A ten-year-old boy was riding on a carriage with his mother that was moving towards the Calcutta FC Ground, the little boy saw that on the field there were several Europeans kicking around a ball. Fascinated, he got down from the carriage to watch them play, and just as he stood there watching, the ball came rolling towards him. The young boy picked it up and examined what the Europeans were playing with. Seeing him being this astonished, the Britishers laughed at him and asked him to “Kick it” back to them. He did as he was told, and legend has it, that this was the first time an Indian had kicked a football.

Whether or not this is a work of fiction, and if the incident did take place is debatable. But, that day a young boy of 10 led a series of events that went on to change the popularity of football in India forever.  We’ve seen how the earliest clubs were formed in India, but the social structure at that time was such that Indians did not hold an important place in the British sphere of thinking, they were considered physically unfit to take up football and playing it was another matter altogether.

The “First Kick” is said to have occurred in 1877, to put it into perspective, a time when Queen Victoria had taken over as the Empress of India, and the Britishers considered themselves to be far too superior to the natives. In other words, sticking purely to the football aspect of things and not getting far too deep into the social history, no one at that point of time would have anticipated just how Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari was going to make football popular.

Introduction to the game

After his first brush with football, Sarbadhikari who was a student in Hare School in Calcutta, introduced the game to his friends, but such was their unfamiliarity towards the newfound game that they didn’t realise that they had bought a rugby ball instead of a football to play with. G.A Stack, who was a professor in the neighbouring Presidency College, brought this to their notice when he saw them playing, and even taught them the basic rules. This led to the formation of the Boy’s Club, the first football club for Indians.

This, proved to be decisive, because in a short span of time spearheaded by young Nagendra, more and more children picked up a football, and clubs started to be formed. The older boys in Presidency College too joined the schoolboys from Hare School, and with Nagendra Prasad, they became more and more enchanted by the game. With one of his classmates, Nagendra Mullick, who was the member of the famous Mullick family, he also formed the Friends Club. Later, as a student he played for Presidency College forming the Presidency club and outside of it he also established the Wellington Club as well in 1884. Not just Calcutta, he partnered with friends in other parts of Bengal as well to form clubs such as Howrah Sporting.

Rift in Wellington Club and the founding of Sovabazar Club

After graduating, Wellington Club became fully operational, playing from the Calcutta maidan, and accepting members from all classes of society, something that was unheard of in 1880s Bengal.

Although this was pathbreaking, it proved to be a difficult pill to swallow for the other members of the club going forward. The class divide was quite prevalent in society, and the dispute within the members about a potter’s son, Moni Das, joining the club, became a point of contention. Sarbadhikari was against any form of discrimination, stating that sports should never have a place for this social evil. As differences arose over this, Wellington club was disbanded.

By marriage, he was associated with Royal family of Sovabazaar, in the premises of their royal palace, Sarbadhikari went on to form the Sovabazaar Club in 1887, to say this was revolutionary is an understatement. It broke all shackles of social discrimination and class divide, Moni Das, who was the reasons for the rift in Wellington Club was one of the first members to join, and this set the tone for the club, to recruit players irrespective of caste, religion or creed.

The founding members of the club are widely credited for the growth of football in Bengal, apart from Sarbadhikari, Jishnendra Krishna Deb Bahadur, a member of the Sovabazar royal family was the joint secretary and Bhupendra Narayan Bhup Bahadur who was the Maharaja of Coochbehar was the club president. Thus, started by the locals, Sovabazaar Club became a kick-starter of sorts for Indians to start playing in tournaments meant only for the British. The club was invited to play in the Trades Cup, one of the first open tournaments, where even Indian clubs could participate.

The more the Club played, the more it became reachable to the people in Calcutta and more and more members joined the Club. Apart from this, newer clubs started to mushroom all around Calcutta, drawing inspiration from Sarbadhikari. Two of the well-known clubs today, Mohun Bagan (1889) and in 1891 Mohammedan Sporting were also a part of the many clubs that were formed at that time.

In 1892, Sovabazar did what most Indians at that time would have dreamt about when they played football, they defeated the British team, East Surrey 2-1 in the Trades Cup opening match and this win also cemented football as a means to one-up on the British. Beating the British in their own game, incensed a sort of nationalistic fervour, that had ripple effects across not just the footballing field, but society at large. Nagendra Prasad went on to be facilitated by the royal families of Bengal as well as Patiala (Punjab). Later, the club also established their club tent in the Calcutta Maidan area, which until then, just housed the British teams.

Founding of the IFA and the IFA Shield

At this point in the story is when the visionary that the man really was comes to the forefront, during this time, simultaneous to the Trades Cup in Calcutta, Durand Cup was played in Shimla (the British winter capital) and the Rovers Cup was played in Bombay since 1888 and 1891 respectively. Nagendra Prasad proposed a tournament where teams from all over India participated.

In the same year that Sovabazar won against East Surrey, he met with officials from Calcutta FC and Dalhousie Club, to start a tournament where the teams from all over the country could participate, the idea was agreed to, but until then football in India did not have a governing body and a tournament of this magnitude would need one.

Hence, in 1893, the Indian Football Association (IFA) was established, but there was not a single Indian member, not even Sarbadhikari. IFA decided to start an all India tournament, that would be open for participation for all clubs across the country that was called the IFA Shield, which was to be a knockout tournament. The money poured in from the royal houses of Coochbehar and Patiala, and the Shield trophy was designed in Calcutta, but made in London.

The very first IFA Shield had thirteen teams in participation from two zones- the Western and Eastern Zone. The Western Zone was held in Allahabad and four teams participated and Eastern Zone held in Calcutta and nine teams participated. The British monopoly over the game in India was quite evident, with Sovabazar being the only Indian Club in participation.

But that did not last long, the sheer volume of clubs emerging across Calcutta and India made it necessary for full-fledged League to be formed, and not just the Cup tournaments that happened in the city. The result was the Calcutta Football League being formed in 1898, the oldest football league in Asia.

Two years later, in 1900, perhaps more under pressure by the local teams, Sarbadhikari was offered the post in the IFA’s governing body. He declined and offered it to a senior sportsman of Sovabazar Club, Kalicharan Mitra. Nevertheless, the offer from IFA was an acknowledgement of his efforts towards the growth of football.

Defeating the British

All the work that he had put in started to bear fruit soon enough, his own club, Sovabazar had brought in the first win against a British team, another club called National Association did even better and won the Trades Cup in 1900 and again in 1902. National Association was also a club that was established by Manmatha Nath Ganguly. They are considered the first team to play football with boots in Calcutta, and true to their name, the club’s sole purpose was to defeat the British, by playing football the way the Victorians did: by playing with shoes.

National took over the mantle from Sovabazar club, to spearhead some of the earliest achievements. They were then joined by Mohun Bagan who outdid everybody else, but that is a story for another day.

The first legend of Indian football

Nagendra Prasad, who had sown the seeds of football in Calcutta, if not whole of India, broke several barriers, first by bringing the game to the locals which up until then was an English game, second, with Sovabazar he broke the social barrier with his complete disregard to caste discrimination, that was the norm in society at that time. Sovabazar was also the first Indian club invited to play in a tournament and quite possibly laid the foundation for various other clubs to follow suit. The sheer number of clubs he directly or indirectly helped form are far too many to count, and that just goes on to show his influence of spreading football all through the masses.

He probably would have achieved much more had he carried on as an administrator in the IFA, but mysteriously, in 1902 he completely withdrew from the game, to become an attorney in the Calcutta High court.

As far as football stories go, very rarely does a person’s leadership skills off the field take precedence over the on-field ones. But such is the case with Sarbadhikar, there is very little or no information available about his footballing skills. But whatever we know of him is that he was an extremely strong centre forward, who was one of the best players in Sovabazar, his physical strength is a stuff of legend. It is said that one day a family member told him that a man needed just enough strength to drink a glass of water by himself, miffed by the comment, Nagendra Prasad promptly lifted him off the ground and asked him what strength he might need to escape when he was thrown to the ground. That was his stamina.

The stats are too scarce to give us a picture of just how good a player he was, but his achievements towards the growth of football are far too many and out-do just about anything he could have done on the field.

A visionary whose influence was not restricted just to Calcutta but went much beyond, he not only brought football to the common folk, but he also was responsible for setting up of several clubs that carried the torch of Indian football and nationalism forward. A long-forgotten legend, and a name not too many people in the present day would recognise, but a name one should know nonetheless. It would not be too farfetched to say that if not for his efforts to spread the game and popularise it, football may have been one of those things that remained just with the British. Fortunately for Indian football, that fateful day in the banks of the river Hoogly, when he got off the carriage to watch the British men play the sport, forever changed the course of history. And so, he is very aptly called: The Father of Indian Football.

In the next article, we take a look at just how close a sport and a quest for a nation’s nationalism can intermix and just how much one influences the other with reference to the trinity of Calcutta maidan- Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal.

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