All cultures have stories that take the form of folklore. Transmitted by word of mouth, every retelling embellishes elements of the story and eventually a legend is born, one that makes that story greater than the sum of its parts. In Indian football, that story would be that of the 1911 IFA Shield final. Depending on who you listen to or what you read, the game had connotations for nationalism, racial superiority and the masculinity of the native protagonists.
At a durbar in December of that year, King George V announced that the capital of British India would be moved to Delhi. Many would have you believe that the result of that match had in part contributed to that decision. Or that the myth of the Brits being a superior race had been shattered once and for all. If there were those who thought that Bengali men were effeminate, well, that notion had been tossed out of the window as well.
In reality, the game attained legendary status for the context it provided during those times. British teams had already been beaten by Indians before, to little fanfare. In 1892, Sovabazar Club had a first ever win for an Indian club against foreign opposition when they beat East Surrey Regiment. Indian teams had followed that with victory in smaller tournaments like the Trades Cup, Mohun Bagan included.
By 1911, however, the nationalist movement had picked up steam as a direct consequence of the Partition of Bengal in 1905. Swadeshi and Swaraj movements had mobilised the masses and general unrest was the norm, rather than the exception.
It was with this situation in the background that Mohun Bagan entered the 1911 IFA Shield. They had been appearing in the invitational tournament since 1906, without making a mark. Before their first match, against St. Xavier’s, interest was not too high. It was only when they started progressing through the rounds that the nationalist narrative took hold and by the time the final came around on 29th July, the whole of Bengal and some of the rest of India were keeping tabs.
Accounts on the number of people at the Maidan Ground that day range from 60,000 to a 100,000. It is safe to say that the venue was packed. Bagan had already beaten strong sides in the earlier rounds but East Yorkshire Regiment were favoured to win. The British team took the lead only for captain, Shibdas Bhaduri to equalise. Abhilash Ghosh sealed a famous 2-1 win with a few minutes remaining when he turned in a cross from Bhaduri.
The decision to partition Bengal would be rescinded that year. There are those who attribute that to the Shield win as well. In reality however, it was a decision taken for political and administrative purposes, the implications of which last till this day.
Exaggerated accounts should still not take away from the magnitude of the achievement. It was a first trophy for an Indian side in a prestigious tournament. A victory for a team made up of commoners playing barefoot against a classist and racist establishment, also represented by the seating arrangements at the ground that day, should warm the cockles of anyone’s heart. The win also rubber-stamped Kolkata’s love affair with the game, which has always been in everyone’s best interest.
Most of all, it is a story of eleven unfancied men who overcame the odds for a period of three weeks and delivered a win no one thought was possible. We’ve been looking for similar stories ever since.