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Delhi Football - A trip down memory lane

Aziz Quraishi and fellow footballers with former President Zakir Husain

Delhi football has been through different phases. The first parent body of Delhi football was formed in 1926, with Professor Mohammed Zubair Qureishi as secretary, with the help of Sardar Sobha Singh and the Young Men FC secretary R.B. Sen known as Adu Babu. There was no proper local league then but the clubs used to participate in private tournaments organised by soccer enthusiasts.

The heyday of local football was just prior to Partition, when numerous talented players emerged from the Walled City area and Delhi won the Santosh trophy, for the first and only time till now, beating mighty Bengal 2-0 in the final. The team that played in the final consisted of four players from Mughals, two from Union and one each from Young Men, New Delhi Heroes, Government Press, Crescent and Royal Air Force. Skipper and goalkeeper Osman Jaan, who had played for the all-conquering Mohammedan Sporting team in the 1930s, was from Crescent and the pint-sized centre forward English was from the Royal Air Force stationed in Delhi.

After Partition, several members of this Delhi team, including a trio from Mughals, defender Munawar Hafiz, midfielders Afzal and Ahmed Hassan migrated to Pakistan. The migrants started a Mughals club in Karachi. Right midfielder Afzal, who had excelled in Delhi’s 1944 Santosh trophy triumph, was even selected for the Pakistan national team, which participated in the 2nd Asian Games in Manila, Philippines. Another star player for Mughals club of that era was Darshan Singh Sodhi, who also captained the Delhi state hockey team and was later a national hockey umpire and secretary of the Delhi Hockey Association (DHA). In the 1940s, Mughals was a formidable team and won the local league title in 1944-45 without either losing a point or conceding a goal.

Delhi’s victorious Santosh trophy skipper Usman Jan was a sub-continent legend for his daring goalkeeping and achievements with Mohammedan Sporting. Thus after his death, the Usman Jan Memorial football tournament was started in Karachi. Mughals, Young Men, Crescent and Usmania club of Delhi participated in this tournament in the 1950s. Mughals won this tournament in 1951. After Partition, several clubs from Delhi frequently crossed the Wagah border and played either tournaments or exhibition matches in Pakistan. This was possible because of the many football officials and players from Delhi who had migrated after 1947.

In the 1950s, Frontier club, mostly consisting of players whose families had migrated from Lahore and Rawalpindi, were frequently invited to play exhibition matches there. Matches against local teams in Pakistan were played earnestly but it was also a nostalgia trip, to renew old acquaintances and visit familiar localities. Sturdy defender O.P. Malhotra, who went on those trips with Frontier Football Club, recalls the atmosphere. He said board and lodging was taken care of by clubs in Lahore and Rawalpindi. Frontier club paid for their train fare. Hospitality was immense and the team would frequently be invited to Dawats at various houses and be given gifts also. Breakfast consisted of lassi, eggs and fruits and a stream of visitors would come afterwards for gossip. Malhotra said that for the three week tour, he carried just Rs. 10 as pocket money and could not spend all of it.

Due to the violence and upheaval caused by the Partition of India, the Delhi league was suspended after 1946. It resumed after a break of two years in 1948 and the oldest club in the capital Young Men won it that year. From 1948 onwards, the Delhi league took a particular shape. It had three divisions. The top 10 teams played in the A division, on a double-leg basis, with all matches being held at the Ambedkar stadium, earlier known as the Delhi Gate stadium. The B and C division matches took place at either the nearby Crescent ground or the President’s Estate ground. Except for transport allowance, kit and refreshment, there was no payment to the players. However, club officials would strive to get their top players jobs in leading public sector concerns like Delhi Audit, Northern Railway, State Bank of India, Central Secretariat, Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking (DESU) and Food Corporation of India (FCI) and so on. A competitive institutional league was also held annually.

Matches of 70 minutes duration would start at 5.45p.m. but with allowances for delay on buses, the kick-off was often at 6.00p.m. Entrance tickets till the sixties were moderately priced at 10 paise (a coin denomination which does not exist any more). The Delhi league was seen as the ordinary man’s entertainment for those who could not afford holidays in popular hill stations Mussourie or Shimla or a distant Kashmir.

The involvement and passion of the crowds was intense and a rivalry developed between Old Delhi and New Delhi clubs. As Delhi expanded and Government housing colonies spread all over South and Central Delhi, the popularity of football also increased. In the 1950s, Delhi had lots of open space and local clubs had no shortage of grounds to practice. New Delhi Heroes became the most formidable team of the 1950s, winning the local league four years in a row (1953-56) and then twice in 1958 and 59. Some of the stalwarts of this side were centre forward Amba Suri, inside forward Krishan Thapar, later Chief Football coach later Deputy Director of National Institute of Patiala, sturdy full back Trilok Nath Lau, later a National Referee, midfielder Ram Swarup and former state captains A.N. Jayaraman and V.P. Suri. It may be recalled that 1948-56 Olympic hockey gold medalist, defender Randhir Singh Gentle also played football for ND Heroes. Gentle later shifted to Bombay to join the Tatas hockey team. He once played in the Rovers Cup when New Delhi Heroes needed a defender, following the sudden illness of a player.

Goalkeeper Hardev Sahai was one of Delhi’s star players in the 1950s. He represented Crescent Club and Young Men and was invited to join a formidable Rajasthan FC in Kolkata in 1952. In his first season, he helped Rajasthan FC emerge joint champions of the IFA Shield with Mohun Bagan.

With massive migration of the Muslim population, the support for football from the Walled City region got diminished. Famous clubs of that region like Crescent, Companions, Alexandria FC, Independents and Usmania declined and shut down. For a decade after Independence, Young Men were the only formidable team of Old Delhi and twice won the Delhi league title in 1951 and 1957. After Partition, it was the Bengali population of Delhi which played a major role in the development of the game by playing for various clubs and becoming officials. They also provided the bulk of the spectators and came in hordes to watch football matches at the Delhi Gate stadium. Raisina Sporting, a team supported by the local Bengali population, won the Delhi league twice in a row in 1961 and 1962.

Players rest at half-time at the old Delhi Gate (Ambedkar) Stadium with the crowd overlooking during a Durand Cup match in the 1960s

It was in the 1960s that the popularity of the Delhi league reached its zenith. The wounds of Partition had healed and Old Delhi football started to flourish once more. The most popular team in the capital was City Club consisting of some veterans and a talented group of school and college players, all of whom were residing in the narrow lanes near the Jama Masjid region. They won the Delhi league for the first time in 1960, with an all win record in the 2nd leg. Later they won the league again in 1963 and 1964. Indian Nationals also based in the Walled City, had their own committed supporters and was the first Delhi club to pay money to purchase players for the season. In the early sixties, they had a fine forward line consisting of striker Nirmal Singh Sahi from Lucknow, wingers Durga Prasad and Ken Mathews and play-maker Som Nath.

Indian Nationals’ rivalry with City Club was intense and the Delhi gate stadium became a veritable cauldron of frenzied supporters when these arch rivals clashed in the local league. Their most fascinating clash was in the return leg on an overcast Sunday evening in July 1964.  City Club was the reigning league champions but trailed Indian Nationals 0-3 at half time. The confident officials of Indian nationals ordered boxes of sweetmeats for distribution after the match. But an inspired City Club spoiled the party. Spurred on by Aziz Qureishi (played for India Juniors in 1965 and later a TV serial actor in popular shows like Hum Log) and gutsy wing half Mohammed Iqbal, City Club rallied to win 6-3 amidst scenes of great joy. Aziz Qureishi the hero of that triumph, was promised free glasses of milk by happy supporters for the rest of the year and for a fortnight after the match, the team was invited for sumptuous Dawats (feasts) by delirious City Club fans.

The Delhi league was extremely popular in the 1960s and Delhi also twice won the Junior National Championships (Dr. B.C. Roy trophy) in 1963 and 1965. Several distinguished players also emerged during this decade. Aziz Qureishi (1965) and the late left winger Arunesh Sharma (1969) represented the India junior team in the annual Asian Youth Football championships. Crafty inside forward Shujaat Ashraf was snapped up by Mohammedan Sporting and scored in the final when his team won the 1964 DCM tournament. He later also played for East Bengal. Lanky stopper back Dev Raj Katyal of Youngsters and New Delhi Heroes along with dashing striker Shanker Mukherjee of Raisina Sporting were recruited by the renowned Mafatlal Mills, Mumbai, which won the renowned DCM tournament in 1967 and 1968.

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