x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

India celebrate centenary of world's oldest football competitions

Since winning the Indian Football Association Shield 100 years ago, passion for India's football club, Mohun Bagan, remains high.

Since winning the IFA Shield 100 years ago, passion for India's Mohun Bagan is still high, says Dileep Premachandran

When India finally opted for a national league in 1997/98, Mohun Bagan won it three times in the first six years.

Since then, two top-three finishes aside, they have struggled to match performance with reputation. Last season, they finished sixth, with as many losses (eight) as there were wins.

This month, one of Indian football's traditional big two - East Bengal, their bitter rivals, last won the title in 2004 - celebrate the centenary of one of the epochal events in Indian sport, an event that was to provide a massive fillip for the game in British-ruled India.

After the English and Scottish FA Cups and India's own Durand Cup, the Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield is the world's oldest cup competition. First played in 1893, it was a highly prized event attracting the best British regiments by the time the 1911 final was played at the Calcutta Football Club grounds at Ballygunge in south Kolkata.

The state of Bengal had been partitioned in 1905 and a new wave of Indian nationalism that would culminate in independence four decades later was on the rise. The early months of 1911 had seen another significant event, the shifting of the capital from Calcutta to Edwin Lutyens-built New Delhi.

The East Yorkshire regiment was the empire's representative in the final. Lined up against them was Bagan, whose progress to the title game had been an odyssey in itself. Formed in 1889, the club's progress had ruffled more than a few feathers. In 1909, they defeated the Gordon Highlanders in a tournament, provoking some soldiers to rough up the local support.

They started the IFA Shield of 1911 with a 3-0 win against St Xavier's, despite being a man short. Sudhir Chatterjee, the left-back who would later go on to teach at Trinity College in Cambridge, wasn't granted leave by the college where he taught. Bagan played a 2-3-5 formation in those days and were easy winners over the two halves of 25 minutes.

It was a different matter in the second round, with the monsoon rains reducing the ground to slush. As with the national side on their Olympic debut in 1948, Bagan played in bare feet and the players were like novices on ice at times during the clash with Rangers, another regimental side. They still won 2-0, having survived a dubious penalty decision against them.

The Rifle Brigade were seen off in the quarter-final before a huge crowd gathered to watch them match wits with the Middlesex Regiment. The game did not touch the heights of cynicism reached by Argentina's Estudiantes in the late 1960s, but the underlying menace from both sides shocked many an observer.

Middlesex's goal came after a goalmouth fracas that saw Hiralal Mukherjee, the Bagan goalkeeper, badly injured. The game finished 1-1, and Bagan exacted retribution in the replay. Abhilash Ghosh's challenge on Piggott, the goalkeeper, saw him nearly lose an eye, and though he returned to the fray, the "natives" won 3-0.

Interest in the final was unprecedented, with additional ferries across the Ganges. More than 80,000 crowded into the grounds, many of them with little hope of seeing any action. Reuters reported that flying kites kept supporters updated.

East Yorkshire led early in the second half, and the kite sent up was black in colour. With the clock ticking down, Shibdas Bhaduri swept home the equaliser. This time, the kite that soared into the Kolkata sky was maroon-and-green, Bagan colours. Soon after, Shibdas scythed through the defence, drew men to him and left Ghosh, the strong arm against Middlesex, with a tap-in.

Bengalis are renowned for their celebration of festivals and that carnival atmosphere was prevalent after the Bagan win.

"When it was known that the East Yorkshire Regiment had been beaten, the Bengalees were tearing off their shirts and waving them," said Reuters.

The Daily Mail too praised the champions, saying: "It was a notable victory, gained over the best British regimental teams, and not even the sweltering heat of Calcutta to which the Bengalees are better insured than the white man, can discount it."

As the years passed, it became apparent that Bagan's success was more a one-off than the first step in establishing a dynasty. A century on, though, the team can still call on immense support. Close to 120,000 packed in to the Salt Lake Stadium in 2008 to bid farewell to Oliver Kahn as Ottmar Hitzfeld's Bayern Munich beat Bagan in a friendly.

It brought back memories of September 1977, when Pele's New York Cosmos came to town and brought the city to a standstill.

And while only the most dedicated fans will be aware of 1911 and the spirit that inspired a famous win, the passion endures, even if kites are no longer needed to keep score.