Colonialism manifested itself in all walks of lives of the subjugated populace. In this article Abinand Lagisetti muses on the legacy of football, a sport imported from Imperial Britain to the Raj in India, and retraces its journey from an exclusive recreational activity to an avenue of resistance for non-white communities in the Indian sub-continent.

Sport is largely considered to be a microcosm of the society that it is played in. Importantly, sport provides an opportunity for its participants to transcend societal limitations irrespective of one’s sex, class, race or caste. In India, football and cricket are examples of such empowering sports. But these sports were never indigenous to the sub-continent and were brought to its shores by the British Empire. Presently, the import of these sports to India is considered part of the imperial apologists’ trademark benevolence in Colonial India to ‘develop’ and restructure Indian society. However, such an understanding undermines the local communal interactions of indigenous populations with these sports. This article showcases the unique trajectory of football in Colonial India from an exclusive sport to its gradual decolonisation, and its socio-political significance.

In early eighteenth century, football in Britain was used as an instrument to further accentuate class divides prevalent in society and was an aggressive sport that was played ‘class versus class’.[1] This was a defining characteristic in the early development of football. Inevitably, when football arrived in India, this defining characteristic of English football came along. However, the primary reason for the import of this sport was as a source of comfort for the homesick expatriate Britons. Football in Colonial India was thus to be a medium for colonial Britons to recreate memories of life in their motherland. The inclusion of the ‘natives’ was never intended.[2]

For the first fifty years, football clubs and matches were restricted to only British participants, with Indians being relegated to the position of mere spectators. The colonists generally liked to look at themselves as enlightened, ‘modern’ and progressive and looked at the Indian ‘natives’ as primitive or backward. They endeavoured to make of themselves as ‘British and thus not Indian’ and had to make of the Indian whatever they chose not to make of themselves – thereby excluding Indian participation in any activity that was inherently British. Renowned writer, George Orwell stated that in any Indian town, the English Club was the spiritual citadel and the real seat of British power. [3]

Post the early stages of exclusion, football was gradually ‘opened up’ to indigenous players. The pioneers behind this gradual inclusion were the British Army, Christian missionaries and a few imperial administrators. Football offered an unprecedented opportunity for upward social mobility for the ‘native’ despite the racial divide. It was a general belief in the army that their only weapon against the demon of boredom was sport. Major General Harcourt Mortimer Bengough, whilst commanding the 1st Infantry Brigade, said that football had caught the imagination of soldiers posted in India and they played it with the utmost passion.[4] In the late nineteenth century, the British army consisted of 65,000 British soldiers and 120,000 Indian sepoys. To foster communal ties, the sepoys and the white soldiers engaged in sports such as cricket, hockey and football, with football being the most popular. In the early twentieth century, sepoys with athletic talent were given the opportunity to represent their battalion alongside white players. The sepoys were allowed to mingle with British soldiers and received preferential treatment. For example, the winning football team of the Fifty-Second Sikhs Frontier Force consisted of 7 British soldiers and 4 ‘Indian’ sepoys.[5] Thus football afforded an opportunity for sepoys for upward social mobility in the Army.

Another such opportunity for social mobility came from Christian missionaries and British administrators. Primarily, it was individuals (and not the colonial government as a whole) that promoted sports in the sub-continent as the government had no official policy on sports in Colonial India.[6] Christian mission schools encouraged participation of the locals in the ‘civilised’ British team sport of Football. These schools offered an entry to passionate non-white players into an exclusive sport. Moreover, some British administrators such as Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe actively ensured the spread and accessibility of the sport in Kashmir to tackle the social stigmas of the ‘caste’ system and increase physical fitness of children who would otherwise not be encouraged to gain physical strength under the prevailing social structure. Upon gaining entry into the sport, the skilful were then given more opportunities which allowed them to play and fraternise with the colonists.

In light of the inclusion of some ‘natives’ in the sport through the efforts of administrators and army contingents, the spread of the sport had accelerated. The growth and the adoption of the sport is best showcased in Bengal. In the late nineteenth century, there was a surge in the number of indigenous football clubs in Bengal such as the Town Club, the Mohun Bagan, the Howrah United Club, and the Calcutta Rangers. The Mohun Bagan Sporting Club formed in 1889 and founded by multiple luminaries such as Bhupendranath Basu, who later went on to be elected as the president of the Indian National Congress in 1914, and the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. In early 20th century, Mohun Bagan established itself as the best indigenous team by winning everything there was to win for Indian teams such as the Cooch Behar Cup.[7] On rare occasions, they played British teams and even beat them sometimes. This often led to post-match violence. For example, in the preliminary rounds of the 1907 Trades Cup, when a British team, Dalhousie ‘B’, was losing 3-2 to Mohun Bagan, its players began playing extremely rough and used ‘fists and kicks’ in multiple attempts to injure the opposition. This led to the spectators invading the pitch and game being stopped on account of violence.[8] However, Mohun Bagan had no success in the prestigious IFA shield (which used to be the biggest tournament in Indian football). They were knocked out by British teams in the first round every year until 1910.

In 1911, however, Mohun Bagan became a team that could challenge the dominance of the British teams. It was a diverse and experienced team of the best players from the provinces of Bengal and East Bengal who had been dominating the other Indian teams for the past 10 years. The players played barefoot and had little to no training gear. On occasion, players working in British employment were prevented from training with the rest of the team. Despite these setbacks, they progressed through the initial rounds despite certain hiccups and faced the Rifle Brigades, a military team, in the quarterfinal. A crowd of 40,000 gathered to witness a spectacle of vengeance upon the British military team, and by extension British rule, and they were not disappointed. Mohun Bagan won. The team then beat another British military team in the semi-final with an even larger crowd, becoming the first indigenous team to reach the finals of the IFA shield. The Times of India reported that the only subject of conversation in Bengal was the “rout of the King’s soldiers in boots and shoes by barefooted and brave Bengali men.”[9]

On July 29, 1911, the stage for the IFA shield final was set – Mohun Bagan versus the undefeated East Yorkshire Regiment. Emotions had reached their peak as the match was eagerly awaited by millions. An unprecedented crowd of 100,000 came to watch the final. With admirable grit and determination, Mohun Bagan defeated their seasoned English counterparts and made history. They became the first indigenous Indian team to win the IFA shield and the celebration that followed united millions.[10] Newspapers all across the sub-continent and in London reported the nationalistic implications of this victory. The Englishman stated that Mohun Bagan had succeeded in doing what even the Indian National Congress had failed to do: fracture the myth that the Empire was unbeatable.[11]

Nationalism, though an inherently political phenomenon, is also ignited and fostered through non-political socio-cultural channels. After the Mohun Bagan victory, football in Colonial India established itself as an agent of latent nationalism. Moreover, football was the only available means of resistance and opposition that did not incur the wrath of the colonial regime. The belief that ‘natives’ could beat the British on the sporting field became visible emblems of India’s honour in a period when it was customary for the British to subjugate the ‘native’ in every walk of life. This victory was a symbol of determination of a subjugated people to overpower their colonisers in a relentless struggle for supremacy. It was described as the ‘Revenge of Plassey’ (in 1757, at the Battle of Plassey, Robert Clive’s armies had defeated the Nawab of Bengal and established the East India Company’s control over Bengal).

Contrary to popular belief, football was not a ‘gift’ of the colonists. Instead, its gradual decolonisation in Colonial India narrates a history of a sport, originally intended as an exclusive activity for the white populace, adopted by indigenous communities as an instrument of social mobility. This adoption allowed non-white players to challenge Imperial supremacy on the field without consequence. Yet, this was not an even playing field. Indigenous football teams and clubs did not have the same financial and institutional structures to support them that the British teams did. Moreover, outside the field, the systematic exploitation of the sub-continent’s population continued. However, by engaging in a ‘white’ sport, the non-white players able to create space for themselves in an Imperial cultural sphere. Moreover, Mohun Bagan’s victory helped nourish the nationalist consciousness, especially in Bengal, and emboldened the revolutionary movement.


Abinand Lagisetti is pursuing his Bachelors in Law from the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad (India). He has a keen interest in the origin and evolution of sports.

Cover Image: Statue of Mohun Bagan team with the 1911 IFA Shield Final. 23 February 2014. Wikimedia Commons.


[1] William J. Baker, “The Making of a Working-Class Football Culture in Victorian England,” Journal of Social History 13, no. 2 (Winter, 1979): 242.

[2] Ramachandra Guha, A Corner of Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport (India: Penguin Press, 2016), 27.

[3] George Orwell, Burmese Days (Mariner Books,1934), 133.

[4] Ronojoy Sen, “Empire of Sport: The Early British Impact on Recreation,” in Nation at Play: History of a Sport (Columbia University Press, 2015), 39.

[5] Boria Majumdar and Kausik Bandyopadhyay, “From Recreation to Competition: Early History of Indian Football,” in A Social History of Indian Football: Striving to Score (Routledge, 2006), 42.

[6] Sen, p.58.

[7] Sen, p. 100.

[8] Kausik Bandyopadhyay, Playing for Freedom: A Historic Sports Victory (New Delhi: Standard Publishers, 2008), 52.

[9] Times of India, August 3, 1911.

[10] Sen, p. 111.

[11] The Englishman, July 31, 1911.