The Surprising History of Indian Football

India is the world’s second largest nation with a mind-boggling population of over a billion people. Despite this monumental nation they are seen as anything but a global leader when it comes to football, with very few professional players and a national team that fails to make world news. But if we take a deeper look at the history of the game you will find that they were once a powerhouse in Asia, represented by some curious but talented figures and, subject to increased resources and a grand plan, India aim to return to the peak of Asian football.

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With a penchant for introducing football the world over as the 19th century drew to a close, the British had already captivated it’s Indian colony with the game some fifty years earlier. The ever so British-named Gentlemen of Barrackpore and Calcutta Club of Civilians contested the first official match in 1854, a decade after soldiers regularly played locals.

Various competitions were established across India but were mainly contested by British expats and their teams, the most important being The Durand Cup. Formed in 1888 it is not much younger than England’s FA Cup and is still being competed for today.

Indians loved the game but the most dramatic increase in popularity came after the home-grown team Mohun Bagan won the IFA Shied in 1911 and beat the fancied East Yorkshire army regiment team 2-1. Football fever gripped Kolkota brining a newly formed team called East Bengal in 1920, marking the beginning of an everlasting fierce rivalry with Mohun. In the first-half of the 20th century teams would compete in several different regional and national cups and competitions and the Kolkata teams dominated this era.

Throughout the 20s Mohun were captained by a defender labelled ‘The Great Wall of China’. Gostha Pal played as a young teenager for regional teams until Mohun came calling after his 16th birthday. Later honoured by a statue in Kolkata, remarkably Pal played the game barefoot and is rightly considered as one of India’s greatest players. He would also captain his national team from 1924.

As the Indian national team played exhibition games as an unofficial entity, their club teams began to tour overseas to Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Australia. Their performances drew high praise and prompted the formation in 1937 of the All India Football Federation. India would have a decade to prepare for their first major international competition at the 1948 London Olympics.

Another barefoot superstar would become internationally known in the 1930s as the first Indian player to play for a European club. Mohammed Abdul Salim would pull on the famous green and white hoops of Scottish giants Glasgow Celtic in two exhibition games before he was offered a contract and a lucrative gate receipts deal that would have made him rich beyond his wildest dreams.

His stay in Glasgow was short due to homesickness but he left a memorable imprint on the club and the sports media that saw him play. Each person amazed at ‘The Indian Juggler’.

With no clear guidelines in place, the Indian national team debuted at London Olympics in 1948 barefoot, as was custom in their homeland. Their bemused opponents France scored a late goal to win 2-1 and crawl their way into the next round, with India missing two penalties in the game. They even won an influential fan in Princess Margaret who was impressed at their boot-less performance. The Golden Era was about to take off.

From 1951 to 1962 India swept aside opponents with ease, becoming the best team in Asia winning the first Asian Games competition in 1951 and another in 1962 as well as a fourth-place finish at the 1956 Olympics. Ranked in the top 20 nations in the world, the team was awash with talent including the late Sailen Manna. An exemplary defender that captained his country as well as his all-conquering club Mohun Bagan through to 1960, he even made the English Football Association’s Yearbook list ‘Top 10 Best Captains in the World’.

At the business end of the field, striker PK Banarjee scored 65 goals in 84 appearances for India in this period and retired a national hero in 1967. Partnered by Mohun’s Subimal ‘Chuni’ Goswami and Bombay’s Neville D’Souza they formed a formidable trio with the latter scoring a hat-trick at the 1956 Olympics, the first Asian to do so and finishing joint-top scorer with four goals. Goswami himself was an all-round athlete, juggling his football commitment with excelling at cricket for his country’s test team.

The 1960s saw a gradual decline in India’s performances and as their stars retired, so did hopes of an extended golden era; an impressive Silver medal at the 1970 Asian Games marking their last hurrah. Other Asian nations such as South Korea, Japan and Iran were emerging at a fast pace and the next 30 years saw little to celebrate.

On the domestic scene Mohun Bagan continued their march as the nation’s team to beat, winning multiple cups with a triple crown in 1977 as well as playing Pele’s New York Cosmos at home earning a 2-2 draw. Mohun’s arch-rivals East Bengal would also continue their trophy haul but really came to the fore with six consecutive Calcutta Football League titles from 1970 to 1975.

There were some positive notes eventually arriving at the end of the century including striker Baichung Bhutia becoming the first Indian footballer to sign a professional contract with a European club, England’s Bury Town, in 1999. A three-year stint only produced three goals and he returned to India where he once again scored for fun for a host of teams including Mohun Began and East Bengal.

2006 saw the national team’s demise come to a halt with the introduction of English coach Bob Houghton. His vast experience across Europe included stints such as taking Malmo FF to the European Cup Final in 1979 as well as leading teams in Canada, Switzerland, China and the Middle-East.

Baichung Bhutia, with 43 goals in 107 caps, would become an important player in Houghton’s 2008 AFC Challenge Cup win along with his attacking partner Sunil Chhetri. The forward would emulate Bhutia’s goal-scoring record and earn a move to Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon, playing in their ‘B’ side gaining valuable experience but ultimately returning to India.

Houghton’s India would win the Nehru Cup in 2007 and 2009 before qualifying for their first AFC Asian Cup (2011) in 17 years but lost all three outings at the finals. This mini-revival was driven by Houghton’s fresh tactical approach with players such as Chhetri pushing their limits but also the domestic based and hilariously named Climax Lawrence. The attacking midfielder retired in 2012 but provided the ammunition for his forwards as well as being forever remembered for the AFC Challenge Cup winner in the 91st minute in 2008.

Despite Lawrence’s retirement, 2012 saw cause for celebration with a third successive Nehru Cup win, this time defeating African powerhouse Cameroon on penalties in the final under new Dutch coach and former European Championship winner with the Netherlands, Wim Koevermans.

These minor tournament victories have however done little to affect their world standing. In early 2014 they sit ranked 154 in the world with little hope of reaching the World Cup finals anytime soon.

But there are plans afoot to knock cricket from its pedestal as the number one sport in India. A significant step is India’s hosting of the 2017 Under-17 World Cup, the first move in an ambitious plan called ‘Laqshya 2022’ or ‘Aim 2022’, with the ultimate goal qualification for the senior World Cup in Qatar.

There are currently big obstacles. Despite the passion for football, local teams are not supported as heavily as the giants of the English Premier League or Spain’s La Liga and ex-coach Houghton once said the “country has zero football infrastructure”.

The 2007 introduction of the professional domestic I-League has encourage more substantial investment, especially from world corporate IMG-Reliance, but this turned sour when club owners claimed that the organisation had barely any noticeable attempts to advance the league.

In 2012 IMG responded with a revamped plan to appease their customers and there has been since a small rise in the league’s popularity. The I-League did bring a change in fortunes for traditional winners Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, as three different teams have taken the first six titles, not one going to the Kolkata clubs. East Bengal’s Churchill Brothers claimed the most recent 2013 championship.

Even with the introduction of the I-League, cricket looms large and Indian talent is quick to be lured to relatively low-key but better paid leagues across the world, with foreigners taking their place. It is coined a professional league but many staff and players are still effectively semi-professional, working also for the company that owns their team.

Bring in the national obsession of Hockey into the equation and, in spite of the new facilities being gradually invested in and built, football has to share its limited gains.

A doomed plan to copy cricket’s Indian Premier League and bring in ageing stars such as Thierry Henry, Hernan Crespo and Louis Saha was discarded in late 2013, the authorities realising this would not fix the issue of local club support. However with a big overall vision and Aim 2022, it is hoped that the youth market will be captivated by the 2017 Under-17 World Cup and India can slowly capture the attention and support of its 1.2 billion people, half of whom are under the age of thirty-five.

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