Historically, India had many of its own sports, one of which, kabaddi, is having a major resurgence through national and international TV coverage. The first Western sport that India excelled at was hockey (in some countries termed field hockey). It’s still very popular among Indian men and women. The Indian men’s team first competed in the 1928 Olympics, long before independence from the British, winning gold, won gold at the next five Olympics, and eight golds in total up to 1980.
When those outside India think about sport in that country, we automatically think of cricket. But this is an outsider’s perspective, and from the present day. Football in India is not new, and has a greater tradition than cricket.
Cricket, by comparison, was historically a smaller sport in terms of the number of players, and didn’t gain mass popularity until after the Indian cricket team started to perform well. India made its Test Cricket debut in 1932, but didn’t win a test until 1952. Decades of steady improvement followed, but the game only really took off in the national public imagination when India won the Cricket World Cup in 1983, defeating the favourites and two-time defending champions the West Indies in the final. Sachin Tendulkar joined the test team in 1989 and became India’s first cricket superstar. India’s international results have continued to improve. In 2008, the launch of the Twenty20 cricket league, the Indian Premier League, drawing star players from around the world, took cricket in India to a new level, both in terms of attendances at games and mass TV audiences. Cricket is now huge in India, but it is relatively recent, since the 1990s.
So what of football? The British brought the game as the imperial rulers of India and spread it principally through the British Army stationed in the country. The Durand Cup, first held in Shimla in 1888, was the first Indian competition and is the third oldest surviving football competition in the world, after the English and Scottish FA Cups. The Indians soon took up the game and in 1892 the Sovabazar Club, in beating the East Surrey Regiment, became the first Indian team to beat a British side. The first of India’s major clubs, which is still going today, was Mohun Bagan. They made history in 1911 by becoming the first Indian team to win a major trophy, the Indian Football Association Shield, beating the East Yorkshire Regiment in the final, in front of 60,000 fans. This became part of the narrative of the independence movement. If they could even beat the British at their own game – football – why shouldn’t they run their own country?
Football drew huge crowds and had mass popularity in some parts of India, especially in Bengal. Indian teams started to play overseas from the 1930s, including internationals. The All India Football Federation was founded in 1937. After independence, a barefooted Indian team played at the 1948 Olympics, losing only 2-1 to France, after missing two penalties. India did not refuse to go to the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 because FIFA had banned them from playing barefoot – this is a myth. They would have played in boots, but chose not to go in part because of the cost of travel, and also because at the time they favoured the Olympics over the World Cup. In the 1950s India became the best team in Asia, performed well at Olympic football tournaments and won the Asian Games. The game also remained very popular in many regions of the country.
India is a vast country, and there was no national league until 1996. Football was regionalised, very popular in some places, largely unknown in others. But the same, to some extent, can also be said of cricket in India. Football in India has a long and strong history, but it’s been relatively weak in performance, especially in international terms. This doesn’t inspire the next generation, when the cricket team is often ranked number one, and there is big money to be made in cricket, but not football. But this is changing. TV has brought the football leagues of Europe to India, and the English Premier League and La Liga have proved immensely popular, and professional football in India is developing. Football has not come from nowhere in India, whereas arguably cricket did. Football in India has long, deep roots. Football in the past was more popular than cricket in India – and today, it is slowly beginning to rival cricket once more.
For my full argument that football in India is not new – and has a greater tradition than cricket, please see my new book, ‘What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths’, published by Bloomsbury, London, UK.