With the Fifa U-17 World Cup underway in India, the focus has shifted onto the youth football scene of the country. While all the developed footballing nations have reaped the benefits of investing heavily on scouting, India have made little progress on that front due to its long-lasting nonchalance.
The seeds, though, were sown pretty early by a visionary in the late 19th century.
After being barred by the British from participating in the competitive matches for almost two decades, Indian football enjoyed a new lease of life in the 1880s, when a number of new clubs were founded in and around Kolkata.
Mohun Bagan was the biggest name to have out of the boom and Umeshchandra Majumder was involved in the planning stages. However, he parted ways before the club came into being and formed the Aryans Club in 1889.
Majumder was a well-known centre-half in his time, but his footballing career has been overshadowed by his contributions off the field. A penchant of unearthing new talents took him to distant villages and towns of the region. In the last few years of the 18th century, he became a regular face in all major footballing hubs, leaning on his cycle and following the action with unabated attention.
And results followed. Among the best of his students were the two brothers, Shibdas and Bijoydas Bhaduri, both pivotal parts of Mohun Bagan’s immortal 1911 IFA Shield winning squad. Surya Chakraborty from Jalpaiguri, Habla Bhattacharya from Behrampore, Samad from Purniya were some of his most prominent findings from outside Kolkata.
Back in the day, playing football for the big teams earned one respect but it was not a lucrative profession, since the concept of wages hadn’t arrived in this part of the world. The young footballer, hence, was mostly cash-strapped and had to be taken care of by a football-loving patron. Dukhiram, as Umeshchandra was popularly known, played this role too.
Amidst the communal tension of the thirties, he helped Samad learn Bengali and put him up in a Hindu household as Santosh – a common name among Bengali Hindus. Samad, who played mainly for Railways and Mohammedan Sporting, was arguably the best Indian footballer of the thirties, mainly due to his inimitable ball-control and trickery. When a footballer named Haridas was diagnosed with tuberculosis, Majumder used to cycle almost 15 km to supply him drinking water every morning.
It didn’t take much time for other clubs to be aware of his heroics. It was not only his industry that set him apart, but his efficiency; as other teams, most notably Mohun Bagan, also tried their hand in scouting in the twenties, but couldn’t emulate Majumder’s success.
In his seminal work Kolkatar Football (Kolkata’s Football) published in 1955, veteran journalist Rakhal Bhattacharya gave an example of how other clubs tried to piggy-back on him: “Once Mohun Bagan sent a person, who followed him on one of his tours to the suburbs. Once he got interested in one player, the spy asked nonchalantly – ‘Are you going to sign him?’ However, Dukhiram was well aware of these ploys and showed his irritation – ‘This guy? He will not become a footballer even in his next seven births.’ After the spy left, he signed the player.”
Under his tutelage, Aryans, who never had the finances to compete with the likes of Mohun Bagan, Dalhousie and the other British sides, became the topmost breeding ground for young Indian talents.
Many players, who were given their first chance in Kolkata Maidan by him, later left for greener pastures, but Purna Das, Prakash Ghosh, Balaidas Chatterjee (who later became India’s coach in 1948 Olympics), Rupchand Dafadar all became household names in a region where football was being constantly projected as a medium of nationalism. Even Gostha Paul, the legendary defender, played one season for them.
All the aforementioned players were spotted in their teenage years by Majumder, but in case of his nephew Santosh (Chhone), the classes started early. Chhone was taught to play in all positions and had appeared as goalkeeper, centre-half and left-out in major tournaments – a rare feet among Indian footballers.
Majumder, considered to be the first successful Indian football coach and scout, was revered by the British as well. In 1914, when the Raj finally allowed two Indian teams to be part of the Calcutta Football League second division, Aryans were inducted along with popular Mohun Bagan.
They got promoted in their second season and finished fourth in the 1920-’21 season, their biggest achievement before reaching the Rovers Cup semi-final in 1928. Majumder’s premature death in 1929 was a big blow to the country’s blossoming football culture.
Dukhiram’s legacy, like that of Aryans – who share their ground with East Bengal – has waned with time. Sir Dukhiram Majumder Football Coaching Centre, started by another successful coach Achyut Banerjee, hasn’t produced many top-class footballers. Ironically, former India cricket captain Sourav Ganguly remains its most famous student.
As the U17 national team tries to make their mark on the global stage, it’s high time we remember the legend who ignited the flame.