Sleeping Giant. That’s how Indian football is often spoken of, a powerhouse in deep slumbers waiting to rise. But, how did it all begin? Who brought football to India, who was responsible to bring it to the masses, which were the footballing hotspots in the country, who were our first footballers, what were the some of the early iconic triumphs of the national team? Which were the earliest clubs that were formed? Was India really called the ‘Brazil of Asia’?
In this series, we take a look at some of the long-forgotten pages in Indian football history, revisit some of the most iconic matches, players and coaches. Buckle up and stay tuned as we rediscover some of our past glories.
How it all began
Sport has always been a unifier, in the modern-day, it might mean something as simple as fans across clubs supporting the national team regardless of club differences, but back in the early 19th century in colonial India, football, like cricket was the crux of nationalism and pride, a way to one up on the British colonisers. It is widely accepted that the beautiful game came with the East India Company (EIC) to India. The officers in the various regiments, professors in educational institutions were responsible to expose the Indian public to the game, so to speak.
Being the capital at that time, Calcutta was the hub of football, it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to call it the birthplace of Indian football. This was where the first matches were played and the initial clubs were formed. The first football match was played in Calcutta in 1854, between the ‘Calcutta Club of Civilians’ and the ‘Gentlemen of Barrackpore’ a little under two centuries ago. The oldest football clubs set up was Sarada FC and Calcutta FC in 1872, they are also considered one of the oldest clubs in Asia, but they primarily had British members. Later, Dalhousie Athletic Club was founded in 1878, by the members of the Indian Civil service, who ironically, were not Indian. The club was earlier named Trades Club and was one of the first organised football clubs to be formed.
Meanwhile, whatever came along with the British like the Missionaries, the Anglo-Indian schools and colleges, all of them started to inculcate football into the curriculum, all across the country. This led to various clubs being formed by the students after they graduated. In the 1880s Sovabazar FC, National Association, Town Club and Mohun Bagan clubs were formed in Calcutta. Mohun Bagan that was founded in 1889 is recognised as India’s oldest current team.
Outside of Bengal though, in Kashmir, Bombay, Chennai and Hyderabad educationists had successfully managed to get football as a part of the school’s activities. The provinces under British control or Portuguese control in some cases was where football flourished the most. One of the earliest known records of a football match being played in Bombay is between the Military XI and the Island XI in 1802, it was played for only 30 minutes.
In Kerala, early in 1899, RB Ferguson Club was formed, it was the first club to be formed in Kerala. In Goa, in 1883, the game was introduced by an English priest, and for this region, churches were an easy means to drive the football to the masses, the first club was formed in 1905 called the Boys Social Club. Delhi too saw the Victorian’s influence and the first club to be founded there was called Youngmen FC founded in 1898 and later Mughals in 1905.
But nowhere did football see a rise as it did in Calcutta, hand in hand with the nationalist movement, football started to become more than just a sport. But the popularity was in no way close to the fandom that it gained a little later here. The magnitude of the British presence in the area meant that there were more good grounds at the disposal for playing football.
This was a time when numerous tournaments were set up, but Indians were not allowed to play in them, the colonizers looked down on the Indians, as they believed their physicality was not suited to play football. Those were the days when the only way to fight back against the rulers, without facing severe consequences was by defeating them on the football field. It was around this time that a prominent, but long-forgotten footballing hero, Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari stood centre stage and took his first steps in making football accessible to the Indian people.
Next, in our line-up, we take a look at when and how the ‘first kick’ of Indian football occurred and delve into the life and times of the Father of Indian football.
(Sources: Football in Bengali culture and society a study in the social history of football in Bengal 1911 to 1980: Kausik Bandyopadhyay; A Social and history of Indian football: Boria Majumdar and Kausik Bandyopadhyay; Nation at Play: Ronojoy Sen and Video Source: History of Indian Football Directed by Indranil Banerjee)