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Meet the Bengali lad who was ‘Father of Indian Football’

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For Bengal, football is almost a way of life and it is quite surprising how this often-neglected game in India that has lost its importance to cricket fever, not only survived in Bengal over centuries, but managed to hold on to its popularity. But how did this love and craze for a game that had its origin in England begin in Bengal? This is a fascinating story.

The year was 1877 and Calcutta was the capital of British India. One day a 10-year-old boy named Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari spotted a group of Europeans playing a ball game in the field. The little boy was fascinated and stood transfixed. The game seemed to pull him and he like a possessed soul would drag his mom to the spot and watch every day. One day, the ball rolled out of the ground and reached his feet. The boy instinctively kicked the ball like a pro and sent it back to the ground. He was the first Indian, a Bengali, to kick a football and that earned him the sobriquet of ‘Father of Indian Football.’ Later, he set up many football clubs to encourage youngsters to take up the game, he so loved. He even challenged the British to a game of football against his club. In 1892, in the much-publicized Trades Cup Tournament, Sovabazar Club defeated East Surrey Regiment by 2-1. This was a great achievement for the players of Sovabazar Club. 

Fort William Arsenal, a team of Indian workers, won the Coochbehar Cup. The winning streak continued when Mohun Bagan, established in 1889, won the Gladstone Cup in 1905. Between 1906 and 1908, the British football teams went down like ninepins and Mohun Bagan lifted the Traders Cup triumphantly. Meanwhile, Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India, announced the partition of Bengal. There was large-scale opposition and outcry against the move. At this juncture, natives celebrated Mohun Bagan’s victory as a fitting reply against a wrongful decision. This victory gave impetus to the political movement of the time and boosted confidence of Bengalis who believed they had the potential to challenge and take the British head-on. 

The opportunity to prove their superiority over British footballers came soon when Mohun Bagan Club participated in the prestigious IFA Shield in 1911. Eleven daring barefoot native footballers defeated four British clubs to reach the finals. The stage was set for the ultimate assault when Mohun Bagan defeated Yorkshire Regiment and lifted the IFA Shield. This landmark victory set the football rolling, literally. Incidentally, Mohun Bagan Club was set up even before clubs like Chelsea and Real Madrid were established!

In 1920, East Bengal Club was established and from here began a new chapter in the history of football in Bengal. The two major teams, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, participating in the Calcutta derby, changed the ball game entirely. In fact, the epic rivalry between these clubs is as fierce as El Classico. 

These two battling teams represent the socio-cultural rivalry of Ghotis (people of West Bengal) and Bangaal (people of East Bengal) and the game of football has given impetus to this age-old conflict. A match between the two rivals is a unique spectacle; the setting and mood inside the stadium gets charged and the crowd goes berserk. Football becomes the idiom of expressing myriad moods and sentiments of the spectators. It transports the ordinary Bengali to another plane from the monotony of their hum-drum existence.