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Indian football's unique tale

Action from a China PR-India match in 1935
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Where does the oldest existing football competition in the world outside Britain take place?

If you’re among the many who don’t know the answer, prepare for surprise. For it’s not the Copa del Rey or the Campeonato Paulista – the most ancient surviving tournaments in mainland Europe and South America respectively – but the Durand Cup in a seemingly remote spot on the footballing atlas: India.

It may sound like a freak curiosity from a nation that is monopolised by two other sports – India have won twice as many men’s Olympic field hockey golds as any other country, while its Twenty20 cricket championship is among the richest events in the world – but scratch beneath its surface and one will uncover a series of enchanting idiosyncrasies.

Mahatma Gandhi, the anti-violence pioneer who led India into independence, used football to help break racial barriers in South Africa and social ones in his homeland; the Indian footballers’ bravery and brilliance in bare feet at the 1948 Olympics earned them no less a fan than Princess Margaret, the younger sister of the then and still-reigning Queen Elizabeth II; Salien Manna was the only Asian to ever make the list of the world’s ten best captains in the English FA’s celebrated football yearbook; India were the dominant force in international football’s infancy in Asia; and the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan clash once boasted a stupefying attendance of 130,000 fans, and regularly attracts crowds of between 80,000 and 105,000.

Humble beginnings to I-League exposure
The British were responsible for introducing football to countless countries the world over in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they took it to India much earlier. British soldiers, indeed, began playing the game with locals in the late 1840s, and in 1854 the first recorded match took place there between Calcutta Club of Civilians and Gentlemen of Barrackpore.

The Durand Cup was inaugurated in 1888 – it remains the fourth-oldest existing football event across the globe, behind the English FA Cup, the Scottish Cup and the Welsh Cup – and more competitions came into existence in India the following decade. They were, however, all monopolised by the British clubs until 1911, when Mohun Bagan upset East Yorkshire regiment 2-1 in the IFA Shield final. That proved the catalyst in football’s popularity boom in Kolkota.

Mohun Bagan, one of Asia’s oldest clubs having been founded in 1889, and East Bengal became instant rivals upon the latter’s 1920 inauguration, with their battles thereafter bringing ‘The City of Joy’ to a standstill.

“Kolkata’s a massive place for football – it’s without doubt the place to be in India,” East Bengal’s English coach Trevor Morgan previously told “There’s cameras everywhere, so many pressers and tv stations. I coached the reserves for Hull City, and the media coverage here is on a par with the Premier League. Fans are absolutely crazy for football. There were even thousands of fans at the airport when we returned after winning the Federation Cup. They lay at your feet, touch your feet as a mark of respect. The fans live for football.”

While East Bengal and Mohun Bagan remain easily the most successful teams in Indian football history, and while Kolkota remains its firm hotbed, other teams and other cities have forged firm places on Indian domestic football’s map. Salgaocar and JCT – from the Goa and Punjab states respectively – have also enjoyed their own successes over the years, and the 2007 introduction of the impressively sponsored and cutely marketed I-League has soared the sport’s popularity all over the globe’s second-most populous country. Goa outfit Dempo have won three of its first five editions.

Glory to gloom and back again
India’s first international competition came at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament London 1948, where they met France for a place in the second round. And if anybody had given the Asians a chance of a gargantuan upset on their way to Cricketfield Stadium, nobody did when they saw the Indians take to the pitch barefoot! The Europeans expectedly took the lead, but roared on by the crowd – who were in awe of them playing without footwear – India equalised and laid siege to their opponents goal thereafter. However, after missing two penalties, they were hit with a sucker-punch when Rene Persillon snatched a last-gasp winner for the Europeans.

“Princess Margaret told me how impressed she was that we could give such a good account of ourselves without boots,” India captain Talimeran Ao later recalled. Those words from the distinguished royal, whose father, George VI, was the last Emperor of India, were not the only source of pride the Indians took from that trip to Europe: before returning home, indeed, they beat Dutch giants Ajax in a friendly.

India, boasting super talents such as PK Banjeree and Neville D’Souza, established themselves as the best team in Asia over the next 15 years. They won the First Asian Games in 1951, incredibly reached the semi-finals at the Olympics five years later, overcame Korea Republic in the Fourth Asian Games decider in 1962, and finished as runners-up at the AFC Asian Cup two years later.

As the likes of Iran, Japan, Korea Republic and Saudi Arabia emerged, India descended into continental nobodies thereafter, until a stirring recent revival. Following the appointment of Englishman Bob Houghton in 2006, and inspired by outstanding forwards Baichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri, the Blue Tigers won the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008, back-to-back Nehru Cups and SAFF Championships, and last year participated in their first Asian Cup in 27 years. And under new coach Wim Koevermans, the Indians upset Cameroon on Sunday to make it three consecutive Nehru Cup titles.

“This is a golden era for Indian football,” enthused All India Football Federation (AIFF) president Praful Patel recently. “It’s no longer about cricket. Children in India are crazy about football. They have seen the national team’s success in recent years. Now they will see Sunil [Chhetri] playing in Portugal (Chhetri has joined Lisbon giants Sporting’s B side) and dream of emulating him. Football is the future.”

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