In December 1911, the capital of British India shifted to the site of its lavish durbar in the former Mughal seat of Delhi. Among other things, the move had a certain historical fitness; a legitimate empire would govern from a legitimately imperial capital. Calcutta, like Bombay on the opposite coast, would continue to fuel the engine with its commercial might: a troublesome outpost of international trade, with its growing rumblings of sedition and native nationalism, but essentially a British city, built to serve British interests.
But India intruded. Less than five months before the changeover of the Indian capital, Calcutta’s Mohun Bagan Athletic Club defeated the all-British East Yorkshire Regiment team to become the first-ever Indian team to win the Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield.
The beginning: An impromptu game of football in front of the team’s greatest symbol— a picture of the 1911 team—at Mohun Bagan lane, Hatibagan, north Kolkata. The club’s origins can be traced to 1889 and to this area. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
Since football’s impact in contemporary Indian culture is relatively subdued, it may be difficult today to imagine how bound up football was with both the spirit and practice of the British empire. But it was as crucial to the empire’s self-image as cricket. In an essay on the athletics of empire, writer Caroline Alexander writes of the prevailing attitude to sport: “A good captain of the first eleven would undoubtedly make a good officer. Games taught a chap to play straight and not ‘offside’.”
She quotes Marlborough’s school magazine: “‘[A] truly chivalrous football player...was never yet guilty of lying, or deceit, or meanness whether of word or action.’ This insistence on the decency and ‘straightness’ of the young athlete bolstered the attendant belief that just as the soldier-athlete was invariably decent, so too was his imperial cause.”
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Unlike cricket, football’s origins can be mystically attributed to various times and parts of the world. Some say the ancient Chinese were playing it pre-historically; some locate its European birth in Renaissance Florence’s shin-cracking calcio. Today, it is tempting to reconstruct the history of a sport so organic and diverse—so apparently global as to make its adoption by the world seem perfectly natural.
But modern football in the early 20th century was formed, preserved and exported wholly by the forces of imperial Britain. Through trade, diplomacy, warfare—and often a combination of all three—the playing fields of English public schools disseminated their pastimes to the rest of the world, and none more successfully than soccer, the “gentleman’s game played by thugs”.
Winners: (top) The Mohun Bagan Athletic Club today. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The teams which faced each other on 29 July 1911 were each, in their way, products of this will to power. The East Yorkshire Regiment team represented an ancient infantry regiment of Britain, and British militarism itself was highly, forcefully visible in Calcutta. The bedrock of the city’s sporting pursuit, the Maidan, had been built as a parade ground adjoining Fort William.
East York were ambassadors of a vibrant, contentious football culture in Britain, where approaches to the game were in an exciting state of flux (the now-fundamental rule that a goalkeeper can only handle the ball in his own box, for example, would be instated as late as 1912, a whole year after the York-Bagan game). Rules originated variously from schools’ football, from the clubs that had begun forming in the 1850s and 1860s in England’s working-class parishes, and from the few internationals contested within Great Britain.
It was an irresistible pastime, and native Bengalis had long since succumbed. The “muscular Bengali” of whom historian Ramachandra Guha writes in his anecdotal cricket history, Wickets in the East, was an ideal that also informed Bengali football. A sportsman’s self-fashioning as a physically powerful being, a man of action, was crucial to countering the stereotype of the brown native as an indolent coward.
And so, that monsoon, Calcutta’s pre-eminent football club, having claimed glory in the Cooch Behar Cup and the Gladstone Cup, entered the IFA Shield tournament, the equivalent of the FA Cup in this corner of the empire. They defeated four other British sides in the run-up to the final. At 5.30pm on 29 July, captain and “left-out” Shibdas Bhaduri led the Bagan players out for their 50-minute final.
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It would go on to become Indian football’s best-known marker, often inaccurately, but it was true in 1911: All but one of Mohun Bagan’s players went barefoot. Equipment, even then, was expensive, bought not simply with money, but at the cost of growing nationalist sentiment. Pride, resentment, a certain desire for freedom; what the muscular Bengali could not express outside the playing field, he would attempt to demonstrate on it.
Mohun Bagan’s fans had poured in well before kick-off, from every part of Calcutta and the Bengal Presidency. Special trains and boats were organized to accommodate fans (among the day’s myths includes a suggestion that it was the first Indian occasion on which tickets were sold in black).
Miraculously, the rains had held off through the tournament. On the dry, hard ground of the Calcutta Cricket and Football Club field, Bagan’s players found purchase for their darting dribble-and-pass game, but East York dominated the first half of the match, scoring from a free kick and denying all Bagan’s attempts to equalize. In the second half, 10 minutes from the whistle, captain Bhaduri scored an equaliser; a goal that would arguably be the most important in Indian football. Bhaduri also set up one more, 8 minutes later, for Abhilash Ghosh to end the contest.
The 1911 team—(below, standing, from left) Rajen Sengupta, Neelmadhab Bhattacharya, Heeralal Mukherjee, Manmohan Mukherjee, the reverend Sudhir Chatterjee and Bhuti Sukul, and (sitting, from left) Kanu Roy, Habul Sarkar, Abhilash Ghosh, Bijoydas Bhaduri and Shibdas Bhaduri. Photo: Courtesy Mohun Bagan Athletic Club
The kites above Calcutta flew green and maroon against the evening sky, a sign for those too far from the grounds—2-1; the British had been defeated.
History finds it more difficult to borrow sport’s simple narratives of victory and defeat. It would take almost four decades after Bagan’s victory for India to gain independence. Football would never merely symbolize the divide between Indian and British, brown and white: Its extraordinary power to unite communities would also pit Hindu against Muslim, burgher against refugee, and Bengali against Bengali.
War, riots, famine, economic setbacks, political crises—Calcutta, and India, would change drastically to accommodate each fresh challenge. And so, in the wake of a tumultuous century, it can be hard to grasp the power of that July scoreline. Could fans a hundred years ago really have found enough joy in a football match to keep them in hope for years to come? How had this sport, one of the poisoned gifts of an oppressive imperialism, come to represent anti-imperialist resistance?
This, however, is one of sport’s more benign contradictions. It can defy its own oppressive structures from time to time, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in football. In the mid-20th century, under the heel of the Francoist regime, FC Barcelona would articulate the same kind of popular rage within the towering walls of the Camp Nou. Outside they were, by force, the bearers of a repressive Spanish identity. In the stadium, rooting for their own team, they were free to be weeping, exulting, screaming Catalans. Football may have been the colonizer’s game, just as Calcutta was, in some way, the city of the colonizers.
But Mohun Bagan had ignited the spark from within the belly of the beast; it had made football fans.