The evolution of Indian Football is a fascinating tale. Football in India was introduced by the British soldiers in the early nineteenth century. Those days, football was played only among the army teams. The first recorded football match in India was arguably in Mumbai back in 1802. A 30-minute game between teams named as “Military” and “Island”. (It is very likely that this match was a hybrid form of football and rugby). This was followed by instances of football matches from Kolkata. (Etonians vs Rest of Calcutta in 1838, Calcutta Club of Civilians vs Gentlemen of Barrackpore on the 13th April 1854, Etonians vs Rest of Calcutta in 1868)
The Early Days
As the 1870’s dawned, football matches became more frequent. Mostly involving British soldiers, tradesmen or sailors and with limited participation from Indians. One of the pioneer visionaries of Indian Football was Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari. He performed his own version of a social revolution by setting up the Sovabazar Club in 1887. The club was founded in the premises of famous Sovabazar Royal Palace in northern Kolkata. Remarkably, the club’s principle was to recruit players irrespective of caste, religion or creed. A significant step in a society that was divided on those lines.
The First Indian club to defeat a British team
“Sovabazar” was the first big native club in Indian football. The Royal family was held in high esteem by the British, which ensured the club got ample opportunities to play against the British teams. Led by Sarbadhikari, it was the first club to capture the public imagination. Two most successful clubs of that era were Sovabazar and Dukhiram Mazumdar’s Aryan Club. By the late 1880s and early 1890s Mohammedan Sporting and Mohun Bagan were established. The young and enthusiastic native clubs got the support of the general public. Leading to the start of “Trades Challenge Cup” in 1887 – India’s first football tournament.
As the biggest club of their day, Sovabazar Club was first Indian club to play in Trades Cup. Playing with eleven barefooted players against booted opponents, they struggled in the first edition of the tournament. In 1892 Sovabazar Club did the unthinkable and defeated a British team. In the opening match of Trades Cup they beat East Surrey, a British regiment team 2-1.
Two tournaments, limited to British participation, had started outside Bengal. Durand Cup in Shimla (1888) and Rovers Cup in Bombay (1891). The IFA Shield started in 1893(the fourth oldest trophy in the world). Between 1890 and 1900 football became more popular among the masses outside Bengal. In Southern Indian city of Thrissur, RB Ferguson Football Club was founded in 1899. Calcutta Football League began in 1898 (the oldest football league in Asia) and four years later Bombay Football Association was formed.
The First Indian club to win a tournament
In 1900 National Association Club won Trades Cup, the first reputed trophy won by an Indian club. Sovabazar Club and National Association, two clubs laid the foundations of Indian football.
In 1911 Mohun Bagan became the first Indian team to win the IFA Shield. They defeated East York Regiment by 2-1 victory margin in the final of the tournament. This win became a nationalist symbol for the fight against British rule. The Iconic Bagan captain, Shibdas Bhaduri, played a crucial role scoring a goal and assisting Abhilas Ghosh’s winner.
The abolition of the rule restricting only two Indian teams to play in First Division.
In 1924, East Bengal became joint champions of the Second Division. While Mohun Bagan and Aryans two Indian clubs, were already in the elite league. It became tougher for East Bengal to secure a place. Petitions were made for a change in the existing rules. And in 1925 East Bengal was granted a place in the premier division. It was East Bengal’s relentless efforts, that led to the abolition of the oppressive rule of restricting Indian teams to just two in the First Division.
All India Football Federation” (AIFF) came to existence in 1937. AIFF got recognized by FIFA in the year 1948. The Santosh Trophy (a tournament contested between the States and Government institutions) was established in 1941. (Named after the late Maharaja Sir Manmatha Nath Roy Chowdhary of Santosh)
The 1948 Olympics in London
The Indian Football team embarked upon its first overseas tour in 1948. Led by legendary captain Talimeren Ao. The occasion was the 1948 London Olympics. Balaidas Chatterjee was the head coach of the Indian Team. (As a player Balaidas Chatterjee was iconic in his era along with likes of Gostha Paul – the legendary defender who was selected as the first ever captain of the Indian National Team to play an overseas match).
India faced European giants France in their Olympics debut. 11 Indians, mostly barefooted, with only bandages strapped around their ankles, strutted onto the Lynn Road football ground in London. The crowd looked on with awe, as they saw Balaidas Chatterjee’s men go toe-to-toe against their much-fancied European opponents. The Indian Football team thrilled all spectators. Sarangapani Raman became independent India’s first-ever international goal scorer. The Indian team lost 1-2, with the winner coming as late as the 89th minute. The Indian players won the hearts of many a football fan for their gritty showing. The strong squad was rewarded with an invitation to the 1950 World Cup in Brazil as Asia’s representative. (All Indian Football Federation had to turn down the offer later).
India’s first international trophy – 1951 Asian Games
This was the inaugural edition of the Asian Games with New Delhi being the host city. India played Indonesia for a place in the semis. They won comfortably 3-0, with goals from Sahu Mewalal and Pansanttom Venkatesh. India’s final opponents were Iran. Sahu Mewalal’s 34th minute strike was enough to see India clinch the gold medal. They went on without conceding a single goal in the tournament. Sailen Manna led India to its first-ever Asian Games gold. (Manna was A solid-left back and the team’s designated set-piece taker)
The Golden Era of Indian Football
Indian football went through an euphoriant phase, during the “1950”s and “1960”s. India played in four Olympics and won two Asian Games gold medals. PK Banerjee, along with Tulsidas Balaram and Chuni Goswami, constituted the holy trinity of Indian football’s Golden Era. P K Banerjee the enigmatic attacker, played a huge role in shaping India into an Asian powerhouse. Chuni Goswami was a top-class player. His dribbling, passing and ball control was second to none. And Tulsidas Balaram was probably the best Asian striker in his era. India also had the “gentle giant” Peter Thangaraj as goalkeeper. (voted as the best goalkeeper in Asia in 1958) In midfield, ‘the bearded horse’ Yusuf Khan, was a versatile footballer who could effortlessly slot into multiple positions. Franco Fortunato was a fierce competitor. Ram Bahadur Chhetri was an all-action midfielder whose superb passing range was vital to India’s offensive build-ups. And India’s solid defense was marshaled by Jarnail Singh.
1956 Olympics in Melbourne – India became the first Asian nation to register a semi-final appearance
Against the home team Australia in the quarter-finals, India produced a masterclass and outplayed their opponents 4-2. Indian striker Neville D’Souza scored three of India’s four goals. Making him the first Asian to score a hat-trick at the Olympics. Combination of striker Neville D’Souza and youngster P K Banerjee produced India’s best ever performance at the Olympics. The team was led by Samar Banerjee and coached by Syed Abdul Rahim.
1960 Olympics in Rome – India against star studded Hungary and France
The Indian Football team was led by P.K. Banerjee. Against Hungary, India trailed 2-0 by the hour mark. What followed next, was an incredible display of skillful football by the Indians. They made life uncomfortable for Hungary. And even pulled a goal back through Balaram in the 79th minute. The Indian Football team’s performance grabbed a few eyeballs. In their next match, India carved out yet another famous result. As they held France to a 1-1 draw, courtesy PK Banerjee’s goal in the 71st minute.
Gold medal in the 1962 Asian Games held in Jakarta
The Indian team were up against South Korea in finals. The Koreans were the defending AFC Asian Cup champions. With 17 minutes gone, Goswami dodged a challenge and found an onrushing PK Banerjee. His shot was never in danger of being saved. Three minutes later, India were awarded a free-kick. Franco Fortunato stepped up and found Jarnail Singh in the Korean box. Singh received the ball, bullied his way past two markers and scored with a left footed shot. (Jarnail Singh was playing the match despite a serious head injury). Some fantastic defending by Arun Ghosh and Chandrasekhar Menon barely gave the Koreans a sniff at goal. Until, Cha Tae-sung pulled one back with five minutes to go. India ended the day with their second Asian games gold. A runners-up medal in the 1964 Asian Cup followed.
Indian Football in the 1970s, 1980’s and 1990’s
During the early 1970s India had plenty of attacking talents like Shyam Thapa, Mohammed Habib and Amar Bahadur. Shabbir Ali was arguably India’s best striker in the 70’s and 80’s. Before him Inder Singh was one of the finest strikers during the late 60’s and early 70’s. Mohummad Habib from Andhra Pradesh, is another name who entertained Indian fans from the late 60’s to early 80’s. He made his way into Kolkata football along with Shyam Thapa, Sayeed Nayeemuddin.
Winning Bronze medal in the 1970 Asian Games
The team captained by Syed Nayeemuddin had a brilliant forward line. India started the campaign with a 2-2 draw against Thailand and Subhas Bhowmick was the star performer. The next day India faced South Vietnam and defeated them 2-0 thanks to goals from Habib and Manjit Singh.
In the quarter-final, India were drawn with Japan and Indonesia. India started well as they won 3-0 against Indonesia with goals from D Natraj, Magan Singh and Thapa. Burma were the opponents in the semi-finals. The south-east Asian nation proved too strong for India (as they won 2-0). India had to face Japan in the bronze medal match. India produced a gritty display to win 1-0 thanks to a strike from Manjit Singh. India’s standout performer though was Sudhir Karmakar. He expertly man-marked Japan’s best player Kunishige Kamamoto and kept him quiet throughout the game. This was the last time India won a medal at the Asian Games.
The 1980’s and 1990’s
Krishanu Dey, was one of the most creative midfielders during the 80s for India. He had with an unique playing style. His technique was excellent and he had a sudden burst of acceleration which enabled him to dribble past the opposition defender with ease.
During the 90’s Indian football saw many great talents come up. IM Vijayan was one of the best players of the 90’s. With his dazzling skills and goals he was the darling of fans in many parts of India. He made his debut in international football in the year 1989. He formed one of the deadliest forward lines with Baichung Bhutia that the Indian football has ever seen. Bhaichung Bhutia marked his international debut in March 1995. With IM Vijayan approaching his peak and the likes of Jo Paul Ancheri and Bruno Coutinho breaking through. India were an exciting attacking unit at that time.
The Era post 2000
Vijayan and Ancheri’s retirement in 2003, left Bhutia to shoulder the team’s scoring responsibilities alongside a very young Sunil Chhetri. India rallied brilliantly to beat hosts Vietnam 3-2 in an exciting final and lift the LG Cup in 2002. It was after a gap of 31 years that the Indian football team has won in the final of a tournament.
East Bengal created history in 2003, as they became the first Indian club to win an Asian level football tournament, the ASEAN CUP. East Bengal were a star-studded unit in that season. With the likes of Sandip Nandy, Bhaichung Bhutia, S. Venkatesh, Alvito D’Cunha, Mahesh Gavli and Deepak Mondal in the side. They squad consisted some top overseas players like the versatile Brazilian defender Douglas D’Silva and Nigerian striker Mike Okor. Ghanaian Defender Sule Musah was the captain of the side.
The Indian Football team won its first ever Nehru Cup in 2007 beating Syria 1-0. They lifted the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. In 2011 they qualified for the AFC Asian Cup. In August 2009 India won the Nehru Cup again beating Syria on penalties (6-5).
Dempo SC were the first Indian club to reach the semi-finals of the AFC Cup in 2008. Five years later, East Bengal did one better and reached the semis. They went on a 9-match unbeaten streak in the AFC Cup. In 2016, Bengaluru FC made it to the final of the AFC CUP beating the defending champions Johor Darul Ta’zim.
In 2019, India beat Thailand 4-1 in the AFC Asian Cup and then again in the Kings Cup. However, India’s best result in recent times came when they held Qatar to a 0-0 draw in their own backyard. Missing the team’s talisman, striker Sunil Chhetri, due to an illness. India were banking heavily on their defence to deliver on the day and they didn’t disappoint. Goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu was the star of the show, making a total of 11 saves throughout the match.
While country’s Football Association is immersed in an never-ending controversy regarding the future of the national leagues and national clubs. Appointed in May, former Croatian international Igor Stimac took over the managerial reins of Indian Football from Stephen Constantine. Sunil Chhetri, Sandesh Jhingan and Udanta Singh are few of the talented players to watch out for at the moment.