July 29, 1911. It wasn’t just another morning in the then capital of British India. The day, exactly hundred years ago, was different for the people of the city. Only one question was doing the rounds. Would Mohun Bagan with 10 barefoot players be able to win the prestigious IFA Shield defeating the British army outfit East Yorkshire Regiment?The Calcuttans were eager to see whether Bagan could beat the colonial masters at their own game. This generated huge curiosity and people flocked to the Maidan to see the grand finale. Not just from Calcutta, people came from Assam and Patna as well as from the eastern districts of Bengal.
To cope with the expected rush of fans, the East Indian Railway ran a special train from Burdwan to Howrah and back and an additional steamer service brought people from Rajgunj and Baranagar. The trams coming from Shyambazar and Chitpur to the Maidan area were overloaded. According to a newspaper report, the number of spectators who packed every inch of the Maidan was beyond calculation. A rough estimate though suggests that the figure was between 60,000 and 80,000.
In a keenly contested final, after a barren first half East Yorkshire captain Jackson put his team ahead through a free-kick. With just 10 minutes remaining two thunderous roars of Goaaal rocked the city as the brave-hearts in green and maroon made history.
Bagan’s road to glory wasn’t easy. Before the final, they had beaten four other British teams (St Xavier’s 3-0, Rangers 2-1, Rifle Brigade 1-0 & Middlesex Regiment 1-1; 3-0).
Not just football
Mohun Bagan became the first Indian team to win the IFA Shield. It wasn’t merely a victory on the field of football. For the masses, especially for the middle class, it was a soothing balm for hurt Bengali masculinity. Before football got momentum in the late 19th century, the Bengali youth had a tradition of bodybuilding under the banner of the Hindu Mela. Many akharas were established and the young were discouraged to participate in the Anglo-Saxon games such as football and cricket.
But this tradition of physical culture of the Hindu Mela had one great drawback — those were not games where Bengalis could compete against the British. It was important to excel in games, which the sahibs considered to be ‘masculine’, in all sense of the term, and try to overwhelm them in those games. So it became important to cultivate skills in ‘manly’ sport, of which football was one.
In the beginning, football was played only by the British civilian and military personnel. But following the initiative of Nagendra Prasad Sarvadhikari and others, clubs began to be formed by the end of the 19th century. Some of them were Shovabazar, National, Kumartuli, Town, Chandannagar Sporting, Mohun Bagan, Aryans and Chinsura Sporting.
‘Natives’ were not allowed to play in most of the official tournaments so the Maharaja of Cooch Behar started the Cooch Behar Cup that was open to Indians only. The Trades Cup was the first open tournament where Indian clubs were allowed to take part. Since inception in 1898, only one local team was allowed in the IFA Shield. Mohun Bagan’s turn came in 1909 and after early exits in the first two years, they made history in 1911. It was a great source of inspiration in popularising of the game, and soon the game became an important feature of the Bengali culture.
What the win meant
The victory of 1911 led to stories being written, songs composed and recently, even a feature film has been made. But its impact on the development of Indian football could have been bigger. In the centenary year of that momentous win India played in the highest stage of Asian football after a gap of 26 years, but the team’s performance showed exactly where we are in football today. While it’s important to celebrate, it’s also important to introspect and find out what went wrong.
Mohun Bagan’s triumph coincided with the Swadeshi movement, which was discarding things imported from England. Barefoot football became a part of that practice. It became a Swadeshi form of football, which only the Bengalis excel in.
Playing without boots facilitated dribbling and accurate short passing but it was a deterrent when it rained and the ground became slippery and slushy. Despite that, Bengalis continued to play football without boots. Because football in India was a Bengal-centric game, this barefoot phenomenon became an intrinsic feature of football in the country. It hurt India in the long run.
This notion didn’t change despite Mohammedan Sporting winning the IFA League from 1934-38 with players wearing boots. The ‘barefoot illusion’ continued despite Fifa banning barefoot football in World Cups since 1938. The 1948 Indian Olympic team had seven barefoot players and did badly; it is popularly believed that India withdrew from the 1950 World Cup in Brazil because they were still playing without boots. The wakeup call came two years later when India got a 10-1 hammering from Yugoslavia in the Helsinki Olympics.
The victory of 1911 was never nationalised. There are many books, articles, reports and stories on this but none has tried to clarify exactly what was the ‘national’ impact of this victory. Did it appeal to Bengalis alone or did it inspire the nation? Most of the reports on this victory used the words ‘Bengali’ and ‘Indian’ almost as synonyms.
It seems that 1911 actually sparked a spirit of ‘Bengali nationalism’. It didn’t generate passion for the game elsewhere. As a result, football remained neglected in the India that was newly free. And because it became a largely regional thing, we were satisfied with what we achieved at home without trying to explore what the rest of the world was doing. Administrators didn’t have the vision or interest to improve standards. They were never serious about running the game with professional aptitude.
So one should realise what Shibdas Bhaduri and Co. achieved in 1911, has been lost by their successors. What could have been the real ‘takeoff event’ in football is now a remembrance of things past. We are looking at the archival value of that achievement.
The author is the editor of 90 MINUTES (a football journal).