August 31, 2011 was an important date in the history of Kolkata. Argentinian footballer, the so-called ‘God of football’, Lionel Messi had flown down to the city that has had an unusual romantic affair with the sport for over a century now. Reportedly, over 2,000 delirious football lovers waited for hours at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose international airport to greet their beloved sports star who was visiting the city for the first-ever FIFA official international friendly match there. If reports are to be believed, people lost sleep and travelled huge distances for a glimpse of the man they worshipped.
Bengal’s obsession with football is hardly a matter of secret. Those who have not been fortunate enough to meet a Bengali football fan, have clearly missed the passion with which he or she details out their love for Mohun Bagan or East Bengal, depending on whichever side of the border going through modern-day Bengal they originate from. Just as the world gears up for FIFA 2018, yet another instance of unusual football fan behaviour was reported from Bengal. Tea-seller Shiv Shankar Patra of North 24 Parganas district, another die-hard fan of Messi, has painted his house in the team’s blue and white colours. Even the interiors of his house have been done up to display his love for Messi and Maradona. All over Kolkata the FIFA fanfare is noted in the posters and street art on display showcasing the various clubs and heroes who are part of the game.
So what explains this exceptional love affair that Bengal has for a sport in which India is yet to participate at the highest level? Football, just like cricket, badminton, lawn tennis and table tennis, is a sport handed down to Indians by the erstwhile colonial rulers. The British had started playing the sport in India in the late nineteenth century, and often used the football field as the ideal space to display their superiority over the ‘natives’, particularly the Bengalis, whom they characterised as effeminate and lacking in ideal physical attributes. By the turn of the century, however, this same sport became a means through which the Bengalis expressed their nationalistic fervour. “As such, tracing the changing nature of football in Bengal is in many ways an exercise in tracing the history of the region itself,” writes sports historian Paul Dimeo in his article, ‘Football and politics in Bengal: Colonialism, nationalism, communalism.’ Football remains at the heart of the history that defines modern-day Bengal.
A white man’s game
It was the British army, garrisoned at Fort William, that played the foremost role in introducing football to Calcutta. Getting trained in the sports was considered necessary to build the desired physical attributes among soldiers. Overtime though, football had become a favourite leisure sport among European civilians in the city, including merchants, civil servants and missionaries who began forming clubs from the 1870s.
Consequently, the Calcutta Football Club (CFC) was founded in 1872. In 1878, members of the Indian Civil Service started the Dalhousie Club. Traders Club, Calcutta Rangers, the Armenian Club are few other examples of the ways different parts of European society in India established their own football clubs. Simultaneously, a number of competitions were also organised for these teams to contest in for instance, the Durand Cup and the Trades Cup. The Indian Football Association (IFA) was also established soon after, to act as an overarching governing body that set the rules and regulations to be followed by football players in India.
As European football took birth and developed in Bengal, there was also a simultaneous effort on the part of the British to keep Indians away from the sport. The idea that Bengalis were not ‘sporty’ enough to take part in Football was a stereotype that gained currency after the 1857 revolt, when the British in general made every effort to keep the ‘natives’ at a distance. Further, by the second half of nineteenth century the British were also fascinated by the idea of race as the ideal governing mechanism for colonial rulers. As such, an independent country capable of ruling over others were identified as having ‘manly’ characteristics, while colonised nations were seen as physically weak. “Bengalis were represented by the British as an example of just such a weak and effeminate people and they were dismissed by the colonisers as possessing the intellect of a Greek and the grit of the rabbit,” writes Dimeo.
A symbol of Bengali nationalism
While on one hand, the colonial society in Bengal put down the Bengali as being incapable of playing football, on the other hand, there was a simultaneous development of an idea that Bengalis were in need for adequate physical training. Indeed many among the British considered it to be their imperial duty to ‘improve’ the Bengali physique and encourage them to indulge in the game for their own sake. The idea was quick to be disseminated among the middle-class Bengalis who were educated in British-run, Anglo-Indian colleges which were modelled on English public schools. The English-educated Bengalis were quick to realise the necessity of being vigorously trained in sports in order to win the respect of the imperial order.
Football teams started coming up in eminent institutions like Presidency College, Shibpur Engineering College, St. Xavier’s College and La Martiniere College. Alumni from these colleges went on to establish the reputed football clubs in Bengal. Chief among these was the Mohun Bagan established in 1889 by Bhupendra Nath Bose. Mohun Bagan would soon go on to determine Bengali pride in football, its victories against the European teams symbolising desire on the part of the colonised to overrule the colonisers.
By the early 1900s, football was no longer just a means of imitating the British to earn their respect. It also became the ideal site for fighting against the British. “At the turn of the century Bengali youth came to look upon football as an avenue through which they would be able to retrieve their sinking political prestige and establish their superiority over the semblance of power the Raj represented,” writes historian Kaushik Bandhopadhyay in his article ‘The nation and its fragments: Football and community in India.’
The football maidan became an ideal site for those among the Bengalis who were reluctant to actively take part in the freedom struggle. They came to view football as a potent nationalist gesture and defeating the British was considered necessary for their emotional satisfaction. “On the football field it was considered to be an act of great courage to shove an elbow or a fist into the face of a Sahib or a soldier, or to kick him under the guise of tackling,” writes Bandopadhyay.
The nationalist fervour attached to football found its strongest outburst when in 1911 Mohun Bagan defeated the East Yorks team 2-1 in the historic final of July 29, 1911. “Mohun Bagan’s victory was hailed as a blow struck not only for Indian football but also for Indian nationalism,” writes Bandopadhyay. The day following the historic victory, local newspaper, Nayak, hailed the success of the team in the following words:
“It fills every Indian with joy and pride to know that rice-eating, malaria-ridden, barefooted Bengalis have got the better of the beef-eating, Herculean, booted John-Bull in the peculiar English sport.”
Mohun Bagan’s victory was decisive in elevating football to a whole other level of nationalist pride. In recent times, historians have gone ahead to analysing the moment as having a severe impact on imperial powers as well. “It was the same year, 1911, that the British shifted the capital of the raj from Calcutta to Delhi. Recent memorialists of Mohun Bagan’s victory have, alias, failed to notice the coincidence, If it is a coincidence, for it is highly likely that one was the cause of the other and to pre-empt further humiliation the British adroitly and deliberately mover the seat of power from Bengal, away from its skilful footballers and its bomb-wielding nationalists,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in his column in the Telegraph in 1998.
Over time, and despite it being over 70 years since the British moved out of India, football has continued to determine Bengali pride and the ability to move beyond matters of the intellect. It became an important factor to contradict the largely held stereotype of ‘laziness’ that is often attached to Bengalis.