Photo Credit: Olympics

Football is one of the most popular sports in India, particularly in certain states such as West Bengal, Goa, Kerala, Mizoram etc. There isn’t much to like about colonial rule in India. One thing we can thank them for however, is introducing us to some of our most popular sports. Like cricket, football was first brought to India by the British. Initially, there were no professional football teams in the country and football was played by army teams mostly consisting of British officials and soldiers. However, before long, a number of football teams were created in India during the British Raj. The first proper Indian match of football was held in 1854 between “Calcutta Club of Civilians” and “Gentlemen of Barrackpore”.  

The first football club ever in India “Calcutta FC” was established in 1872. After that, a number of other clubs came up such as Dalhousie Club, Mohun Bagan, Sovabazar and Aryan Club. Calcutta became the hub of all footballing activities in India (and this has mostly remained the case even today). 

With clubs came club tournaments and trophies to be won like the IFA Shield, the Durand Cup and the Cooch Behar Cup etc. However, for the longest time, India teams were unsuccessful against the better trained British army teams. It was only in 1911 that Mohun Bagan became the first Indian team to win a major tournament against a British team in the final of the IFA Shield. This was a landmark event in Indian footballing history. It set off a spur of activities and a number of all Indian teams sprung up, leading to the creation of the AIFF (All India Football Federation) in 1937. After independence, AIFF became affiliated to FIFA in 1948.

It was after this that the “Golden Age/Era of Indian football” of football truly kicked off. In 1948, the Indian football team got the opportunity to play in the London Olympics, India’s first major football tournament. The Indian team toured all over the world to countries like Australia, Japan, Malaysia etc. In 1950, after much debate, the Indian team was even invited to play in the FIFA World Cup. However, it is unfortunate that AIFF turned down the offer. This was for a number of reasons. Apparently, the Indian government at the time could not afford the trip to South America for the World Cup. Apart from that, FIFA also refused to let the Indians play barefoot in the World Cup which is what the Indian team was used to. Further, at the time, the World Cup was not considered as prestigious for football as the Olympics were, at least in India. And so, India’s chance to play in the world cup did not come to fruition. That is extremely unfortunate as ever since then, the Indian team are still trying to qualify for the biggest tournament in world football. 

Apart from the World Cup fiasco however, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Indian football reached an all time peak of popularity with the national team and clubs competing in overseas competitions and made a lot of history. Then in 1951, India defeated Iran and won the Asian Games gold medal which was our first major win in an International event. The team was led by Sailen Manna, one of the greatest players the country and the continent have ever seen. It was in 1956 Melbourne Olympics that India made a true mark. They beat all expectations and defeated host Australia 4-2 to qualify for the semi-finals for the first time in the country’s history. It was then that India was recognized worldwide as a true footballing nation. All through the 70’s India won and competed at the highest level of football in Asia. 

The AIFF even started a tournament called the Nehru Cup in 1982 where they invited all nations to play. The cup was won by Uruguay in the inaugural tournament. However, football saw a huge decline in India in the 1970’s and 1980’s as the nation fell in world rankings and did not manage to hold onto its dominant position in Asia. As of today, football still remains secondary to cricket in India; perhaps because as a nation, we have had more victory and glory in cricket in recent years. 

However, it is never too late to reestablish the popularity of the most loved sport in the world in India. It was with this in mind that the ISL or Indian Super League was established fairly recently, in 2014. While it is still not as popular in India as some of the European Leagues, it is hoped that with the introduction of football in this popular format will encourage more people to watch, love, play football and unleash the great footballing potential many youngsters have in this country. 

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