When one talks about some of the great clubs in football, names like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and others come to mind. One doesn’t often think about clubs in Asia, let alone India. Not many know that India is also home to a club that falls in the same category. Not because of their titles, but because of the club’s history and how deeply rooted it is in the city’s culture. This club is the great Mohun Bagan. Originating from Kolkata, the center of India’s football, Mohun Bagan is the oldest club in the country, and one of the greatest in world football. along with East Bengal Mohun Bagan It is part of the Kolkata Derby, which is historically the biggest football match in all of Asia. The moment that made Bagan what it is today came over 100 years ago, on July 29, 1911.
India was under British rule at the time, and by the early 1900s, the Indian independence movement was well underway. The feeling of patriotism and the desire to drive the foreigners out of the country was strong among the local people. Mohun Bagan was a new club at that time. They had not yet joined the Bengali culture. At that time they did not have much money, so the players used to play barefoot. They also did not have the facilities to be as good as the British teams that played in India.
Iconic IFA Shield
At that time, the Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield was the biggest prize in Indian football. The problem was that it was only won by British sides. The East Yorkshire Regiment were one of the sides that were a consistent winner of the competition and it didn’t look like they would be losing the crown anytime soon. Little did they know that at that time a small Indian club would be about to break their grip on the title.
a club for everyone
At that time Bagan was captained by veteran Indian footballer Shibdas Bhaduri. It was considered a miracle that he even made it to the finals of such a tough competition, especially with such limited facilities and equipment. Many sides were defeated by Bagan to reach the final. These included St Xavier’s, Rangers, Rifle Brigade and Middlesex. Supporters across the country, and particularly in Bengal, were beginning to become fans at this point.
At that time there was no rivalry among the Bengali supporters. Bagan was the only club he had and he supported it with everything he had. The team that played the final had eight ‘chudis’ (those who migrated to Bengal from Bangladesh), representing what is today East Bengal. Thus, Mohun Bagan was a club for Bengalis everywhere.
However there was a problem. The final was against the defending champions and the club that dominated the IFA Shield, East Yorkshire Regiment. The match was played at Maidan Maidan near the city center in Kolkata. It was not a small tournament by any standards. Newspapers in England such as the Daily Mail, the London Times and the Manchester Guardian covered it in detail.
A host of supporters from across Bengal and India flocked to the ground hoping to witness a historic moment. As the players made their way onto the pitch, the local crowd cheered for the home side, and loudly booed the English. As expected, the East Yorkshire Regiment took an early lead. They were the dominant side in the game and looked set to retain the shield. What they didn’t see was Mohun Bagan playing to their full potential.
Captain Shibdas Bhaduri leveled the Mariners and suddenly there was confidence. The fans cheered jubilantly as the skipper went off to celebrate. The scores were level, and there was a chance, a very good chance. Things calmed down a bit on the pitch after the equaliser. Neither team wanted to make a mistake and things were tense for the fans. With only four minutes of regulation time to play, Bhaduri played a clever ball to Abhilash Ghosh, who slotted the ball past the goalkeeper to give Bagan the lead.
The arena ground was immediately filled with a sense of excitement. After a while the referee blew the final whistle. Mohun Bagan did it. They became the first all-India team to win the IFA Shield. That victory was not just a football victory. It was a victory against British rule in India. Bengal mobilized for the independence movement after that game which no one had ever expected. It is quite fitting that a Bengali club became the first club to break the British hold on the Indian football title as Bengal was the place from where the independence movement began in 1857. It is also the state where the East India Company conquered Bengal. In 1757, the army of the Nawab of Bengal, at the Battle of Plassey, which marked the beginning of British rule in India.
The match became the stuff of dreams and folklore and 11 players who played in that match became immortal. That team is known as ‘Amor Agaro’ which directly translates from Bengali to ‘Immortal Eleven’. It was the match that cemented Bagan’s place not only in Indian football, but also in world football. They were called the national club of India by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and to this day, they remain one of the greatest clubs in the world.
Immortal XI: Shibdas Bhaduri (c), Abhilash Ghosh, Bhuti Sukul, Bijaydas Bhaduri, Hiralal Mukherjee (GK), Manmohan Mukherjee, Rajendra Sengupta, Sudhir Chatterjee, Srishchandra ‘Habul’ Sarkar, Jatindranath ‘Kanu’ Roy, Nilamadhab Bhattacharya.