted and appreciated by the crowd for their sporting manner. "The French had been given a run for their money – and that, too, by the barefooted Indians!", the British media expressed.. At a press conference, shortly after, the Indians were asked why they played barefooted. The ever witty then Indian captain Talimeren Ao said, "Well, you see, we play football in India, whereas you play BOOTBALL!" which was applauded by the British. The next day, that comment was splashed in the newspapers of London. Sarangapani Raman scored the only goal for India in that match and thus the first Indian international goal ever in the Olympics.
Golden years (1950s–1960s)
In 1950, India managed to qualify for the 1950 FIFA World Cup finals, which was scheduled to take place in Brazil. This was not due to any success on the pitch, but due to the fact that all their opponents during the qualifying round, withdrew from the pre-tournament qualifiers. However, India themselves withdrew from the World Cup finals before the tournament was to begin. The gave various reasons for the team's withdrawal, including travel costs, lack of practice time, and valuing the Olympics above the World Cup.
Despite the reason given out from the AIFF, many football historians and pundits have repeated the tale that India withdrew from the World Cup due to FIFA imposing a rule banning players from playing . However, according to the then captain of India, Sailen Manna, the story of the team not being allowed to play due to wanting to play barefoot was not true. Since then, India has not come close to qualifying for another World Cup.
Despite not participating in the World Cup in 1950, the following years after, from 1951 to 1964, are usually considered to be the "golden era" of Indian football. India, coached by Hyderabad City Police head coach Syed Abdul Rahim, became one of the best teams in Asia. In March 1951, Rahim lead India to their first ever triumph during the 1951 Asian Games. Hosted in India, the team defeated 1–0 in the gold medal match to gain their first trophy. Sahu Mewalal scored the winning goal for India in that match. The next year India went back to the Olympics but were once again defeated in the first round, this time by and by a score of 10–1. Upon returning to India, the AIFF made it mandatory for footballers to wear boots. After taking the defeat in Finland, India participated in various minor tournaments, such as the Colombo Cup, which they won three times from 1953 to 1955.
In 1954, India returned to the Asian Games as defending champions in Manila. Despite their achievement three years prior, India were unable to go past the group stage as the team finished second in Group C during the tournament, two points behind . Two years later, during the 1956 Summer Olympics, India went on to achieve the team's greatest result in a competitive tournament. The team finished in fourth place during the Summer Olympics football tournament, losing the bronze-medal match to 3–0. The tournament is also known for Neville D'Souza's hat-trick against Australia in the quarterfinals. D'Souza's hat-trick was the first hat-trick scored by an Asian in Olympic history and he was the highest goal scorer in that edition of the games along with Todor Veselinović of and Dimitar Milanov of , 4 goals scored by each.
After their good performance during the Summer Olympics, India participated in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo. The team once again finished fourth, losing the bronze-medal match to Indonesia 4–1. The next year the team traveled to Malaysia where they took part in the Merdeka Cup and finished as the tournament runners-up.
India began the 1960s with 1960 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. Despite the qualifiers for the West Zone being held in Kochi, India finished last in their qualification group and thus failed to qualify for the tournament. Despite the set-back, India went on to win the gold medal during the Asian Games for the second time in 1962. The team defeated 2–1 to win their second major championship.
To qualify for the , India took part in the qualification round where in the first round, they defeated in the 1st leg by 5–2, and withdrew from the 2nd, India proceeded to the second round where they defeated in both legs by 4–2 & 2–0, they qualified for 1960 Summer Olympics which is their last till now. At that edition, India again failed to proceed from the first round, where they saw two defeats of 2–1 & 3–1 by , and a draw against of 1–1.
Two years later, following their Asian Games triumph, India participated in the 1964 AFC Asian Cup after all the other teams in their qualification group withdrew. This was India's first Asian Cup appearance. Despite their automatic entry into the continental tournament, India managed to finish as the runners-up during the tournament, losing out to the hosts, , by two points. This remains India's best performance in the AFC Asian Cup.
India returned to the Asian Games in 1966. Despite their performance two years prior during the AFC Asian Cup, India could not go beyond the group stage as the team finished third, behind and . Four years later, during the 1970 Asian Games, India came back and took third place during the tournament. The team defeated Japan 1–0 during the bronze-medal match.
In 1974, India's performance in the Asian Games once again sharply declined as they finished the 1974 edition in last place in their group, losing all three matches, scoring two, and conceding 14 goals in the first round. India then showed steady improvement during the 1978 tournament, finishing second in their group of three. The team were then knocked-out in the next round, finishing last in their group with three defeats from three matches. The 1982 tournament proved to be better for India as the side managed to qualify for the quarter-finals before losing to 1–0.
In 1984, India managed to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup for the first time since their second place triumph in 1964. During the 1984 tournament, India finished in last place in their five team group in the first round. India's only non-defeat during the tournament came against Iran, a 0–0 draw.
Despite India's decline from a major football power in Asia, the team still managed to assert its dominance as the top team in South Asia. India managed to win the football competition of the South Asian Games in 1985 and then again won the gold medal in 1987. The team then began the 1990s by winning the inaugural SAFF Championship in 1993. The team ended the 20th century by winning the SAFF Championship again in and .
India's first competitive matches of the 21st century were the 2002 FIFA World Cup first round qualifiers. Despite a very bright start, defeating the 1–0, drawing 1–1, as well as two victories over , including a 5–0 victory in Bangalore, India finished a point away from qualification for the next round. In 2003, India took part in the . The team qualified for the semi-finals but fell to 2–1.
2007 Nehru Cup
final, India vs Syria at the Ambedkar Stadium in New Delhi
Later in 2003, India participated in the being held in Hyderabad. Under the coaching of Stephen Constantine, India managed to make it to the final of the tournament after defeating , a team ranked 85 places above India in the FIFA rankings at the time, 5–3. Despite the major victory, during the gold-medal match India were defeated 1–0 by . Due to this achievement, Constantine was voted as the 's Manager of the Month for October 2003. The tournament result also gave India more recognition around the country and around the world.
Constantine was replaced by Syed Nayeemuddin in 2005 but the Indian head coach only lasted for a little over a year as India suffered many heavy defeats during the 2007 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. During this time India were defeated 6–0 by , 3–0 by and respectively at home, and 7–1 away in Jeddah. Former Malmö and coach Bob Houghton was brought in as head coach in May 2006.
Under Houghton, India witnessed massive improvement in their football standing. In August 2007, Houghton won the country the restarted Nehru Cup after India defeated 1–0 in the final. Pappachen Pradeep scored the winning goal for India that match. The next year, Houghton lead India during the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup, which was hosted in Hyderabad and Delhi. During the tournament, India breezed through the group stage before defeating in the semi-finals. In the final against , India, through a Sunil Chhetri hat-trick, won the match 4–1. The victory not only earned India the championship but it also allowed India to qualify for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, the nation's first Asian Cup appearance in 27 years. In order to prepare for the Asian Cup, Houghton had the team stay together as a squad for eight months from June 2010 till the start of the tournament, meaning the players would not play for their clubs.
India were drawn into Group C for the Asian Cup with Australia, , and . Despite staying together as a team for eight months, India lost all three of their matches during the Asian Cup, including a 4–0 defeat to Australia. Despite the results, India were still praised by fans and pundits for their valiant efforts during the tournament.
After participating the 2011 AFC Asian Cup, India's quest to qualify for the 2015 edition of the tournament began in February 2011 with AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers. Bob Houghton decided to change the makeup of the India squad, replacing many of the aging players from the Asian Cup with some young players from the development side in the I-League, Indian Arrows. Even with a young side, India managed to qualify for the AFC Challenge Cup with ease. Despite the good result though with a young side, the AIFF decided to terminate the contract of Bob Houghton.
After having Dempo coach, Armando Colaco, as interim head coach, the AIFF signed Savio Medeira as head coach in October 2011. Despite leading India to another SAFF Championship victory, Medeira lead India to their worst performance in the AFC Challenge Cup in March 2012. The team lost all three of their group matches, unable to score a single goal during the tournament. After the tournament, Medeira was replaced as head coach by Dutchman, Wim Koevermans. Koeverman's first job as head coach was the 2012 Nehru Cup. India won their third successive Nehru Cup, defeating Cameroon's B side on penalties.
In March 2013, India failed to qualify for the 2014 AFC Challenge Cup and thus also failed to qualify for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup. The team also failed to retain the SAFF Championship, losing 2–0 to in the 2013 final. After more bad results in friendlies, Koevermans resigned as head coach in October 2014.
By March 2015, after not playing any matches, India reached their lowest FIFA ranking position of 173. A couple months prior, Stephen Constantine was re-hired as the head coach after first leading India more than a decade before. Constantine's first major assignment back as the India head coach were the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. After making it through the first round of qualifiers, India crashed out during the second round, losing seven of their eight matches and thus, once again, failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Despite failure to qualify for the World Cup, India managed to reach the third round of 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers after defeating in the play-off round on aggregate 7–1. On 11 October 2017, India secured qualification for the 2019 AFC Asian Cup after a 4–1 victory over .