BY ATANU MITRA (FOLLOW @Atanu00 on Twitter)
Aizawl FC’s fairytale victory in the recently concluded I-League season stoked memories of a few memorable journeys pulled off by underdogs over the century-old history of Indian football. Here we compile our favourite five:
MOHUN BAGAN (IFA SHIELD 1911: WINNER)
Though this feat is mentioned time and again even in the sketchiest accounts of Indian football history, it will be criminal to undermine the importance of 29th July, 1911. A motley crew of Indians, ten of whom were playing barefoot and seven of whom were hailing originally from East Bengal, scripted the first major backlash to colonial dominance in domestic sports. The acrimony between the two competing sides East Yorkshire Regiment and Mohun Bagan created such a buzz that the nationalist movement also received a major boost from the 2-1 score-line.
According to The Englishman, the Maidan club “succeeded in what the Congress and the Swadeshiwallahs have failed to so far to explode the myth that the British are unbeatable in every sphere of life.” As a matter of fact, no Indian team could repeat the achievement in the next 25 years.
MOHAMMEDAN SPORTING (CALCUTTA FOOTBALL LEAGUE 1934: WINNER)
A club, running based on donations of the Muslim fraternity, were the first ones to scout extensively for talent throughout the country. Kashmir’s Jumma Khan, Bengaluru’s Mashum, Rehmat and Mahiuddin, Kalighat’s Akil Ahmed all joined the club which was running on a shoestring monthly budget of 80 Rs. per month. Former Hockey player S.A.Aziz, who was running the operations of the club, understood the advantage of using boots, something that was looked down upon by skillful players of contemporary era.
However, it paid instant dividends, with the Black and Whites taking advantage of a very competitive league structure to win the silverware with just 27 points from 20 matches. Dalhousie, an English team, finished three points behind them. They became the first Indian team to win a league competition against the English sides in a competition officiated by notorious foreign referees, which was a big moral boost for the other clubs.
INDIA CULTURAL LEAGUE (IFA SHIELD 1953: WINNER)
Even though the Bombay Football League was dominated by Indian team from the early forties, the title ambitions were shared only by Tata Sports Club and Trades India Sports Club. However, the scenario changed in 1951, as India Cultural League – a team financed by Bollywood celebrities like Ashok Kumar, Sachin Deb Burman, Shakti Samanta, Manna Dey - became the champions of the local league. Their heroics continued outside Mumbai also, when they stunned the two Kolkata clubs George Telegraph and Mohun Bagan (defeated 4-2) in their journey to the IFA Shield final two years later.
The final against East Bengal was played thrice, ending goal-less twice and 1-1 on the last occasion. However, it was an off-the-field issue that proved out to be decisive. Club’s star player Masood Fakhri, who went to play for Bradford City after a couple of years, had brought his friend Niyaz from Pakistan, who didn’t have the necessary clearances. It resulted in ICL being handed the trophy and East Bengal being suspended for one season, and the triumph of this young team in a major competition was the first silverware earned by a team from West India outside their territory.
Eastern Railway (CALCUTTA FOOTBALL LEAGUE 1958: WINNER)
A team full with potential youngsters punched much above their weight as they earned the bragging rights leaving behind the likes of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting. A job in the Railways was very lucrative in a newly independent country and the club officials used that bait well to entice some promising youngsters in their ranks. The likes of P.K.Banerjee (arguably one of the greatest Indian footballers of all time), Pradyut Burman, Nikhil Nandy (part of 1956 Olympics squad) and Prasanta Sinha formed the core of the team, which remains the last outfit other than the three Kolkata giants to win the country’s oldest league competition.
DEMPO (AFC CUP 2008: SEMI-FINALISTS)
The Goan side had a tough draw from the very start round of the competition. Clubbed in the same group with Bahrain’s Al-Muharraq, Lebanon’s Al-Ansar and Oman’s Sur, Armando Colaco’s men finished second in the group and sealed a place in the quarter-finals. In the two legged affair, the Golden Eagles defeated Singapore’s Home United 5-4 to become the first team to book a place in the AFC Cup semi-final, where they went down to Lebanon’s Safa. No Indian club have ever shown such dominance against higher-ranked West Asian opponents.
BENGALURU FC (I-LEAGUE 2013-14)
Bengaluru FC winning the I-League title in the very first season of their existence is stuff of dreams. The JSW-owned team created history after getting a direct entry into the country's top most professional league. Ashley Westwood got the best out of several players who were discarded by several clubs in the country. This triumph saw the rise of a new force to reckon with in Indian football.