Mohun Bagan: A Symbol of National Identity

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    Exactly 109 years ago, in 1911, the victory of an Indian football club against a British regimental team caused a nationwide frenzy. Eleven barefoot Indians under the Mohun Bagan banner enjoyed a decisive 2-1 victory over the East Yorkshire Regiment. But this was more than just a sporting victory.

    The tournament was the prestigious IFA Shield and Mohun Bagan had scored the winning goal at a time when the struggle for freedom from colonial rule was at fever pitch. Moreover, the British government’s division of Bengal into East and West in 1905 had further enraged Bengalis. So, on 29th July 1911, when the Bengali boys defeated the powerful regimental team, it told a nation thirsting for independence just one thing – ‘You can win’.

    It wasn’t the first time an Indian team had won against a British sporting squad; it was the timing. Although this triumph had come on the football field, it brought the entire nation together in one powerful, climactic moment. A moment of conviction in the battle for freedom.

    Founding The Club

    Mohun Bagan, the first Indian football club to gain pan-India popularity, was founded at Kirti Mitra’s Mohun Bagan Villa in North Kolkata on 15th August 1889, in the presence of eminent personalities, the social elite and the city’s aristocrats. They had assembled with the sole aim to develop sporting activities among Bengali youth. The meeting was presided over by Bhupendra Nath Bose, who would later become president of the Indian National Congress in 1914. Bose and the others present on the occasion decided to name the club after the villa where the first meeting was held. So they called it the ‘Mohun Bagan Sporting Club’.

    At the club’s first Foundation Day celebration, the word ‘sporting’ was dropped and the club was renamed ‘Mohun Bagan Athletic Club’, as Prof F J Rhow of Presidency College (now Presidency University) and chief guest at the event, pointed out that there were no ‘non-athletic sporting activities’ at the club.

    The pride of the nation and a symbol of India’s freedom movement, Mohun Bagan Athletic Club celebrated its 131st anniversary on 15th August 2020.

    Football in Bengal: Early Days

    The first few organised football matches in Calcutta were played only by all-British teams, the very first one being in 1838, when Etonians defeated the Rest of Calcutta 3-0. Then, on 13th April 1854, the Calcutta Club of Civilians and Gentleman of Barrackpore played a friendly match at the Esplanade ground near Fort William. In 1868, a match between Athenians and the Rest of Calcutta drew a large crowd at the same ground.

    The year 1877 was pivotal in the history of Indian football. A ten-year-old boy, Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari, was in a boat on the Hooghly with his mother, and as the boat glided towards the shore near the Calcutta FC ground, he noticed Europeans playing with a ball. Fascinated by the game, he pleaded with his mother to halt the boat so that he could join them for a while.

    The excited boy was standing on the road contemplating this when the ball sailed outside the field and landed close to him. Sarbadhikari happily kicked it back into play. This oft-narrated anecdote is the first recorded incident of an Indian kicking a football.

    Sarbadhikari, a student at Hare School in Calcutta, was head-over-heels in love with football and never forgot his tryst with the ‘game’. So he and his classmates pooled their pocket money to buy a football but they mistakenly purchased a rugby ball instead! Naturally, it was tough to kick around.

    A kind-hearted Prof G A Stack of Presidency College got the boys a regular football and also taught them the basics of the game. These student footballers, now teenagers, formed the Boys’ Club, first football club only for Indian students.

    The first professional football club in Calcutta, the Calcutta Football Club (CFC), launched in the 1870s but membership was restricted to the upper strata of the British Middle Club. Miffed at being left out, businessmen in Calcutta started the Trades Club in 1874. Six years later, it was renamed the ‘Dalhousie Athletic Club’. However, these clubs admitted only Englishmen.

    It was young Sarbadhikari who popularised club culture in Calcutta among Indians, and it was due to his efforts that educational institutions such as Presidency College, Sibpur Engineering College, Calcutta Medical College and St Xavier’s College formed football clubs. Within a few years, Sarbadhikari went bigger helped set up football clubs like Wellington and Sovabazar in 1887. Several other football clubs too mushroomed during this time, the most prominent of them being Mohun Bagan.

    From Strength To Strength

    For years after it was set up on 15th August 1889, Mohun Bagan Athletic Club was supported both financially and otherwise by the intelligentsia and aristocracy of Bengal. Apart from its primary purpose of developing superior and competitive football players, the club’s focus was also on producing players with good breeding. It was so strict that players who had failed in a school or college exam were not allowed to play for the club, and smoking and drinking were strictly prohibited in the tent. It was the dream of every aspiring Indian footballer to play for Mohun Bagan.

    Meanwhile, the club was also blazing an enviable sporting trail. It won the Cooch Behar Trophy, a tournament exclusively for Indian clubs, in 1904, 1905 and 1907. The fitness and skill of the club’s players was evident when they defeated IFA Shield defending champions, Dalhousie Club, 6-1 in the Gladstone Cup final in 1905. This victory created an unshakeable bond between Bengalis and football.

    As any sportsperson will tell you, mental strength is as much a part of winning as is physical prowess, and the man who helped Mohun Bagan build a physically and mentally strong team was Sailen Basu, a Subedar Major in the British Indian Army. In 1900, Basu was elected secretary of the club. He worked on the players’ fitness, using physical conditioning methods he had learnt in the army.

    That very year, Mohun Bagan got its own ground in the Calcutta Maidan near Fort William, the army base of the British in Calcutta. For the first 15 years, the club shared the field with Presidency College, which they later made their own. Today, the Mohun Bagan ground is regarded as one of the best football fields in Calcutta and is situated smack opposite the famous Eden Gardens on the banks of the Hooghly.

    For three consecutive years, from 1906 to 1908, Mohun Bagan won the Trades Cup. Armed with their motto, ‘Skilled and fit Green and Maroon’, the club started taking on British regimental teams. They continued to triumph in the local leagues and their popularity surged. Finally, Mohun Bagan was invited to participate in the 1911 IFA Shield, then the most prestigious tournament in Calcutta. Set up in 1893, it was organised by the Indian Football Association, which now governs the sport in West Bengal.

    From 1907 to 1910, British regimental teams like Highland Light Infantry and Gordon Highlanders emerged as winners in this tournament. But, in 1911, Mohun Bagan broke their stranglehold, with a 2-1 win over the East Yorkshire Regiment. Sibdas Bhaduri and Abhilash Ghosh scored for Mohun Bagan at a time when India’s struggle for independence was at its peak.

    News of Mohun Bagan’s victory flew to every corner of the country, and by lifting the 1911 IFA Shield, the club became a nationalist symbol. This win, of 11 barefooted Indians, against the physically stronger British regimental team, was a massive boost to India’s zeal for freedom. If India could play on equal terms with the English in football, why couldn’t she hold her own against the colonial power in her fight for freedom?

    Mohun Bagan’s 1911 win also revealed just how passionate upper-caste Bengalis were about football. The team comprised ten Bengalis: six of them were Brahmins; one player, Sudhir Kumar Chatterjee, was Christian; and one player, Shukla, was not from Bengal. Though they were upper-caste, the players were not wealthy. Three players, including Captain Shibdas, were employed in government agencies. Not all the players were from Calcutta either. Manmohan Mukherjee was from Uttarpara and Nilmadhav Bhattacharya from Srirampur. Kanu Roy was from Mymensingh in East Bengal, while the Bhaduri brothers and Sudhir Chatterjee were originally from Faridpur.

    Legacy of Green & Maroon

    In 1911, when Mohun Bagan won the IFA Shield, a middle-aged fan approached Sudhir Chatterjee and pointed to the Union Jack flying atop the nearby Fort William. The fan said, “You have won the IFA Shield, now what about that?” The fan implied that since Mohun Bagan’s players had proved that the British were not invincible, they should build on that and join the independence movement. Chatterjee is said to have replied that independence would come when his team next won the Shield. And win it they did, in 1947, the year India became independent.

    For almost a century, Mohun Bagan, like Yorkshire in cricket and Spain’s Athletic Bilbao in football, refused to recruit foreign players. The club was true-blue Indian, its purpose being to nurture talent among Indian youth. However, the policy changed in the 1990s, and the most notable foreign players the club has recruited to play for it to date have been Chima Okorie and José Ramirez Barreto.

    Post-Independence, Mohun Bagan was no longer a nationalist symbol. It transformed into a symbol of tradition and aristocracy for Indians.

    Independent India’s first President Dr Rajendra Prasad, politicians like Bidhan Chandra Roy (Chief Minister of West Bengal 1948-1962), Siddhartha Shankar Roy (Chief Minister of West Bengal 1972-1977), the longest-serving Chief Minister (1977-2002) of the state Jyoti Basu, and legendary music composer Rahul Dev Burman were ardent fans of the club. In the 1980s and 1990s, ideological difference between the Congress and the Left Front were vicious, but these differences had no bearing on their common love for the Green and Maroon jersey.

    The club has racked up a very impressive scorecard in the last 131 years. It has won 30 Calcutta Leagues, 16 Durand Cups, 14 Rovers Cups, 22 IFA Shield trophies, a record 14 Federation Cup titles and 5 national league titles – three in the National Football League and two in its reformed version, the I-League, the most recent of them coming in the 2019-2020 season.

    The Green and Maroon, which played Pele at Eden Gardens in 1977, and hosted the farewell match of legendary German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn at the Salt Lake Stadium in 2008, has produced many legends in Indian football. Burly defender Gostha Pal, who was known for his hard tackling and powerful kicks, is the stuff of Kolkata football legend. Pal is the only footballer to be honoured with a statue on the Kolkata Maidan. He also has a road named after him.

    Then there were legends of the golden generation of Indian football such as Tailmeran Ao (captain of India’s 1948 Olympics team), Sailen Manna (captain of the 1951 Asian Games gold medal-winning Indian team and 1952 Olympics), Samar ‘Bodru’ Banerjee (captain of the Indian team, 1956 Olympics), Chuni Goswami (captain of India’s 1962 Asian Games’ gold medal-winning team), Pradip Kumar Banerjee and Jarnail Singh.

    India’s much-loved Mohun Bagan continues its pursuit of excellence, and even though its every victory is savoured, its 1911 triumph can never be eclipsed.

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