Opinion | A football victory that fired up a colonized nation 108 years ago4 min read . Updated: 04 Aug 2019, 11:55 PM IST
When a barefooted team won the IFA Shield in 1911, it did much more than win a football trophy
Almost exactly 108 years ago, a football match took place in Calcutta that energized millions, a thunderous hurrah for a nationalist movement that had begun six years earlier. On 29 July 1911, Mohun Bagan defeated East Yorkshire Regiment to lift the Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield, the first Indian team to beat a British one to win a major sports trophy.
In 1905, Viceroy Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal, officially for administrative efficiency, but in effect dividing the province along Hindu-Muslim lines. The move enraged Bengalis and triggered radical nationalism. The Swadeshi movement began, with “Vande Mataram" as a rallying cry. Young men took up arms and were martyred. Nationalists across India supported the cause.
On to 1911. Mohun Bagan had participated in the tournament in the previous two years, but had not progressed beyond the first two rounds. So, fan interest was tepid in the beginning, but soon, the mood changed dramatically. When Bagan reached the final, according to the day’s newspapers, no one spoke of anything else in the city. People came in from as far away as Patna, Dhaka and Assam. A special train was run, as were extra steamer services. Tickets priced at ₹1 or 2 went for as much as ₹15. An estimated 80,000 people turned up. The Calcutta Football Club ground could accommodate only 10,000, so fans climbed trees and filled up terraces of nearby buildings.
Barefooted Bengalis faced booted British armymen. Football boots, after all, cost ₹7, equivalent to a schoolteacher’s monthly salary. Bagan also represented a united Bengal—eight of the 11 hailed from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), the other side of Curzon’s divide. Fifteen minutes before end of play, Sergeant Jackson scored. But soon after, Bagan’s captain Shibdas Bhaduri equalized. And then, with minutes to go, Abhilash Ghosh caught a perfect pass from Shibdas and found the net. 2-1! Amrita Bazar Patrika reported: “The scene that followed was beyond description… The tremendous cheering shook heaven and earth. It was as if the whole population had gone mad and comparing it with anything would be to minimize the effect." As the team left the ground, left-back Sudhir Chatterjee was approached by an elderly Brahmin priest, who said: “You’ve conquered this today," and then, pointing to the Union Jack fluttering over the garrison Fort William, asked: “When will you conquer that?"
The nation celebrated. The match received prominent coverage in the British press. In India, The Englishman wrote that Mohun Bagan had “succeeded in what the Congress and the Swadeshiwallas have failed so far to explode the myth that the Britishers are unbeatable in any sphere of life". The Bengali paper Basumati said that more than political parties, Bagan had been able to unite people. This may have been true to some extent. The weekly paper The Mussalman wrote: “The members of the Muslim Sporting Club were…rolling on the ground with joyous excitement on the victory of their Hindu brethren."
The triumph was also extremely important to Bengalis in another way. Thomas Babington Macaulay had called Bengalis “feeble even to effeminacy". The journalist G.W. Steevens wrote: “By his legs you shall know a Bengali… The Bengali’s leg is either skin and bones… or else it is very fat or globular… The Bengali’s leg is the leg of a slave." Bengalis did not take these barbs lightly. Among luminaries who evangelized physical fitness were Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Swami Vivekananda, whose most famous quote among Bengalis is: “You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita."
After the win (where Bengali “slave" legs had beaten the British), the paper Nayak exulted that “rice-eating, malaria-ridden, barefooted Bengalis have got the better of beef-eating, Herculean, booted John Bull in the peculiarly English sport". Another newspaper commented that the Bengali was “no longer the timid and weak-kneed representative of a race whom Macaulay had so foully libelled".
A few months after the IFA Shield final, the British rescinded the Bengal partition order and reunited the province. This was seen as a great victory by Bengali nationalists. But the euphoria was short-lived. In December, King George V announced the shift of the capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi, changing the fate of Bengalis forever. The British were fed up with Bengalis; they also wanted to reclaim the Mughal seat of power.
To end, two sobering facts. One, a few days after the match, The Statesman carried a letter from Mohun Bagan’s administrator Sailen Basu. He wrote that the club had decided “it is not desirable to make a fuss" over the win, and that it had been achieved with the help of “numerous friends, both European and Indian". Bagan’s wealthy patrons obviously wanted to distance themselves from the nationalist sentiments the victory had stirred up. Two, Kanu Roy, member of the “Eternal XI", joined the police and earned much infamy for torturing freedom fighters, retiring as a deputy inspector general in 1947, the year India gained independence. That was also the year Mohun Bagan won the IFA Shield the second time.
Sandipan Deb is former editor of ‘Financial Express’ and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines