Eleven Heroes, 10 Of Them Barefoot, Beat The British In India For the First Time In 1911. Can The Club Keep The Flame Burning?
When Abhilash Ghosh fell ill in 1954 and was admitted to Calcutta Medical College Hospital, fans from near and far thronged the gates. Ghosh was a hero and for a good reason. He was one of the barefoot football players who had got Mohun Bagan the 1911 IFA Shield, playing against the British East York Regiment. They were the first to beat the British in India.
Ghosh had scored the winning goal that ended the match 2-1 and sealed Mohun Bagan’s fame in football lore forever. In 1975, when Clive Lloyd’s West Indies team had held the cricket World Cup aloft at Lord’s, no one had missed the irony. A team from a British colony had beaten the sahibs in their own game, in their own yard. What Llyod’s team had done for cricket in the 1970s, Ghosh’s goal had for football in 1911. The British were invincible no more. The photograph of the 11 barefoot players still has pride of place outside the Mohun Bagan dressing room. They were the Amar Ekadosh, or the Immortal 11.
It is said that the July 29, 1911, IFA Shield win gave the Swadeshi movement a shot in the arm and gave Indians the spine to stand up to the British. To a colonised people seething at the gash that was the partition of Bengal, the moment on the field was a galvaniser. The win became folklore. It spun tales. One story went like this. When Mohun Bagan captain Shibdas Bhaduri was leading his triumphant troupe to the dressing room in Calcutta Football Club ground, a man in the crowd pointed to the Union Jack fluttering at Fort Willams and yelled: “You have defeated the British on the field today. When will you bring that down?”
Shibdas told the fan it would be done when the team wins its next IFA Shield. The prediction proved to be prophetic. Mohun Bagan lifted its next IFA Shield in 1947, beating East Bengal 1-0. In 1954, Ghosh lay in the hospital in an independent India that was just seven years old. It needed its heroes. One of them was ailing. How could a football fan stay away? So, they came, in droves, to the hospital to pray for him. To donate blood. To just be there.
The IFA Shield and many such moments cemented Mohun Bagan in the collective imagination of Indian football fans. When fans talk about the 133-year-old club today, they use words like “institution”, “passion”, “emotions”, “a way of life”. It’s a personal relationship every fan seems to have with the club that was founded on August 15, 1889. If you ask Subrata Bhattacharya, the club’s most successful player and coach, he’ll tell you that Mohun Bagan means pleasure and pain. “It’s not just a club for me. It’s a flood of emotions, a bundle of energy. It is an idea that moves you, physically and mentally. You celebrate when you win. You cry when you lose,” Bhattacharya said. “Mohun Bagan is a passion.”
But Mohun Bagan has neared a bend. It has merged with ATK, a six-year-young club, and is today ATK Mohun Bagan.
Is this Mohun Bagan’s hour of crisis or re-invention?
Club president Swapan Sadhan Bose seems to think it is the club’s hour of practical thinking. “As much as we want the romance of the maroon and green jersey and its 133-year-old tradition to continue, there comes a time when romance almost invariably requires a partner called practicality,” Bose said. “To usher the club into the new era of football, we need bigger investments and a corporate force. This is undoubtedly a harsh and the bigger truth.”
Businessman Sanjiv Goenka, now the principal owner of ATK Mohun Bagan, said: “Mohun Bagan is an institution. It’s a legacy, it is something we must cherish, preserve, maintain and one we value. With the legacy comes a huge responsibility,” he said. Mohun Bagan must move forward and stay true to its legacy, its traditions. Whether that’s possible, only time will tell.
Is Mohun Bagan's Legacy Salable?
If football is a religion, then many take money as god. In an altered world of football, the play field is nowadays viewed as the hub of a profit-making business. Can Mohun Bagan’s legacy be a salable product?
Subrata Bhattacharya feels it’s the supporters who make the club a real golden goose. If there is no faith in the game from the fans, there is no profit to be made — this is how he understands the situation.
Mohun Bagan has stood the test of time for more than 100 years. However, it is now standing at a crossroads following the merger with ATK. One of the key survival tricks is to be staying true to oneself. The bigger question now is: Will Mohun Bagan stay true to itself or is its new avatar heading towards a whole destination?