1911 – A Seminal Win

Many of the readers here who are not from India, or those in India, may not be aware of an incident that happened on 29th July 1911, just over a 100 years ago. A group of barefoot Indians beat their then political masters, the British, in a game of football. This does not sound earth-shattering, or something that changed the course of history of Indian sports, let alone India in general.

For those of you, however, who have heard about the exploits of Dynamo Kiev against the German jailors during World War II which inspired the movie “Escape to Victory” or seen Bhuvan of “Lagaan” (a Bollywood movie that was nominated and just lost out for Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2002) inspire a rag-tag team to victory against the British, I can only tell this achievement was no less. To my British friends and readers, I must apologize for some rhetoric that can accompany this article, but such was the truth of those times.

The Mohun Bagan players with the IFA Shield 1911

The British had introduced, among other sports, football in India, mostly as a recreational activity. As part of this activity, they had started some tournaments where the teams participated, not because the remuneration was high, but because those were a way to stay competitive and fit. One of those tournaments was the IFA shield, India’s premier domestic tournament and fourth oldest club cup tournaments in the world.

Now, among the sports the British had introduced (cricket, hockey, badminton, tennis etc), Indians had developed the skill to play football faster than the others. The local Bengali businessmen and landlords patronized clubs to take up football. One such club was Mohun Bagan, who had inculcated a system of developing local talent to play football. Most of the Indian clubs played barefoot, which may sound absurd now, but mostly religious connotations and comfort levels ensured they did not wear shoes.

In the lead up to the 1911 IFA Shield, Mohun Bagan had won several smaller tournaments beating their Indian rivals. However, it was the first time they had reached the final, beating a clutch of British teams like St. Xavier’s. In the final, they came up against the team from East Yorkshire regiment. The match had attained legendary proportions keeping in mind the anti-establishment sentiments brewing in the minds of many revolutionary Indians.

East Bengal Club, which is said to represent the sentiments of people from East Bengal (now Bangladesh), was formed much later. In that sense, Mohun Bagan represented the Bengalis, who in 1911 were very much the embodiment of the common Indian man who was subjugated under the rule of the empire. No wonder the match was well publicized even in those days and people came from the far east of undivided Bengal to watch it.

What followed was something memorable as Mohun Bagan came back from a goal down to win the match 2-1. It was a momentous occasion. As the captain of the side Shibdas Bhaduri said to his main striker, Abhilash Ghosh – “football perhaps is the only place where we can kick and injure without fear of retribution”. That summed it up – ‘Sports’, is the greatest leveller of all.

However, this article is not just about the build-up to the game, or the results – they are well documented in several movies, documentaries and write-ups. This is about the after-effects of the match. And the after-effects were not just in sports, but spread to other fields as well. It is said that a number of young boys who watched that match became footballers themselves, most prominent among them being the great Gostha Pal, who was given the sobriquet, “The Chinese Wall” for his great defending, by the British.

As the captain of the side Shibdas Bhaduri said to his main striker, Abhilash Ghosh – “football perhaps is the only place where we can kick and injure without fear of retribution”. That summed it up – ‘Sports’, is the greatest leveller of all.

The Bengali landlords and businessmen, some of whom were forced to live under the thumb of the local collectors, started to express interest and patronize local youth so that they would take up the sport seriously. This was perhaps their way to show their patriotism. Origins of several clubs, most prominent of them being Mohun Bagan’s arch-rivals East Bengal, can be traced thus. Also, the fact that India became a significant force in the world of football in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s can be, in a way, attributed to this. Yes, we have thrown it all away over the years, but nobody can deny the existence of greats like Sailen Manna and Neville D’Souza. For the fact that FIFA didn’t allow barefoot football in the 1950 World Cup, denied India a chance to become the second Asian country to take part in the World Cup.

The Mohun Bagan captain Shindas Bhaduri(left) with a club patron

Culturally too, the result had a great impact. A number of plays, some even outside Bengal, were centred around this match; even in “jatra” and “nautanki” – both styles of theatre, prevalent in different parts of the country. Folk singers and painters from Bengal who moved around from one place to another, used to weave their songs and paintings based on this victory, spreading the news to different corners of the country. Poems were written, eulogizing the players as beacons of hope for a beleaguered nation.

The underground “swadeshi”(indigenous) movements carried out by youths in various parts of the country got a moral boost with the news of this victory. It is said that Binoy Bose, a prominent leader of the Bengal Volunteers, an organization founded by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, one of the greatest leaders the country has seen, used to quote this match result to inspire the youth he led.

The farmers, the boatmen, the fishermen, all of whom were subjugated under the imperial rule in one way or the other and had lost the spine to hit back, were all invigorated with the result. The players became a part of folklore, often exaggerated to giants of men who had carried out a heroic deed. 4 months after that victory on July 29, the British shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi on 12 December. Coincidentally the struggle for independence was gathering pace all over the land and the proud Union Jack had to be moved from the skies of Calcutta to a more secure Delhi.

However, here comes the twist in the tale. As the years passed, the sands of time covered and gradually wiped out the traces of the great victory. It didn’t even become a footnote in the history of Indian sports. The players who played and won that match, went back to their daily lives. Gradually, the country moved on, football moved backwards from 1970’s onwards while 1983 onwards, cricket as a sport, completely engulfed the nation’s collective mindset. 100 years on, the match almost found no mention in the national media. Yes, there was some song and dance in the local media, and the players cardboard cut-outs were taken out in a procession in Kolkata (which had changed its name from Calcutta), but that was just about it.

Yes, we pride over a couple of our brilliantly made sports movies, ask umpteen questions about the occasion when Pele and Stallone acted together, but we have been guilty of having this wonderful result shift out of our minds – a result significant not just for its nationalistic undertones, but also for the fact that it is one of the greatest underdog-victory stories in sports, an occasion when the barefoot David slew the Goliath. It’s not too late; let us cherish it once more in its centenary year.

I do, and I am a die-hard East Bengal fan.

The Immortal Eleven on that day

Hiralal Mukherjee (GK)

Bhuti Sukul         Sudhir Kumar Chatterjee

Manmohon Mukherjee                   Rajendranath SenGupta                            Nilmadhab Bhattacharya

Srischanda Sarkar                                                      Bijaydas Bhaduri

Jitendranath Roy                                  Abhilas Ghosh                                             Shibdas Bhaduri