Despite being the world’s seventh-largest country and a vibrant, bustling home to well over one billion inhabitants, India is very much a minor player on football’s world stage. That said, although India’s influence in the modern game is negligible, the country once labelled “the jewel” of the British Empire is not without its own unique and fascinatingly complex footballing history.
Mirroring the pattern seen in countless other British colonies during the age of Empire, football infiltrated India via its ports throughout the middle of the nineteenth century, sailors and merchants introducing the game to locals up and down the country’s Western Seaboard with modest success. After the initial arrival of the sport, football spread to Calcutta where it became concentrated and relatively formalised in India’s most rapidly industrializing city.
It would seem, with hindsight, that all of the ingredients were in place for the rapid expansion of the game in India, the subsequent failure of it to become fully socially embedded being something of an enigma to contemporary historians.
At the time, however, football had caught on amongst the elite strata of Indian society, the first formally organised game being contested between the ‘Calcutta Club of Civilians’ and ‘The Gentlemen of Barrackpore’ in 1854. Forty years later, as the century drew to a close, a league structure was thriving in Calcutta as the city’s major institutions (the police, the civil service, the factories and the mills) provided a large and enthusiastic pool of participants.
The Indian Football Association was established in 1893 and run by British soldiers and sailors keen to spread the game beyond the bounds of the wider Calcutta area. Army teams began to play in more far-flung regions of the country and established several cup competitions in the process, the IFA Shield being by far and away the most successful and a tournament which still runs to this day.
Although the British colonial troops most probably introduced the game as a means of demonstrating their supposed physical superiority to the local population (that was unfortunately the way of things back then), clubs comprised solely of Indians began to spring up at the turn of the century and started to enjoy a certain amount of success.
Mohun Bagan, one of Calcutta’s most accomplished clubs, was formed in 1899 and came to be representative of the growing calls for Bengali independence from colonial rule. Winning several major trophies between 1904 and 1909, Mohun Bagan were indisputably the best all-Indian team in the country, but had consistently failed to overcome the teams of British colonists when they had been presented with the opportunity to do so.
While many saw Mohun Bagan as a fading force post-1909, the club returned to enjoy its best ever year in 1911. Having reached the final of the IFA Shield, the only regional trophy that continued to elude them, in 1911, the Bengali club drew an audience of over 60,000 for the showpiece against the East Yorkshire regiment in Calcutta. On that late July afternoon, Mohun Bagan made history as they beat their British opponents by two goals to one, a victory which was cast by Bengali nationalists as the dealing of a significant political blow to the colonial rulers.
The British, however, continued to restrict the growth of local clubs, limiting their participation in the major competitions and refusing to let the balance of footballing power be redressed. Indians were not allowed onto the board of the IFA until the 1930s, the decade which saw the British eventually cut locals a degree of slack in terms of their administration and wider participation in the game.
Indeed, with the burden of athletic repression largely removed, Indian football enjoyed something of a “golden age” throughout the 1940s and 50s. British teams were regularly beaten by local clubs that demonstrated increasingly high levels of technical proficiency in the years immediately following the conclusion of World War Two, the fledgling national team also enjoying several successes on the international stage. The newly-independent nation claimed the 1951 Asian Cup before the team qualified for both the 1952 and 1956 Olympics, India managing a highly respectable fourth place finish at the latter in Melbourne.
Football was beginning to flourish on the sub-continent, but somehow the rapid progress was lost in a strictly divided society that didn’t seem to take to heart the game’s characteristic inclusivity. That other great pastime of Empire, cricket, quickly overtook football in terms of its popularity, the sport that had captured the country’s imagination at the turn of the century falling by the wayside as Indians took to the bat and ball game in their droves.
There have recently been moves to improve the current state of Indian football, the game having fallen into something approaching disrepair. Facilities and coaching programmes have been almost non-existent for decades now, talented Indian players having to succeed in spite of a fragmented system rather than with the aid of it.
A link between the Indian and Brazilian Football Associations, which was agreed in 2006, has seen many Brazilian coaches travel to India to help put in place a more efficient football infrastructure, but the process is likely to take the best part of a generation before we see the sub-continent consistently producing top-level talent.
Indian football may be tentatively setting out on the road to recovery, but it could be a long time before the game returns to the levels of popularity and political significance that it enjoyed in those early years of the twentieth century. It will not be an easy journey.