In a post earlier this week, I called attention to the IFA Shield final from 1911 and the legend born in its wake. The other story from the pre-independence era that has been romanticised is the victory of Mohammedan Sporting in the Durand Cup final of 1940. It was a first trophy win for an Indian team in the oldest tournament in Asia, in existence since 1888. For forty five editions, British regimental teams had dominated proceedings and Mohammedan were the first to break this stronghold.
Mohun Bagan’s win in 1911 fitted into the nationalist narrative in Bengal at the time and similarly, Mohammedan’s victory played out at a time when the Muslim League was gaining popularity and the ‘Two Nation’ theory was being expounded. As with the earlier final, it would be healthy to remove the context and look at the game for what it was, a victory achieved against enormous odds. The big three in Bengal football have regrettably sometimes sought out differences beyond football for its supporters to get behind, leaving everyone a bit poorer for it. Of course, the Brits were the common enemy at the time and they could rally behind a cause when need be.
The Durand Cup was held in Delhi for the first time in 1940. Prior to that year, the tournament was always hosted in Shimla, the summer capital of the British Raj. The onset of the Second World War meant that the capital did not shift that year and the tournament stayed in Delhi ever since.
The final was played on the 12th of January at the Irwin Amphitheatre, now the Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium, in front of 50000 people. In another first, an Indian referee, Captain Harnam Singh was to officiate the final. Once at the ground, he learnt that his linesmen, Warrant Officers Oliphant and Greene, were refusing to take the field. They felt slighted by having to serve under an Indian official.
The match was delayed and it took the intervention of then Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow, for the match to go ahead. Tradition dictated that the Viceroy inaugurate the final and the threat of a court-martial from the visiting dignitary against the two officers sufficed. Harnam Singh would later report that both linesmen did a competent job and supported him fully once the match began.
Mohammedan Sporting were riding a wave leading upto the final against the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. They had won the Calcutta Football League five years in a row from 1934 to 1938. They were the most professional team in the country with a strong focus on diet and fitness. Unlike other Indian teams, they were amenable to playing with boots. A special boot had been designed for them to counter the wet playing surfaces in Kolkata during the monsoon. The achievements of the team through an almost invincible run in the 1930s contributed to a sense of destiny when they took to the field and the final was won by two goals to one.
Mohammedan Sporting would not win another Durand for 73 years. When they beat ONGC in the 2013 final, it was almost a surprise. It has needed the intervention of well wishers to keep the club alive in recent years. They currently reside in the I-League Second Division, a far cry from that glorious evening all those years ago when they broke British hegemony over Indian football once and for all.