West Bengal Governor M.K. Narayanan(right) releases a stamp on the occasion of the pre-centenary celebration of the first IFA Shield win by an Indian club in 1911. Also in the picture are Post Master General, S. Chakraborty (left) and Mohun Bagan president Swapan Sadan Bose.
Vagaries of nature helped define one of the epochal happenings in Indian sports history — Mohun Bagan's IFA Shield (second oldest football tournament in the world, after the English FA Cup) triumph on July 29, 1911.
With the world still unaccustomed to the problems of climate changes, the barefooted Indian players were aided by an unusually dry spell during the tournament as the famous Calcutta monsoons relented for some strange reasons. Mohun Bagan, the only team to play barefoot, went past five British clubs and regimental sides to lift the Shield, becoming the first native club to do so. The incredible feat was soon usurped by nationalist forces and a mere sporting victory of a club became a part of India's freedom struggle, symbolising triumph over the oppressive colonial rule.
As Mohun Bagan — now one of the oldest football clubs in the world — prepares to celebrate the centenary of the earliest and the most distinguished happening in the annals of Indian sports, the rain theory has come to the forefront, thanks to a group of young sports historians in Kolkata. The event has been interpreted differently by researchers over the last 99 years and the latest theory, ignored all along, adds a pragmatic angle to the visions of nationalism attached to the win.
Those who delved into the past, researching contemporary newspaper reports and writings, are convinced now that had the rains remained as active as at the height of the monsoon in July, the “barefoot illusion” of 1911 may never have found a place in Indian soccer's hall of fame. “In my analysis of the various newspapers reports on the tournament, I found that monsoon remained quite inactive on most of the match days when Mohun Bagan played in 1911,” says Subhransu Roy. “This gives credence to the fact that the comparative dry spell allowed the barefooted Mohun Bagan players a firm turf to execute their dribbling skills.”
Roy, a young professor of history who is the founder president of a football research society in Kolkata, says the patriotic fervour seems to overshadow all others factors that contributed to the first major recorded triumph in Indian team sports.
The earlier writers sought to make the IFA Shield victory the “catalyst” of national awakening that led to India's freedom 36 years later. But a new generation of researchers is trying to find out the other interesting aspects that brought about this victory.
Absence of properly documented records prevents proper evaluation of the great triumph. A souvenir published on the occasion of Mohun Bagan's 75-year celebrations in 1966 is perhaps the only source that records the first-hand account of a few players from the ‘Immortal Eleven'. But the recent findings in an unpublished memoir of the team's wing-forward Jyotindranath Roy, popularly known as ‘Kanu', give a clear picture of the story behind the tournament and the great win. The memoir, made available to Sportstar by Jyotindranath's daughter Kshanika Dasgupta, is in fragments with only 20 pages available, but gives enough detail about the Shield matches, especially the semifinal and the final.
The success in the Cooch Behar Cup, Gladstone Cup and a hat-trick of victories in the Trades Cup saw Mohun Bagan play in the prestigious IFA Shield, mainly a preserve of the British sides, as the first ‘native' outfit. But it was not easy for the team as it was cheaply dismissed in the first two years (1909 & 1910). “The main cause of discomfiture in the IFA Shield of 1909 and 1910 was the muddy and slushy ground and with our bare feet we could hardly keep our foothold, not to speak of kicking the ball rightly,” writes Kanu Roy, explaining the reason for the team's failures. Repeated setbacks invited ridicule from its own supporters, who started comparing Mohun Bagan's aspirations to that of “a dwarf reaching for the moon.”
The Mohun Bagan players, who preferred the more artistic dribble-and-pass format to the prevalent European style of kick-and-run, enjoyed a sunny evening in its first match against Saint Xavier's College (on July 10, 1911). The “natives” won 3-0, despite playing with just 10 men as its regular left fullback Reverend Sudhir Chatterjee, the only Christian player in the team who played with boots, was denied a half-day leave by the LMS College where he taught English and History. The next match against Rangers (14.07.1911) was played under “threatening weather” but Mohun Bagan made the most of scoring two early goals and escaped with a 2-1 win as Hiralal Mukherjee saved a late penalty. The weather held up during the quarterfinals and Mohun Bagan got the better of another regimental side, Rifle Brigade through Bijoydas Bhaduri's late strike.
The semifinal on July 24 against 1st Middlesex provided a scare to the home side as the former took a 1-0 lead through a disputed goal in the first half. But Kanu Roy scored a late equaliser with a dipping rainbow shot, the flight of which the Middlesex goalie, Piggot, failed to judge. With no concept of extra-time and penalty shootout, the match was replayed a day later and Mohun Bagan this time made the most of the bright weather conditions and notched up a 3-0 win.
The final witnessed a huge gathering. “Spectators came from far and near. By special trains, packing every inch of the ground… and their numbers defied all calculations,” writes Kanu Roy. The patriotic cries reached a crescendo as Mohun Bagan utilised the “excellent ground conditions” with a fine display of “quick and bright passing” game against East York Regiment.
The immortal eleven of 1911... sitting (from left): Bhuti Sukul, Jyotindranath 'Kanu' Roy, Shibdas Bhaduri (captain), Srishchandra 'Habul' Sarkar, Bijoydas Bhaduri. Standing (from left): Rev. Sudhir Chatterjee, Manmohan Mukherjee, Hiralal Mukherjee, Rajendranath Sengupta, Nilmadhab Bhattacharya and Abhilash Ghosh.
Trailing by a freak second half goal, the side quickly equalised through Shibdas Bhaduri, who then set up Abhilash Ghosh for the winner. The 2-1 victory ensured Mohun Bagan's passage to immortality.
“The scenes that followed the final whistle were beyond description. It was as if the whole population had gone mad and to compare it with anything would be to minimise the effect,” writes Kanu Roy in his vivid description of the scenes after the victory.
The Mohun Bagan team of 1911, in essence, symbolised a cosmopolitan outlook combining best of two Bengals — the administrators hailing from the urban West and the players from the rural East. Though the Partition was yet to take place, the psychological divide between the East and the West already existed.
“The players came from differing backgrounds but were predominantly from the eastern parts of the state while the people who founded the club and ran its administration were from west, essentially, Kolkata,” says Subhransu Roy, trying to bring about the unusual admixture that fuelled the incredible success. “The success actually lay in the symbiotic approach combining the best minds and football talents available in Bengal at that time.”
The English influence in the win should also not be overlooked. The sport came to Kolkata, then the capital of British India, through its colonial masters and the 1911 win was the result of following a predominant Victorian philosophy of building character, discipline and spirit of the game.
Saliendranath Basu, who took over the reins of the club as its secretary in 1900, gave a boost to the club's fortunes, putting into practice the mode and methods of the English system that he imbibed as a Subedar Major with the 14 Bengal Regiment in the Royal Army.
Several years after the “immortal conquest”, the yearning for excellence remains. This is echoed by the club's present secretary Anjan Mitra, who says the 1911 triumph should be taken as an inspiration to bring about “the rebirth of Indian football.”