A Historic Day for Indian Soccer
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It’s quiet around the stadium as the score is tied 1-1 in the 86th minute, and tension lingers in the atmosphere. All of a sudden, Mohun Bagan striker Abhilash Ghosh fires a terrific shot into the top right corner of the opposition’s net! Mohun Bagan has just made history and become a nationalist symbol in the Indian freedom struggle against British imperialism.
Mohun Bagan’s win in the IFA Shield Final against East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911 was not only one of the greatest achievements in Indian sports history, but was also an essential stepping stone toward independence from British rule. It all started when the British first landed in Surat, India on August 24, 1608. Using foreign goods that could be sold efficiently without tariffs or duties and the division of India into separate territories ruled by different princes, the British quickly took over the economy and formed strong alliances with local rulers. Thus began the British “control” over India, which lasted from 1858 to India’s independence in 1947.
When the British first came to Kolkata, also known as Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, they brought a novel sport with them: soccer. At the time, mostly higher-ranked British army officials played the sport. However, it quickly became very popular, and the common people picked it up.
A group of Bengali middle class men decided to hone their skills in hopes of beating the British at their own game, so they began practicing regularly in a nearby urban park, the Kolkata Maidan. At the same time, a few financially solvent Calcuttans convened in the nearby Basu Villa, and the Basus decided, along with the neighboring families of the Mitras and the Sens, to form the Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, named after the Mohun Bagan Villa. It was the birth of an all-Indian club which would soon be a symbol that represented all of India in the freedom struggle and fight against the British.
At first, the Mariners only played in small, local tournaments against minor clubs like nearby college teams. The team was mainly made of Bengali middle class gentry who played without any equipment, not even shoes, and with no training whatsoever. Mohun Bagan initially lost most tournaments in the first few rounds, but over time, the team became more experienced, and the players learned and adapted to the modern style of play. In 1911, Mohun Bagan entered the IFA Shield competition, which has existed since 1893, making it the fourth oldest soccer competition in history. It was named after and hosted by the Indian Football Association, which is the oldest soccer association in India.
At the time, the tournament was mostly played by British regiment teams who were well equipped, experienced, and properly trained. In the first few rounds, Mohun Bagan defeated St. Xavier 3-0 and beat the Calcutta Rangers 2-1. In the third round, Mohun Bagan overcame the Rifle Brigade in a 1-0 win, and in the semifinals, they tied against the military team, first Middlesex Regiment. In the event of a tie, matches in the IFA Shield would be replayed the next day to determine the victor. In the second match, Mohun Bagan returned and convincingly won 3-0.
It was a historic moment and an opportunity for the first Indian team to win a premier soccer tournament in British India. The Indian side felt ready to take on the East Yorkshire Regiment after months of preparation and hard work, and they were looking to make history. The green and maroon Mohun Bagan were coached by Sailen Basu, a former soldier in the British Indian Army. The strict, disciplinarian methods which Basu learned from his army training helped put the team into good shape. Mohun Bagan used the 2-3-5 formation throughout the tournament, a very common lineup at the time, and planned on maintaining it for the final. The two wing-backs, Bhuti Sukul and Sudhir Chatterjee, valiantly protected their trustworthy goalkeeper Hiralal Mukherjee. In the middle of the field, Nilmadhab Bhattacharya, an amazing passer, and Manmohan Mukherjee, a great defensive midfielder, both flanked star center defender Rajen Sengupta, who was remarkably the youngest player in the squad. The attack consisted of versatile Srishchandra “Habul” Sarkar and blazingly quick Jatindranath “Kanu” Roy darting down the right side. The left flank was occupied by the oldest of the squad, Bijaydas Bhaduri, and his younger brother Shibdas Bhaduri, who captained the team. Finally, Ghosh played as the muscular and clinical striker leading the line at the front.
The day of the final was a special and hectic morning as everyone hurried toward Kolkata Stadium. The East Indian Railway Company had to arrange special trains to the stadium to accommodate for all of the passengers. Other steamer services were introduced to carry rural supporters to the match. Upon arrival, most of Mohun Bagan’s supporters did not get good seats to watch the match, so they came up with another way of communicating to each other. Green and maroon kites were flown with the score written on them to let the supporters know what was going on.
The match kicked off with both sides trying to gain an early advantage. The Indian side played barefoot without any shoes or shin guards against the British, who were wearing cleats. The first half went by cautiously as both teams were playing carefully, making sure they were always safe while attacking. Halftime came, and the score was still tied at 0-0.
The game picked up right where it left off as the second half kicked off with both teams going for similar angles and maintaining their cautious strategies. However, the game opened up in the 75th minute when a harmless challenge from Sengupta awarded Yorkshire with a free kick, which led to the first goal of the game coming from Yorkshire captain Sergeant Jackson. With only 15 minutes remaining and Mohun Bagan down 1-0, hope was disappearing fast.
However, Mohun Bagan didn’t give up after coming this far. They started playing much more aggressively and tactically while attacking. Soon, the equalizing goal came from the skipper himself, Shibdas Bhaduri, and the game had turned on its head. The match was almost coming to an end, and it was looking more and more like a draw. In the 86th minute, Shibdas Bhaduri released a fantastic pass for Ghosh, who scored the deciding goal to seal the match. Mohun Bagan had won the 1911 IFA Shield and made history by becoming the first Indian team to win the premier soccer tournament in British India.
This win meant a lot more than just showing the prowess and ability of the Mohun Bagan team. This victory earned the squad the nickname “The Immortal 11,” and they became a nationalist symbol in India’s freedom struggle for independence. Mohun Bagan’s win was one of India’s key victories against British imperialism and served as a beacon of hope for those who had lost faith. This win fanned the flames of the freedom struggle as there were already smaller organizations looking to fight against British imperialism. Now everyone could follow Mohun Bagan’s example and challenge the British through fair, justified means rather than violent ones. This win gave India hope and confidence in a time when both were foreign, and it is remembered to this day as one of the greatest achievements in the history of Indian sports.