Of glory and downfall - Recounting Indian football's history
‘Lagaan’ (a movie set in the Victorian period of India’s colonial British Raj in 1893), was released in 2001 and is among the “All-time 25 Best Sports Movies”, as listed in Time magazine’s edition in 2011. It revolves around peasants who challenged the British in a game of cricket, with an opportunity to get their taxes cancelled for 3 years if they defeat the British team in the match. Had it been a game of football, how would have things turned out for the movie?
Have you ever pondered on which is the oldest football competition in the world outside Britain? It’s not the Campeonato Paulista or the Copa Del Rey, the oldest tournaments in South America and Europe respectively, but the Durand Cup inaugurated in India back in 1888 by Sir Mortimer Durand, which stands as the fourth-oldest existing football tournament around the atlas, behind English FA Cup, the Scottish Cup and the Welsh Cup. It would definitely surprise many of us who are not aware of it. In a nation like India, monopolised by the huge fan following for cricket, football has still managed to gravitate large audience in its pocket.
If we look into the recent data, India has around 155 million football viewers against cricket’s 176 million (stats according to Celebrity Management Group, which bought the rights of Argentina vs Venezuela fixture in Kolkata in 2011), which is a very promising figure. Viewership for Euro Cup in 2012 grew by 28% (as many as 19 million Indians, up from 15 million in 2008), according to TAM Media research. In the recent years, corporate interest in Indian football has been growing. Nokia India launched “Defend your Turf” in 2006, a national level futsal challenge which got rolled out across major cities in India, PepsiCo launched “PepsiCo T20 Football” campaign in all the major cities of India in 2012, a competition which pulled in 448 teams and 3136 amateur players.
Undoubtedly, football is one of the most popular and highly appreciated sports in India, next to cricket. It is religiously followed in Goa, Kerala, West Bengal and the entire North-East India, especially Sikkim, Manipur, Mizoram and Meghalaya.
Football in India, like cricket, can be attributed to the British Raj. Calcutta FC, established in 1872, was the first ever football club in the history of Indian Football. Soon, many clubs flooded onto the scene, including Mohan Bagan Athletic club, Dalhousie club, Naval Volunteers club, Sovabazar club and also Traders club. Calcutta (now Kolkata), the then capital of British India, soon became Indian football’s hub. Earlier, games were played between army teams by forming regimental teams in Madras (Chennai), Bangalore (Bengaluru), Hyderabad, Ambala, Delhi, Peshawar and Dhaka. The first recorded match was between the “Calcutta Club of Civilians” and “The Gentlemen of Barrackpore” in 1854. Following Durand Cup, soon a number of competitions were launched, including the most popular Gladstone club, the Trades cup and the Cooch Behar cup. And finally came the moment when Sovabazar club upset East Surrey Regiment 2-1 in the Trades cup final in 1892, becoming the first “Indian” team to taste success against a foreign team. Seeing the abrupt increase in the following of football, the Indian Football Association (IFA) was established in Calcutta in 1893. Mohan Bagan AC became the first Indian club to succeed at the highest level with a 2-1 victory over East Yorkshire Regiment in the IFA Shield final in 1911, which is still considered by many as the greatest win by an Indian team before Independence, a tournament earlier monopolised by British clubs based in India.
The first Indian major football club, Mohan Bagan AC was started back in 1889. Players were predominantly youngsters studying in either school or college and the club was well funded and supported by the Bengali aristocracy that founded the club. After the mammoth success of Mohan Bagan AC winning the IFA Shield trophy, football clubs and tournaments spread rapidly throughout the country. The increasing number of football clubs led to the formation of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) in 1937, headed by Brigadier VHB Mejendine. The AIFF’s role was to govern the game throughout the country, and in the process, help in its growth. AIFF got affiliation from the governing body, FIFA in 1948, and it was also one of the founder members of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 1954.
Historians refer the decade of 1951-62 as the “Golden Era” in the Indian Football history as the national team won numerous major titles in this era under the coaching of “Syed Abdul Rahim”. India bagged gold medals in the 1951 and 1962 Asian games, held at Delhi and Jakarta respectively and it became the first Asian nation to reach the Olympic football semi-finals, finishing fourth in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
In the Indian Football history, all these events are considered to be the memorable milestones achieved. Neville D’Souza, who became the first Asian player to score a hat-trick in Olympic Games, finished the tournament as the joint top-scorer with 4 goals in 3 matches in 1956 Melbourne Olympics. Indian captain Sailen Manna was the only Asian to ever make the list of the world’s 10 best captains in the English FA’s celebrated football yearbook in 1953.
India was invited to play in the World Cup in Brazil by FIFA in 1950 as the three Asian qualifiers (Burma (now Myanmar), Philippines and Indonesia) backed out at the last minute. However, India had to withdraw as well. The myth for the withdrawal of the Indians because of the rule imposed on banning barefoot playing was not entirely true. It was cover up story for the disastrous decision taken by AIFF according to the then Indian captain Sailen Manna. A reason shown by AIFF was cost of travel (which FIFA agreed to bear a major part of). Since then, the team has never come close to qualifying for the FIFA world Cup.
Indian football went through a barren phase in 70s, 80s and 90s, which led them to lose spots in the top Asian tournaments. In addition to that, Indian cricket team winning 1983 ICC Cricket World Cup on a global platform further increased cricket’s popularity and its followers’ headcount. Now there was immense pressure on Indian football to regain their winning momentum and live up to the fans’ expectations. The appointment of Bob Houghton as head coach of India in June 2006 by the AIFF showed a progress in India’s performance, bringing a sigh of relief for the nation. Under Houghton, India won Nehru Cup twice in 2007 and 2009, and AFC Challenge cup in 2008 which were a remarkable feat to achieve in a short span (June 2006 – April 2011). Under the current coach Kim Koevermans, India lifted the Nehru cup in 2012 for the 3rd consecutive time, beating Cameroon 5-4 in penalty shootouts, giving the Dutch coach a good start in India.
India has not been able to achieve major success in the international front. Nevertheless, India has never disappointed and produced top class footballers like Pradip Kumar Banerjee, Sailen Manna, Peter Thangaraj, Neville D’Souza, Chuni Goswami, Sahu Mewalal, Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chetri.
However, the obstacles like lack of infrastructure, FIFA ranking of 167 in the world, a national league (I-League) which struggles to compete with other leagues, especially European ones, to attract fans and TV viewership, are some of the major challenges faced by Indian football today. The lack of world-class stadiums, training facilities, youth development programmes have pushed the nation back. Had Tata Football Academy (TFA) not been existed, it would have been an even worse scenario for Indian football. Majority of the top footballers in the national team during the last 10-15 years have graduated from the Tata Football Academy.
Since top clubs in the country cannot set up world-class facilities for grooming the youth due to financial constraints, the AIFF should pitch in to make sure that the young talents are not wasted in the different parts of the country. AIFF should focus on these grounds to revive the Indian glory back again. We need investment from private sectors with a clear focus on development and long-term motive rather a short-term gain through ROI (Return on Investment). FIFA, under its “Win in India with India project” has already laid 4 artificial turf football grounds out of the proposed 8 grounds, which is good news for the Indian football. With India having a possibility to host the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup, there is definitely going to be massive renovation of stadiums throughout the country in the near future.
The whole nation is eagerly waiting to see a new Golden era of Indian Football. On a different note, with a good script, film-makers can give a thought on making an epic on football and who knows, we can witness another box-office hit like Lagaan or Chak De India!