Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikari: The first Indian Who Kicked Football

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Whenever we dive into a discussion on the primitive victories of Indian teams against British or European football sides, the victory of Mohun Bagan in 1911 against the East Yorkshire Regiment in the IFA Shield Final spontaneously comes in our mind. But nineteen years prior to that, Sovabazar Club first did the unthinkable when they upset East Surrey Regiment in a match of the now defunct Trades Cup.

But our story is neither about Bagan nor about Sovabazar Club; the column today is dedicated to the founder of Sovabazar Club, the man who is renowned as the ‘The father of Indian football’-Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikari.

It was a fine morning in the country’s capital(then) Calcutta and the British soldiers of the Fort William were having a routine practice with a semi-torn sphere at the Calcutta Football Club Ground, at Maidan. An eight year old kid was going to the Ganges to take bath alongside her mother on a horse-carriage. On his way to the ‘Ghat'(Now Babughat), the kid got amazed at the game played by the ‘Goras'(Whites in native tongue)

He trodded down from the carriage and moments after when the ball came to his feet, he heard one of the Englishmen having a shout at him,”Kick it my son, kick it back”! As the little kid kicked the ball back into play, history had already been made, it marked the moment when an Indian kicked football for the first time! Although the football puritans would like to cherish a deviating belief but for the romantics, the tender feet of Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikari have already done the improbable!

Sarbadhikari was a student of the Hare School near the College Street in Kolkata. After reaching his school that day, Nagendraprasad told his mates the whole story and urged them to bring ‘Football’ from the next day providing them description of how it looks. The boys bought it from the Messrs. Manton & Co. at Bowbazar area and brought it with them the next day but the gloomy face of their friend Nagendraprasad made it clear that they have done a mistake!

The boys began playing football that day being led by the mercurial Sarbadhikari. The news soon spread in the locality, and in the tiffin-break students from nearby Presidency College, Calcutta University, Medical College and also the local people made a considerable gathering in the school ground to have a look at the sight of the little boys playing a game which was only permissible to be played by the ‘Whites’!

In the crowd was present G.A. Stack, Professor of Presidency College, who first pointed it out that the kids were playing with a Rugby Ball and not a Football! Professor Stack bestowed appreciation upon the boys and made them aware of the basic rules and techniques of the game. Stack also gifted them balls and J.H. Gilliland, a colleague of Professor Stack trained the boys to master the art.

We have to understand that the Indian society was standing on the verge of an era-defining juncture at that period, somewhat two decades after the Sepoy Mutiny which also originated mere 25 Kilometres North to Hare School, at Barrackpore. A socio-economical shift of ideology was taking place as from the pendulous oscillation between orthodoxy and radicalism, the society especially the middle class was prefering the latter. A race which has forever had a phobia towards physicality, had gradually accepted this new game of kick and run and discovered it to be quite entertaining!

The game first became popular among the college students and first college football team came into existence at Sibpur Engineering College. One by one Bishop’s College, Presidency College, Medical College, St. Xavier’s College, La Martiniere College also built their football teams and started to give each other challenges in Amateur football at the Maidan area. A football-culture was marking it’s initiation silently.

Sarbadhikari, the boy who was behind the start of all these has made some name as a Centre-forward by the time. According to Jonathan Wilson,”Any word called ‘Formation’ was non-existent in football in the 19th century” and abiding by the pandemonious state of the game, Sarbadhikari also preferred shifting to the flanks or falling deep to a modern day Defensive Midfielder’s role to serve the purpose. He used to play matches with or against the boys of the Presidency College and the agility of this apparently bulky school-kid often left them deceived.

Although the students started the revolt, all the clubs back then had ‘No Blacks’ policy. They allowed Indians to practise at the club to increase the membership but they did not send Indians with the team in official tournaments. The clean line of demarcation between Sport-as-Pedagogy and Sport-as-Competition was being imposed and made realised by the colonialists.

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Calcutta Football Club players striding onto the field, first football club in India.

The Indians did not take it long to realize the intention of the British administrators and decided to have clubs of their own, again spearheaded by the teenager-Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikari! He alongside Nagendra Chandra Mullick of Mullick royal family founded Friends’ Club, the first ever all-Indian football club in the country! It was the first of many to come by this pioneering personality.

Soon, Sarbadhikari set up Presidency Club and Wellington Club in 1884, when he was only 15! Contemporaries like Kalicharan Mitra, Manmathanath Ganguly, Haridas Sheel assisted him in this monumental and revolutionary task of paving the path of setting up a string of pan-Indian clubs on the heart of the city.

The movement was proceeding smoothly untill it took a stumble via an unexpected event. Wellington Club authorities went reluctant to play striker Moni Das as he was from the ‘lower caste’. But Sarbadhikari who believed the game should be above such prejudices and be based upon professionalism finally raised to the situation. He parted ways with Wellington dissolving the club and set up Sovabazar Club with the backing of more than 500 members of Wellington Club in 1887 and made Das the Captain! Moni Das later played and captained Mohun Bagan also and established Howrah Sporting Club on the opposite shore of the Ganges.

It was a statement not only to the sporting fraternity but also to the society as a whole. It coincided with an era of the arrival of the likes of ‘Brahmo-Samaj’, ‘Ramakrishna Math’ etc which advocated for liberalism in the society and it all got compounded to a strong social message.

Sovabazar Club soon saw glory. In 1889 it became the first all-Indian club to take part in the Trades Cup and just 3 years later they overcame East Surrey Regiment in the same tournament to become the first all-Indian club to beat a British Club in their own game! Just one year later Fort William Arsenal which was completely comprised of Indian workers won the Cochbehar Cup defying the challenge of the European sides. Later Mohun Bagan’s victories in the Gladstone Cup and Trades Cup against British opponents would also make headlines. But the trend was set by Sovabazar. The 1911 IFA Shield triumph of the Mariners over East Yorkshire Regiment took it to the next level as the local newspapers highlighted the event to propel the anti-British movement against ‘Banga-Bhanga’ by Lord Curzon.

By 1892, many small clubs popped up in Bengal. Sarbadhikari summoned the representatives of the British and all-Indian clubs and formed Indian Football Association (IFA), the governing body of football in Bengal till date. IFA soon started IFA Shield where Sovabazar became the first all-Indian club to participate. Later it was opened to all.

When Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikari breathed his last on 17th January, 1940, by that time several state football associations had come into existence. National competitions like Durand Cup, Rovers Cup, IFA Shield weree in full flow. The Calcutta Football was being dominated by Mohammedan Sporting and the era of East Bengal’s emergence as a footballing powerhouse was awaiting. The National scenes are being dominated by Bangalore Muslims and Hyderabad City Police besides the ‘The big three’. In a nutshell, by the time of the demise of the stalwart, Indian football had already reached its adulthood.

Indian football today bears almost no resemblance to the barren land where Nagendraprasad Sarbadhikari and his troops began their journey almost one and a half century ago. Explaining the arduous path traversed and the obstacles faced by them is beyond the scope of the limited column of a college-magazine. The pioneers always have a common trait in them-an uncanny phillia of taking risks and proceeding towards unchanted territory , Sarbadhikari was no exception. If football is the second most popular sport in the land today, then this man deserves the lion’s share of it. There can’t be Indian football without it’s ‘Father’!