The Immortal XI & Indian Nationalism

One of the greatest footballing stories you've never heard. Welcome to IBWM Shivam Kumar

“Mohun Bagan is not a football team. It is a tortured country, rolling in the dust, which has just started to raise its head.” wrote Achintya Kumar Sengupta in Kallol Jug.

Mohun Bagan’s 1911 IFA Shield victory was much more than just ‘the greatest day in the history of Indian club football’. The victory resurrected a freedom struggle that had lost its momentum and provided inspiration to the youth of a colonized nation. 11 Indian men took on teams, better equipped, and managed to overcome the odds. 100 years on, few Indians are aware of this sporting fairy-tale which was a landmark not only in the history of Indian sport, but in that of Indian nationalism as well.

Despite India’s lowly stature in world football today, the game was being played here well before many European countries took it up. As early as 1850s, the natives picked up the game from the British army men. Mohun Bagan, considered the national club of India, became the first Asian football club when it was set up in 1889 in Calcutta.

The 1904 Cooch Behar Cup was the club’s first piece of silverware. The team successfully defended their trophy in 1905, which was followed by a series of cup triumphs like the Gladstone Cup and the prestigious Trades Cup. As a reward for their continuous success, the club was invited to play in the IFA Shield in 1909.  However, the team would struggle to match the British regiment teams initially. While success in other tournaments continued, the IFA Shield was the trophy they craved.

The legendary Shibdas Bhaduri was asked to assemble a team that he would lead out to mount a serious challenge for the title. Bhaduri himself was a player with sublime skills and incredible vision. An indispensable member of the team, the left-out was nicknamed ‘Pichol Babu’ (Slippery Man) in acknowledgement of his ability to get past defenders.

The tournament began on 10th July, 1911. Bagan signaled their intent from the onset drubbing the much fancied St Xavier’s college 3-0. In the second game, Rangers Football Club was awarded three penalties, but goalkeeper Hiralal Mukherjee saved all 3 to help Mohun Bagan to a 2-1 victory. They followed it up with a 1-0 win over Rifle Brigade to secure a semi-final berth. A replay was required to decide the tie between Bagan and the 1st Middlesex Regiment after the first match ended 1-1. In the replay, Shibdas Bhaduri, Srischanda Sarkar & ‘Kanu’ Roy scored goals to seal a 3-0 win. Mohun Bagan prepared to face East Yorkshire Regiment in the final.

29th July, 1911. Mohun Bagan vs. East Yorkshire Regiment. Over 80,000 fans had gathered in and around the stadium. The atmosphere inside the Calcutta Maidan was electric. Kites were used to update the score for the crowd outside the stadium. Playing a 2-3-5 formation, the Indians attacked from the onset. However, the British drew first blood through a free-kick from Jackson. It took Bagan just 5 minutes to find an equalizer, with their inspirational captain Bhaduri rising to the occasion. Two minutes from time, Abhilas Ghosh received a quick pass from Bhaduri and scored the winner with a thunderous strike.

The ground erupted in celebration. Reuters in its cablegram of 30 July 1911 to England noted that the scene beggared description. The team received universal praise.

“Victory of association football goes to the side with the greatest physical fitness, the quickest eye, and the keenest wit.” reported The Manchester Guardian, and remarked that the win came as no surprise.

Played in the backdrop of the partition of Bengal, the match had massive significance. The Mohun Bagan players, who played bare-foot taking on the well-equipped New Yorkshire Regiment, symbolized the passionate common man challenging the mighty Empire.

Indian nationalists encouraged the game among the masses to enable the youth to become self-sufficient, but football became a cultural weapon against British imperialism. Apart from inspiring communal harmony, the win fired the imagination of the nation and exploded the myth that the British were invincible.

In the centenary year of the historic feat, felicitations and tributes have been pouring in. Ten members of the team were conferred posthumously with the ‘Mohun Bagan Ratna’ award. Captain Shibdas Bhaduri had been given the honour earlier. 29th July is celebrated as Mohun Bagan Day every year. A postage stamp had been published by Govt. of India in 1989 remembering the victory.

The 1911 victory was perhaps one of the earliest occasions when football showed its ability to unify the masses. From being a leisure activity, football transformed itself into a force for social change. Indian football bodies have missed a trick by not drawing upon the historic feat to rejuvenate the game in the country. The event, however, is immortal in Indian sports history and will remain etched in the memory of the fans forever.