Over the last 125 years, Mohun Bagan AC has made the beautiful game a way of life in Bengal.
Kirti Mitra’s baganbari (farmhouse), although it no longer exists, is where it all began. Near Phariapukur in north Kolkata, the large marble building called Mohun Villa was the venue for an important meeting of eminent intellectuals and landowners. They wanted to start a club to develop sporting activities amongst the local Bengali youth.
By all accounts, the meeting, presided over by Bhupendranath Basu (who would later become president of the Indian National Congress in 1914), was a success. And thus, on August 15, 1889, the Mohun Bagan Sporting Club was established, named after the villa that housed that momentous event. It is the oldest club in Asia, predating European giants such as Barcelona, Chelsea, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid.
On the first anniversary of the club, FJ Rowe, a professor of English literature at Presidency College, suggested that in the absence of angling and rifle shooting activities, the word ‘athletic’ would be more appropriate for the club. From then on, India’s oldest football club has been known as Mohun Bagan Athletic Club.
Bhupendranath Basu (mohunbaganac.com)
Setting the standard
In 1889, when the club began, the bar was set high: a player who failed in a school or college exam was not allowed to play. Smoking and drinking were forbidden in the club house.
Mohun Bagan was financially and culturally supported by the Bengali intelligentsia and aristocrats and Calcutta’s youth aspired to play for this elite, prestigious club. Eleven years later, Sailen Basu, a subedar major in the British Indian Army became secretary of the club. Using physical conditioning methods learned in his army days, he improved the fitness levels of the players.
The early years of glory
The strict training paid off. Mohun Bagan annexed the Cooch Behar Cup in 1904, 1905 and 1907. In 1905, they also won the Gladstone Cup beating the IFA Shield champions Dalhousie club 6-1 in the final. They also won the Trades Cup thrice in a row, from 1906-08. British regimental and club sides also played in these matches. Such was Bagan’s fame that they were invited to play in India’s most prestigious tournament, the IFA Shield. At the time, the team comprised 10 Bengalis. Six of them were Brahmins, one player, Sudhir Kumar Chatterjee, was Christian. Only one player, Sukul, wasn’t originally from Bengal – his surname was a corruption of the north Indian ‘Shukla’. And Abhilash Ghosh was just playing to defy his parents: they feared that he would get hurt, but he needed to impress his girlfriend who lived in the same locality.
On the morning of July 29, 1911, the day of the final match, the Bagan players went to Kalighat temple to pray. They stepped onto the field with red tilaks on their forehead and flowers from the shrine in their pockets. Chatterjee followed the same rituals as his teammates, which endeared him to Bagan fans. On the field, captain and left winger Sibdas Bhaduri, muscular centre forward Ghosh and left back Chatterjee’s deft handling of the ball led to a 2-1 victory over the East Yorkshire Regiment. Mohun Bagan had become the first Indian team to lift the coveted IFA Shield.
The 1911 IFA Shield-winning team (sportskeeda.com)
July 29 was and will always be an iconic day for Mohun Bagan and its
countless supporters. 1911 will always be known as the year of the
‘Egaro’ – the eleven barefooted players who led Mohun Bagan into the
record books of Indian football. Therefore, as a mark of tribute, July
29 is celebrated as Mohun Bagan Day. On this day, Mohun Bagan greats are
bestowed with the award, Mohun Bagan Ratna as a mark of respect towards
their indispensable contributions to the club over the years.
1911 – More than just a tournament
This victory was seen as a symbolic triumph and a boost to the freedom movement that was gaining momentum. It challenged fundamental views on the racial superiority of white Europeans over Asians and did away with the image of Bengalis as an effeminate race. As Achintya Kumar Sengupta wrote in the magazine, Kallol Jug after the historic triumph, “Mohun Bagan is not a football team. It is an oppressed country, rolling in the dust, which has just started to raise its head.”
But most importantly, it gave birth to the Bengali’s love affair with football.
Over the decades, Mohun Bagan has made seminal contributions to Indian football.
After Independence, India’s first foreign tour was the 1948 London Olympics. The captain was Talimeran Aao, from Mohun Bagan. This trend continued: the captains of the Indian football team in the next two Olympics, Sailen Manna (1952 Helsinki Olympics) and Samar ‘Badru’ Banerjee (1956 Melbourne Olympics) were both from Mohun Bagan. India has twice won the Asian Games gold medal in football. On both occasions, the captains were Mariners (as Bagan players are known as, their logo being a sail boat): Sailen Manna in 1951 and Chuni Goswami in 1962. Another Bagan legend, central defender Jarnail Singh is the only Indian to have twice captained the Asian All Stars team – in 1964 and 1965.
Bagan’s supporters defy class divides – they are a mix of IT professionals, media personnel, private and public sector employees, etc. During matches, the field and the stadium become a levelling ground, the only colours that matter are green and maroon.
A few legends (L to R): T Aao, S Manna, S Banerjee, C Goswami, J Singh
(scroll.in, lovehindustan.com, mohunbaganac.com, iloveindia.com,
The 2015 I-League champions (goal.com)
Excerpted from Novy Kapadia’s article ‘Mohun Bagan: Blaze of Glory,’ published in The Indian Express on June 7, 2014
Lead image: sportskeeda.com