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History of Football in India

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The introduction of India to football, like cricket can be attributed to the British Raj. However, when it started Indians weren't allowed to play and their role was limited to fetching the ball while their masters had a good time!

As the rule of the British and the strength of its power was concentrated in and around Calcutta (now Kolkata), so was India's love affair with football. The first recorded game in India took place between 'Calcutta Club of Civilians' and 'The Gentlemen of Barrackpore' in 1854.

Calcutta FC was the first club to be established in 1872, though reports suggest that they were initially a rugby club and switched their attentions to football as late as 1894. Other early clubs include Dalhousie Club, Traders Club and Naval Volunteers Club.

The Indian Football Association (IFA) was established once again in Calcutta in 1893, but did not have a single Indian on its board till the 1930s. As a result of which only two teams of Indian origin were allowed to feature in the Calcutta league, otherwise flooded with teams from the different regiments. 

The British Army in India truly took the game across the country by forming regimental teams in Madras (Chennai), Bangalore (Bengaluru), Hyderabad, Ambala, Delhi, Peshawar and Dakha.

The Durand Cup, first held in Shimla in 1888, was the first Indian football competition and is incidentally the third oldest surviving competition the World over (after FA and Scottish FA cups). In 1891, Bombay held the Rovers Cup and Calcutta soon after launched the IFA Shield and the first formal football league in India.

A number of other competitions were soon launched including the extremely popular Trades Cup, the Cochebar Cup, the Minto Cup and the Gladstone Cup.

The first pure Indian team to win a cup competition was the Sovabazar team which beat the East Surrey Regiment 2-1 in the Trades Cup final in 1892.

The first of India's major clubs Mohun Bagan (in the news recently for their much-hyped match against Bayern Munich) was started in 1889. Players were predominantly youngsters studying in either school or college and were well paid and fed even in those early years by the Bengali aristocracy that founded the club. The players were expected to concentrate on their football and their education and part-time on-paper employment was arranged for them to ensure a source of income.

Mohun Bagan won some of the minor club competitions in the first decade on the 1900's and became the first Indian club to taste success at the highest level when they came from a goal down to edge our the East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in the final of the IFA Shield. In front of a 60,000 strong boisterous and hugely partisan crowd of wild Bengalis chanting Vande Mataram the whole ninety minutes, Mohun Bagan dramatically swung the tie around in the last five minutes when they came back from almost certain despair through strikes from Shibdas Bhaduri and Abhilash Ghosh.

salt_lake_stadium_bengal.jpgIn the years just prior to the Second World War two other teams from Bengal shot into prominence - East Bengal, a team comprising mostly of lower-class migrants from the recently divided half of the state and Mohammedan Sporting, a pure Muslim team. The Mohun Bagan - East Bengal rivalry became the sole highlight of Indian football for decades to follow. Their matches are held at the gigantic Salt Lake Stadium which has a capacity of 120,000, making it the 2nd largest football stadium in the world!

Sporting had the greater earlier success of the two and they are attributed to a large element of the organization and professionalism that existed in Indian football in the 1940s and 50s.

In 1950, India was invited to play in the World Cup in Brazil by FIFA as the three Asian Qualifiers for the tournament (Burma, Philippines and Indonesia) all pulled out at the last minute. India however had to withdraw as well, as a ruling was passed that all footballers had to wear shoes while playing and a majority of the Indian team had never played in any form other than barefoot! Till 1986 as football took a bit of a backseat, India never participated in the World Cup Qualifiers. Since then however India has been giving it a proper go and lost out to Lebanon in the qualifiers for the 2010 WC in South Africa.

India however has had some success at the National level, winning the Asian Games twice in 1951 and 1962.

Inspite of India's early track record of doing well in football it never really caught on at the national level and now remains a bastion of a Calcutta, Goa and Kerala; with hardly any other teams of note representing the vast divide of the nation of a billion people.

Major Domestic football tournaments

There are a number of major football tournaments in India at the domestic level. The I-league is the competition which has a total league format. The Federation cup, Santosh Trophy and Durand cup are the other well known tournaments.


The I-league is the premier football league in India. It is divided into 2 divisions, that is 1st division and 2nd division. In the ongoing season there are 12 teams in the 1st division and 10 in the 2nd. The bottom 2 teams will be relegated to the 2nd division and the top 2 from the 2nd division will be promoted. The league runs from September to April with a break in December for the Federation cup.

The 1st season of the I-league was 2007-08. Before that it was known as the National Football league since 1996. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) reviewed the standard of the I-league and from next year the winner will qualify for the AFC Champions league and the runner up will play in the AFC cup. These are the equivalents of the Champions league and the UEFA cup in Europe.

Dempo Sports club were the champions in the 1st edition of the I-league and Churchill brothers came 2nd. The 2nd season is ongoing right now.

Federation Cup

The Federation cup is an annual knockout club football tournament. Presently it is held every year in December. 16 clubs take part in it. Out of the 16, 12 teams are the ones taking part in the 1st division of the I-league and 4 others gain entry after a nationwide qualifying tournament.

East Bengal are the defending champions after their victory in last year's Federation cup held in Ludhiana. This year will be the 30th edition of the Federation cup and it will be held from 4th to 22nd December in Delhi and Gurgaon.

The top 10 clubs by the number of wins:

12 - Mohun Bagan
5 - East Bengal
3 - Salgaocar Sports Club
2 - Mohammedan Sporting Club, Mahindra United, JCT Mills FC, Kerala Police

Santosh Trophy

The Santosh trophy is an annual football tournament which is contested by states and government institutions instead of clubs. It began in 1941 and over the years has seen many changes in its format. These days the Santosh trophy is contested in the months of April and May

In its present format, there is a qualifying round involving eight clusters of 3 or 4 teams each. The eight winners from each cluster are then drawn along with 4 seeded teams, who do not have to come through qualifying, and these 12 teams are then divided into four groups of 3 each. This is the quarterfinal league stage, in which each of the 3 teams in the group play each other. The winners of each group then move to the semifinals. The semifinals and the final are single-legged fixtures.

The last 2 Santosh Trophy titles have been won by Punjab.

Below is a list of the number of titles each team has won over the years:

29 - West Bengal
8 - Punjab
5 - Kerala
4 - Goa, Karnataka
3 - Railways, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh

Durand Cup

The Durand Cup is the oldest football competition in India. It was started by Sir Mortimer Durand in Shimla.

Since 1940, the Durand Cup is held In Delhi. It is a tournament involving 4 groups of 3 teams each. The 3 teams in each group play each other and the top team from each group qualifies for the semi finals which are one leg knockout affairs. Durand Cup is staged just before the I-league kicks off, in the months of August and September.

This year the Durand Cup was won by Mahindra United who beat Churchill brothers 3-2 in the final.

Number of Durand Cup titles won by different clubs since 1947:

16 - Mohun Bagan, East Bengal
7 - Border Security Force (BSF)
5 - JCT Mills
3 - Hyderabad City Police
2 - Madras Regimental Centre, Gorkha Brigade, Salgaocar Sports Club, Mahindra United

Photograph Copyright: Anirban Brahma

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