The Barefoot Warriors of India

The Barefoot Warriors of India

Photo Credit: Mohun Bagan

It is unfortunate that despite football being the most loved sport in the world, it has never really become the sport of choice in India. Football is definitely more popular in the southern and eastern parts of the country, but no sport can ever really overtake the towering, hegemonic status of cricket in India. Indians seem to devour cricket with religious fervour. I think a whole generation of Indians fell in love with cricket because of the popularity of the iconic movie Lagaan. The message behind the movie was uplifting and patriotic and contributed to its unprecedented fame. However, while Lagaan was not based on a true story, there is a very similar sporting incident that happened in India but in football history. The incident, if this were well known, would make every Indian take pride and interest in football in India. 

The story dates back all the way to 1911. This was the time when Indian football was just starting out in a big way in states such as West Bengal. One of the most beloved and popular clubs in West Bengal and all of India, even today is Mohun Bagan. At the time, Mohun Bagan was a young club, only 22 years old, but it had gained respect and was seen as a symbol of nationalism by Indians. At the same time, the British had their own football teams in India, usually consisting of British army soldiers. In 1911, Mohun Bagan was invited by the British Raj to play in the prestigious IFA (Indian Football Association) Shield. Mohun Bagan accepted and went on to do exceptionally well in the tournament, managing to reach the final. It was here that they would face their toughest opponent yet - the British East Yorkshire Regiment football team. 

The final between the two sides was to be held on July 29, 1911. It was a true David-Goliath match up. 

The British players were better in almost every aspect. They were better trained and even wore proper football boots, a luxury that at the time cost close to 7 rupees (which was the average monthly salary of a school teacher). The Mohun Bagan players played barefoot. There was a sense of apprehension throughout India before the match. There was a feeling that this was much more than a football match; it was a chance for Indians to defeat the British finally,even if it was just in a sporting sense. The feat sounded impossible as it had never been before, but the Indians stayed optimistic in the face of near certain defeat. On the day itself, thousands of Indian spectators from all provinces reached Kolkata, packed in trains, to witness the historic match. The stadium was packed with 8000 to 10,000 people and those who couldn’t get in were crowded around outside. They would be informed of the score inside by the ingenious method of flying different coloured kites each time either team scored. 

It was the British side which scored first and the score remained the same as the clock started ticking down the last 15 minutes of the match. The stadium was silent, the enthusiasm had waned from the crowd and black kites had been flown overhead to signify the British scoring. As the crowd inside and outside waited glumly for the match to end, something miraculous happened. Within the last 15 minutes, Shibdas Bhaduri scored the equalizer. Right when the time was about to run out, player Abhilash Ghosh scored again to make it 2-1 to the Indians and made them win the IFA Shield over the East Yorkshire Regiment.

According to reports, pandemonium broke out in Kolkata and all over India as people feverishly celebrated this victory. It wasn’t just a sporting victory, it was a victory with great political significance. It broke British arrogance and for the first time debunked the prevalent myth that the British were superior and undefeatable in every sphere of life. It united all religions and states together and laid down the foundations for Kolkata’s love for the sport, still seen today. The club is so loved in Bengal that one of Indian football’s icons Chuni Goswami turned down an offer to play for Tottenham Hotspurs in England to play for Mohun Bagan.

The victory was also viewed as a sign of protest against the partition of the province of Bengal in 1905 and the defeat must have had some effect on the British because in December, 1911 the partition of Bengal was reversed. Newspapers in India and abroad covered the victory widely. 

Reuters News reported “...the scene beggared description, the Bengalees tearing off their shirts and waving them...”. 

The Mussalman, an influential newspaper of that time also reported, “The members of the Muslim Sporting Club were almost mad and rolling on the ground with joyous excitement on the victory of their Hindu brethren.”

Yet another British newspaper pointed out the significance of the victory by saying that the win of Mohun Bagan did more for India’s Independence movement than the Congress and the Swadeshi movement had done so far. 

The team that played that day became known as the “Immortal Eleven” and were posthumously given the Mohun Bagan Ratna. Even today, every year the club celebrates July 29 as Mohun Bagan day. It is unfortunate that because of the popularity of cricket in India, other sports suffer a fate of indifference and that such historic moments that should make us feel proud as a country slip through the cracks of history into obscurity and don’t get the attention they deserve. 

It is as Achintya Kumar Sengupa said in a Bengali magazine “Mohun Bagan is not a football team. It is an oppressed country, rolling in the dust, which has just started to rise its head.”

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