Football in India has a long, rich history. The Durand Cup, that has been played in India since 1988 is Asia’s oldest football tournament and is as old as the English top-flight league. Two other football competitions in Kolkata – IFA Shield and Calcutta Football League – have their origins in the final decade of the 19th century.
The birth of football in India can be largely attributed to the British, but the legacy that it has created in the past century is due to the many Indian football clubs and its fanatic support bases that have developed over the years.
Indian football peaked in the 1950s when the country had a team that was largely considered the best in Asia. However, both club football and national team performances have been on a steady decline since with only sporadic moments of brilliance.
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With India shifting from a cup competition-based structure to a more European style league system in the 1990s, there have been constant changes in the landscape of the game in the country.
The Indian Super League has replaced the I-League as Indian football’s primary competition in 2019, ushering in a new era in professional football in India.
Looking back at the 130-year-old history of football in India, here are five of the greatest moments:
Mohun Bagan win the 1911 IFA Shield
The IFA Shield, a tournament played in Kolkata since 1893 initially only included British regiment teams. Indian teams were banned from entering the competition until the 1920s. But in 1911, Mohun Bagan, one of the oldest Indian clubs were invited to take part in the competition.
The Kolkata-based club enjoyed great support from every quarter of the country where the sentiment of nationalism was raging. Led by captain Shibdas Bhaduri, Mohun Bagan beat St Xavier’s, Rangers and Rifle Brigade to advance to the semi-finals where they saw off a formidable Middlesex side 3-0 in the replay. The Mohun Bagan team captured the imagination of the entire country.
The build-up to the final against East Yorkshire Regiment was unprecedented. Indians from all over the country who were brought into the city through special trains packed the Calcutta Football Ground. It was not just a football match, it was an opportunity to beat the British at their own game.
Around 80,000 to 1,00,000 people gathered at the venue, some managing to sneak inside while most waited outside the ground. Kites were flown in the sky to make people gathered outside aware of the score.
East Yorkshire Regiment scored first much to the dismay of the large crowd. However, Mohun Bagan stuck to the task as Bhaduri equalised late in the second half. The drama wasn’t over. With minutes to go for the final whistle, Mohun Bagan snatched the contest thanks to a goal from Abhilash Ghosh, to become the first Asian team to beat a British side and also the first Indian team to win the IFA Shield.
The game has gone down in Indian football folklore and the triumphant Mohun Bagan players are rightly called the ‘The Immortal Eleven’.
India win gold at 1951 and 1962 Asian Games
After independence, a host of Indian teams had emerged that offered local players plenty of chances to sharpen their skills. Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting, East Bengal and Hyderabad City Police were some of the top Indian club sides at the time.
Under the legendary coach Syed Abdul Rahim, who was ahead of his times in terms of physical fitness training and tactical planning, India reached great heights.
At the 1952 Asian Games, an Indian team with the likes of PBA Saleh, Sheoo Mewalal, P Venkatesh and Salien Manna clinched the gold medal in the football event. India dominated throughout the competition and won it without conceding a single goal. Mewalal was the top scorer with four goals as India defeated Indonesia 3-0 in the quarter-finals, before beating Afghanistan with the same scoreline in the semi-finals. In the final, Rahim’s men saw off Iran 1-0 to win the gold.
Four years later at the Melbourne Olympics, India surprised everyone with a fouth-placed finish. After getting a bye in the Round of 16, India stunned hosts Australia 4-2 thanks to a hat-trick from Neville D’Souza. In the semi-final, they were beaten 4-1 despite taking the lead before losing to Bulgaria in the bronze medal game.
At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, the team drew against France but couldn’t get out of a tough group that featured Hungary and Peru.
They made up for the disappointment two years later when they won another gold medal at the 1962 Asian Games.
The famed attacking trio of PK Banerjee, Chunni Goswami and Tulsidas Balaram were the stars for the India team who beat Japan, Thailand and South Vietnam on its way to the final.
Starting as underdogs against South Korea, goals from PK Banerjee and Jarnail Singh helped India triumph 2-1 and reestablish their status as Asia’s strongest team. This period under coach Rahim was Indian football’s greatest era.
East Bengal beat PAS Club Iran in 1970 IFA Shield final
East Bengal’s victory over their Iranian opponents was the first victory by an Indian club side over a foreign team after independence.
PAS Club Iran were champions of the Tehran Football League in 1967 and 1968 and had many members of the Iranian national team that had won the Asian Cup in 1968. The team also had quality foreigners from Soviet Union and Israel who had the experience of playing at the World Cup. Their quality was evident from the fact that they had scored eight goals in games leading into the final and were firm favourites.
However, East Bengal (coached by PK Banerjee) were not going to be pushovers in front of a packed crowd at the Eden Gardens. With the likes of Peter Thangaraj, Shanto Mitra, Shyam Thapa and Surajit Sengupta in their ranks they had enough in their ranks to cause an upset.
Inspired by Banerjee’s words or ‘vocal tonic’ as many at the time would put it, East Bengal produced a strong defensive display to eke out a narrow 1-0 victory thanks to a late goal from Parimal Dey.
It was a huge boost for the Red and Golds who went on to dominate the decade. They beat another foreign side Pong Yong City Club of North Korea three years later in the IFA Shield final and won several other trophies but the 1970 IFA Shield win was a watershed moment for East Bengal and Indian football in general.
Bengaluru FC’s AFC Cup final
Bengaluru FC hit the ground running as a club when they won the I-League in their first-ever season of existence in 2013-14. Drafted into the Indian top flight as a corporate entry, the JSW outfit never looked back, winning the Federation Cup in 2015 and the I-League again in 2016.
In their debut campaign in the AFC Cup (Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League) Bengaluru managed to reach the knockout round but fell at the first hurdle.
After being successful domestically, their eyes were set on a run in the AFC Cup. In 2016 edition, when they entered as Federation Cup winners, BFC started off badly with two defeats in their first two games but bounced back with wins over Lao Toyota and Ayeyawady United to advance to the knockout stage.
A 3-2 win in an away tie in Kitchee not only secured a quarter-final berth for the Indian side, but also gave them the belief that they could go deeper in the competition. It was evident from their hard-fought, yet disciplined 1-0 aggregate win over Tampines Rovers in the quarter-final.
Bengaluru FC, a club just three years of age had matched India’s best-ever performance in the AFC Cup.
Johor Darul Ta’zim were their semi-final opponents, a team that had done the double over Bengaluru in the group stages. The psychological advantage rested with the Malaysians but Bengaluru were a team transformed after their performances in the earlier knockout rounds.
They earned a hard-fought 1-1 draw in the away leg before coming back from 1-0 down in the second leg at home to win 3-1 and create history. Another Chhetri brace took Bengaluru FC to the AFC Cup final, a first for an Indian football club side.
The final against Al-Quwa-Al-Jawiya proved to be a step too far for Bengaluru as they lost 1-0 to the Iranians, but the club had already gone where no other Indian side had. In an age when football clubs in India were rapidly shutting down, Bengaluru FC were proving to be an anomaly.
India end Asian Cup drought
As Stephen Constantine’s India stepped out to the field against Thailand in the opening game of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, the expectations from the team were to avoid a humiliation similar to the 2011 edition when India last took part in these continental championships. The Blue Tigers had crashed out of the group stage after three heavy defeats.
India’s last victory in the Asian Cup had come way back in 1964 when the tournament was just a four-team affair. So history was very much against The Blue Tigers.
However, urged by a good support base in Abu Dhabi, India started fast. They pressed Thailand incessantly catching them by surprise. Rarely had an Indian team played with such confidence and energy at a big stage.
India were rewarded as a 27th-minute penalty from Chhetri put them in front only to be pegged back by Thailand six minutes later. After holding onto to the 1-1 scoreline at the break, India came out all guns blazing in the second half. A rampaging counter-attack saw Chhetri restore India’s lead in the 46th minute before Anirudh Thapa and Jeje Lalpakhlua added gloss to a historic result for Indian football team.
Constantine’s men ended a 55-year wait for an Indian win at the Asian Cup and it was achieved in style and with a performance of authority. India put in another fine performance against UAE in the next game but went down 2-0. After conceding a 90th-minute penalty against Bahrain, India bowed out of the competition as the momentum from Thailand win fizzled out.
A group stage exit was what was expected and that’s what had transpired but India’s performance in the competition deserved better. A campaign that ended in heartbreak had a lot of positives, that emphatic 4-1 win over Thailand in particular.