Football in India dates back to the nineteenth century when the game was introduced by the British soldiers. Although Cricket is the most popular game in the country even today, football is widely celebrated in many parts of the country especially West Bengal, Goa, Kerala and the North-Eastern states.
In the early days, football was played only among army teams, but gradually it spread among the masses, credit of which goes to Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari. The Calcutta FC was the first club which was established in 1872. The Indian Football Association was founded in 1893, but none of its board members was Indians.
Soon, other clubs like Mohun Bagan, Sovabazar and the Aryan Club came into existence and Calcutta became the epicentre of Indian football. To glorify the beautiful game, several tournaments cropped up, among those, the Trades Cup, The Cooch Behar Cup, The Durand Cup and the IFA Shield took the spotlight. Sovabazar became the first team to win the Trades Cup, in 1982. But it was in 1911 that India made a mark in football.
In 1911, Mohun Bagan club won the prestigious IFA Shield by defeating East Yorkshire Regiments by 2-1 in the final. The win was enormous, it was not only a football match, and it was India’s victory over the British at a time when the struggle for freedom reached the pinnacle.
As football became popular, India started to tour various Asian countries like Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia in the late 1930’s. The 1940’s was a remarkable decade for Indian football. The appearance in the 1948 London Olympics was the first time India participated in a major football tournament.
After many speculations, India got an opportunity to play in the 1950 FIFA World Cup, but the All Indian Football Federation turned down the offer due to various monetary and non-monetary reasons. First of all, the FIFA did not allow India to play barefoot in the mega event, and the Indian players were accustomed playing without football shoes. As per reports, it was also learned that financial condition of the governing body was also a factor.
In fact, India could not afford the players’ long trip to South America to play in the World Cup. Another reason was that the Olympics were more popular at that time and people in India hardly knew the importance of the World Cup. The masses considered the Olympics as the ultimate, so less importance was given to the then called ‘Jules Rimet’ trophy. Sadly, India is still trying hard to make their first appearance on Earth’s biggest football carnival!
In 1951, India won the Asian Games gold medal, the first major win in an International event. The team was led by Sailen Manna, one of the greatest players the country and the continent have ever seen. Having hosted the Asiad in 1951, India defeated Iran in the final 1-0 to win the gold. The period from 1950 to 1962 is often referred to as the “Golden Era of Indian Football.”
The 1952 Helsinki Olympics was one of India’s was India’s second appearance at the major tournament, but never made a mark in the European nation. It was the 1956 Melbourne Olympics that changed the face of Indian football. India defeated hosts Australia 4-2 and finished at the fourth spot against the expectations of many. It was the first time that India was recognised as a football nation and a major powerhouse in the Asian region. It was a time when Indian football team had the services of one of the best players the country has ever seen, Pradip Kumar Banerjee.
India even made its mark in various tournaments like the Merdeka Cup where top Asian teams competed. Following the Bronze medal win at the 1970 Asian Games, the glory days of Indian football came to a halt. India never qualified for the Olympics following the 1960 edition, and also underperformed in the Asian Games since that decade.
During the 1970’s, India club football was at its peak, with Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting Club being the three most active clubs with huge fan bases throughout the country. East Bengal won the 1973 IFA Shield edging past Pyongyang City Sports Club while Mohun Bagan won the 1978 edition by having the better of FC Ararat Yerevan of Soviet Union, becoming the first Indian team to win the title against a Non-Asian team after Independence.
1977 was a special year for Indian football. First, Brazilian legend Pele set his foot for the first time on Indian soil for an exhibition match against Mohun Bagan AC for his club New York Cosmos. The Kolkata giants played exceptionally well to hold the North American side 2-2 in front of 70,000 people at the Eden Gardens stadium. It was also in that year that the AIFF started the Federation Cup, back then it was the most prestigious club tournament in India. ITI Bangalore won the inaugural edition of the tournament by virtue of a 1-0 win against Mohun Bagan in the final.
The Nehru Cup was started by the All India Football Federation in 1982, which was a tournament involving International teams from around the globe. Uruguay won the inaugural edition of the cup defeating China in the final. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw a huge decline Indian football as they failed to hold onto their position in Asia and suffered heavy defeats in International fixtures. After several years of trophy drought, the “Blue Tigers” finally won the Nehru Cup in 2007 after defeating Syria 1-0 on the final.
The National Football League started in 1996 as the premier league tournament in India. JCT FC won the inaugural edition of the NFL. The league continued till 2006-07 season, following which the competition continues as the I-League. Dempo SC is the most successful club with 5 national titles.
The Indian Super League is the latest development of Indian football; it is a franchise based football competition which started in 2014 with 8 teams. Gradually, the ISL expanded and 10 teams are currently playing in the league. The ISL and the I-League are being played simultaneously. A proposed Indian Super Cup is set to begin which will include teams from both the leagues.