July 29, 1911, was a sunny day in Calcutta (now Kolkata), a city already known for its growing discontent against the British rule and the consequent, quick-spreading, extremist movements.
But on that day, hardly anyone in the then capital of India cared about politics. The only talking point was football and all roads led to the Calcutta Football Club grounds where the Ghaziabad-based East Yorkshire Regiment, a British side, were to meet a team of 11 barefooted “natives”: Mohun Bagan, in the final of the IFA Shield at 5.30 pm
Little did one imagine that the match (played exactly 136 days before King George V transformed Delhi into modern India’s new capital), by the end of its 50-minute duration, would be a part of Indian football folklore, a slice of country’s freedom movement.
Mohun Bagan’s 2-1 victory created a kind of stir in the public mind that can hardly be imagined under the present-day circumstances. Its effects reached far beyond the boundaries of the football ground. It was looked upon more like a major political victory for the Indians over the ruling Englishmen, a victory for the oppressed, and a kind of boost for the freedom movement that had gained momentum since the division of Bengal in 1905.
Yet, to give Mohun Bagan’s triumph a political twist might prove to be more of a coincidence. Mohun Bagan were, after all, a team with limited football ambitions, whose only desire perhaps, was to beat the masters in their own game. The team had neither any political leaning nor the club management, for sure, nursed any such aspirations.
The victory was painted with a lot of romantic colours in the later years, but in all fairness should be judged from purely a football angle.
The management and members of the club were mostly from the upper and upper-middle class of the Bengali society and important members of the prevailing system. It is hard to imagine that those who ran the institution and played for it had a bigger perspective in mind when they entered the IFA Shield in 1911.
They, in fact, remained “loyal subjects” even after their achievements on the pitch made a lasting impression in the social history of the game.
The then secretary of the club, Sailendra Nath Basu, who was credited for raising a crack side by meticulously picking a hugely talented bunch of players in 1911, was a soldier in the British Army in the rank of Subedar Major. He was the general secretary of the club between 1906-1914 and gave up his position to return back to Army after the World War I broke out.
Not everybody in the Indian political circle, barring the dominant moderates, liked the idea of India being dragged in the World War that left 50,000 Indian soldiers dead and the economy shattered. The Platinum Jubilee souvenir of Mohun Bagan Athletic Club, however, said: “In aid of the War Relief Fund the club played a charity match with the Calcutta Football Club.”
For the fans and the general public in Bengal, the victory in the 1911 IFA Shield final was like avenging the treacherous act of Robert Clive in the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The club management, however, was in no mood to cross the line and was careful in every step.
Invitations to join felicitation functions poured in from all quarters after the stunning triumph. When the number of invitations became too many, club secretary SN Basu wrote a letter to the English daily “The Statesman” making clear of Mohun Bagan’s stand on the issue.
In his letter, Basu thanked a large number of friends and admirers, “who have so kindly thought fit to encourage the players of the club by their congratulations and offer of entertainment etc.” He, however, said it was not possible to do justice to all the invitations and advised the supporters “not to fuss over last Saturday’s success”.
“It is hoped, therefore, that it would not be misconstrued if the players had to decline with great regret (which they do through your paper) any offer of entertainment in any shape, though they gratefully appreciate the same,” said Basu in the concluding line.
“The Statesman”, then considered the mouthpiece of the British Raj, in an editorial on August 3, 1911, appreciated Mohun Bagan’s stand in refusing offers of entertainment and commented, “This resolve is very much to the credit of the club and its players….”
Interestingly, Mohun Bagan refused to attend any felicitation function further but chose to ignore their own self-imposed rule in the case of two invitations. While one came from Eardley Norton, Barrister-at-Law, the other invitation was from Dr. Thornhill, Chief Judge, Small Causes Court.
Well, there was nothing wrong in Mohun Bagan’s endevour to keep the authorities happy. After all, they were a football club and not a bunch of martyrs as projected in some quarters in the later years. Among the Immortal Eleven of Mohun Bagan, at least half a dozen footballers were employed in Government or semi-Government institutions or worked for British run companies.
Legendary defender Sudhir Chatterjee was teaching in a British-administered college when he played the final and later moved to Cambridge for higher education. Midfielder Manmohan Mukherjee was a clerk in the Public Works Department. Among his two other midfield teammates, Rajendranath Sengupta was associated with All India Radio in the later years and Neelmadhav Bhattacharya was employed with National Bank.
In the forward line, Habul Sarkar was an employee in Calcutta Corporation, Abhilash Ghosh (the man who scored the match-winner) retired as a top executive of a British tea company and Kanu Roy rose to become a DIG in Bengal Police and was conferred with “Raibahadur” by the British Raj.
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Individually, they were no revolutionary or political activists. They were not expected to be. But collectively, what they achieved at the Calcutta Football Club ground on the evening of July 29 had a far-reaching effect on society and Indian football in general.
There was no dearth of good Indian football clubs in Kolkata when Mohun Bagan won the IFA Shield. To name a few, Sovabazar, National, Aryans were formidable sides with decent track records. Yet, no “native” side were not allowed to play the Calcutta Football League (CFL).
Mohun Bagan’s victory created a problem for the CFL organisers. Thousands gathered to watch even if Mohun Bagan played a friendly tie at the Maidan. But very few turned up for CFL matches involving British military teams and European civil outfits. By 1915, CFL was forced to admit Mohun Bagan and Aryans in the second division.
Mohun Bagan qualified for the first division promptly, Aryans a couple of seasons later. Thereafter, slowly (but steadily) the doors got opened for Indian teams. The credit for this should solely go to Mohun Bagan and their eleven barefooted stars, who made it possible in 1911.
Last but not the least, how big exactly was the crowd in the historic outing? It was close to 80,000 was the popular belief. Several news reports confirmed this, including news agency Reuters. Manchester Guardian reported there were 80,000 people present to applause Mohun Bagan; Singapore Free Press wrote the crowd numbered 100,000.
HG Pooler, the referee for the final and himself a regular footballer with Calcutta Football Club, however, viewed it differently.
Writing about the historic tie many years later, he said: “I was asked to referee the final on the CFC ground….and what a sight met me when at 5.15 I arrived at the ground. Every seat and point of vantage occupied; the Eden Garden tree branches threatening to deposit their tenants into the street; hundreds crowded into the rising ground in the Fort Williams glacis. One reporter estimated the crowd at 50,000, but 20,000 might be a reasonable estimate.”