by Jamal Kidwai
Caught up in the launch of the Indian Soccer League (ISL) and its promotion by television and big Bollywood stars, very few noticed that the Kolkata based 123-yr-old Mohameddan Sporting, has effectively decided to close down due to a financial crisis. According to its management, they will stop playing for a year outside Kolkata and have disbanded the senior team.
The historic Mohammedan Sporting won the Calcutta league 11 times, the IFA Shield five times, the Rovers Cup six times, the DCM tournament four times and the Federation Cup and the Durand Cup twice each.
Mohameddan Sporting, along with Mohun Bagan (established 1889) and East Bengal (established 1924) were the most popular clubs of India for over a century. Mohun Bagan drew its fan-following from the elite and the aristocracy of Bengal and its aim was to inspire young people to lead a principled life: for example, those who failed in school and college were not allowed to play and smoking and drinking in the club premises were prohibited. East Bengal, on the other hand, represented the working class and the lower-middle classes who came to stay in Kolkata from east Bengal, which later became Bangladesh.
Given the pan-Indian religious character of Mohd Sporting, it had easily the largest fan following across India. All the big tournaments patronized Mohd Sporting as it drew the largest crowds. The other major clubs like Dempo and Salgaocar came from Goa with a very limited support base outside Goa and Mumbai.
In the history of Indian football, Mohd Sporting will always stand apart. It has many firsts to its name. Mohd Sporting was the first Indian club to win the Calcutta League four times in a row from (1934-38) and the first Indian club to win the Calcutta League and IFA Shield in the same season in 1936. And in 1948, it became the first Indian team to win the Calcutta league after Independence. This win had immense politically significance. They won in the backdrop of the brutal communal mistrust and violence that was raging in Bengal during the Partition. The victory was seen as a message of reassurance to Muslims as the win demonstrated fair play by the Hindu-dominated football establishment, the referees on the field and the authorities off the field. That win became a symbol of reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims.
The Club was so popular that the Prince of Nepal, a keen player himself, came all the way to Kolkata to play for this famous club and became the first Hindu to represent Mohammedan Sporting.
I remember watching these and other clubs play at good old Ambedkar Stadium at Delhi Gate in the mid-1980s and early 1990 in the Durand Cup and the DCM cups. East Bengal, JCT, Mohd Sporting, Mahindra, Mafatlal, Dempo, Salgoacar were regular participants. Mafatlal, Mahindra and JCT have already shut shop some years ago. The DCM Cup has been disbanded and the Durand Cup, run by the defense ministry, has lost its sheen. Both these tournaments are amongst the oldest tournaments of India.
Given the standard of Indian soccer then and even now, there is very little to say about the quality of the game that that these clubs played. For soccer fans like me and many others, what drew us to watch these tournaments was the display of cultural and communitarian contests among the fans in the stands along with the game of soccer that was played on the field. For most of the people in the crowd their support of a club was rooted in their identity and the sense of pride they would get if their club won.
Ambedkar stadium is located at Delhi Gate, at the entrance, as it were, of Daryanganj, also one of the entrances to old Delhi, home to several local Delhi clubs like the City Club, Youngmen, National Club and many others. Football, like kite flying, cock fighting and carom remains an integral part of Old Delhi sub-culture. The location and architecture of the stadium was of a piece with the culture that these tournaments represented. A very large number of fans that thronged the stadium and were supporters of Mohd Sporting came from old Delhi. It was also very well connected by DTC bus routes like 429/425, connecting the stadium and Chitranjan Park in South Delhi, residence to a large Bengali population.
Unlike modern stadiums like the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium where the ISL is being played, Ambedkar stadium is built in such a manner that it gives a sense of intimacy and allows personal proximity while watching the match. The distance between the fans and the players is minimal, the warm up area where the players do drills before the match is situated at the entrance and fans can almost touch the players when they are warming up and then passing through the public corridor when going from the dressing rooms to the field.
Seating arrangements, the selection and preference of the stands chosen by fans to watch matches, the management, the timing of the matches, logistics and other support structures for these matches was also integrated into the overall social and cultural milieu. So canteen services and hawking were handled by two people, both belonging to Old Delhi. One served vegetarian snacks and food, the other non-vegetarian but they had the distinct and authentic taste of original Old Delhi cuisine. Many supporters of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, JCT and others who came to the stadium would get kababs and other non-vegetarian food packed for home as they would otherwise had to go all the way to old Delhi to buy it.
There was a section of stands towards the north-west direction of the stadium that was converted into a makeshift masjid where the fans offered zhohar and asar namaaz (the afternoon and late afternnon) namaaz), The south-west side of the stadium’s balcony was always occupied by what were typically called the juaaris (betters). They were always present in the stadium whether it was a big tournament or a school tournament like the Subroto Cup. And they would bet on any and every aspect of the game. Bets would be placed on winning teams, on the number of goals that would be scored, on the number of fouls before half time and so on. There were two kinds ofjuaaris. First were those who had no loyalty to any team and would bet on each game. But the second were those who would not place any bet if the club they supported was in action. Like the fans, the majority of the juaaris were residents of old Delhi.
Colourful Fans and Colourful Players
Other than the football match, what added color to the matches at the Ambedkar stadium were some individuals who had a distinct manner of making their presence felt and entertaining the crowd. There was an old Sikh who carried a ghanta (iron dong) which he would play sparingly only at moments when he got annoyed with something that happened on the field, like a bad decision by the referee echoing the sentiment and displeasure of the crowd. He would play that also at time when a match was delayed because of some chief guest who would have come to inaugurate the match. Being a Punajabi, he was the supporter of JCT Mills teams. There was another fan from old Delhi known as pehelwan (wrestler). He had a very sharp voice which would stand out loud and clear even when the stadium was packed with 25000 fans. He would shout out the choicest of abuses against a player or a referee if he didn’t like a decision or a tackle or a missed goal by a player. There were two hawkers, one who would sell tea and samosas and another who sold cigarettes, paan masaala and cold drinks. Because of their resemblance to very different kind of personalities, one was called Sadaam, after Sadaam Hussien, the [former] ruler of Iraq who was very popular among the old Delhi crowd as he was seen someone who had consistently challenged the U.S. The other was known as Cheema as he resembled the famous Nigerian player Cheema Okerie. But more than what they sold and their looks, they were popular because of their funny one-liners and their knowledge of the game.
In their heyday, because of widespread support, Mohd Sporting was flush with funds. They were the first to introduce football boots, and got players from outside Kolkata to play regularly for the team. There was Juma Khan and Bachi Khan who were brought from North western provinces of Peshawar and Quetta, goalkeeper Usman Jan from Delhi and centre forward Rashid from Ajmer. Mohd Sporting is also the first Indian club to win a tournament on a foreign soil when it defeated Indonesia’s Makassar 4-1 in the final of the Aga Khan Gold Cup in Dhaka in 1960 and the first Indian team to win the Durand Cup in 1940.
The Durand Cup, instituted by the British army is named after Mortimer Durand, a British foreign secretary in charge of India, is the third oldest football tournament in the world. It was played in Simla until 1940, then shifted to Delhi. The only period when the Durand Cup was not held was during the two World Wars, years that saw the turmoil of Partition and the Indo-China war. Football commentator and historian Novi Kapadia in a paper titled Triumphs and Disaster: The Story of Indian Football 1889-2000 has described the win of the Mohd Sporting when the Durand Cup final was first held in Delhi on 12 December 1940. Mohammedan Sporting played the final against Royal Warwickshire in front of 100,000 at the Irwin Amphitheater, where New Delhi’s National Stadium now stands (at India Gate). Eminent Muslim politicians flew in from far-off cities like Kolkata, Dhaka, Hyderabad and Bhopal for the match, while other supporter arrived in trains and tongas to watch the clash. Kapadia adds that the final was also the first time a football game of such importance had been presided over by an Indian referee, Captain Harnam Singh. Then a civilian sergeant in the Army Office in the Delhi cantonment, the referee had been even been given a police escort from his house in the cantonment area to the stadium. At the ground, however, there was a minor crisis. The British linesmen, Warrant Officers Oliphant and Greene refused to officiate as they said it was below their dignity to be linesmen under a comparatively junior referee like Harnam Singh. They felt slighted and backed out from the match. The Durand Society organizers tried to persuade the recalcitrant duo, but in vain.
As per tradition, the then Viceroy of India, Lord Linlithgow arrived at the Stadium to inaugurate and attend the final. When informed of the crisis, Lord Linlithgow threatened to court-martial Warrant Officers Oliphant and Greene. Sensing trouble, they relented. Musing on the incident later, Harnam Singh said, “This tension only added to my pre-match nervousness. I felt better when Major Porter gave me a hot cup of cocoa laced with brandy.” Eventually, centre forward Hafiz Rashid and inside left Saboo scored the goals for the Kolkata team as Mohammedan Sporting beat their British opponents 2-1. This victory by a team consisting of 11 Muslim players was a massive boost to the Muslim national movement. For generations, stories of this famous victory were narrated in the houses and by lanes of Old Delhi.
Besides the glitz and the hectic promotion by Bollywood stars and TV sports channels, one of the major attractions of the newly-launched ISL are some international footballers who were earlier playing in some second or third division teams in Europe and Latin America.
The early-1980s was the period when Indian clubs first started recruiting foreign players. However, unlike the ISL, none of these players came to India with the intention of playing professional football. Many of them arrived here during as refugees/students from countries like Iran and Afghanistan when their countries were going through political turmoil. The others came from Africa, mostly Nigeria, to study in different Indian universities.
The Iranians and the Nigerians were the most sought after footballers in the 1980s. The Iranian-trio of Majid Bhaskar, Jamshed Khabadji, Jamshed Nassiri came in India to study in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and were spotted by various clubs during the inter-university tournaments. In those days, the AMU football team would be comprised only of foreign students and would win all the major university tournaments. Among the Nigerians, the iconic Cheema Okeri was a student in Vishakapatnam Univeristy and Chibuzur and Emeka Euzugo came to study at the Chandigarh University. Jamshed, Majid and Cheema have settled down in India. Jamshed has become a coach, Cheema married a girl from Assam and runs a children’s home besides being a businessman. Some years ago, I heard a rumour that Majid Bhaskar had taken to drugs and was spotted in a rehabilitation centre in Kolkata.
There were also many Afghani footballers, not as popular as the Iranians and the Nigerian who played in the less glamorous Delhi Soccer league and were students at the various colleges of Delhi University. They came to India to escape the tyranny of the Russian-backed dictatorial regime of Najeebullah in Afghanistan. The Iranians and the Afghanis drew lots of their countrymen to watch matches and stadiums would also become a venue for the political meetings and discussions for them. On many occasions Afghani fans would come with anti-Najeebullah banners and stay on in the stadium post match to have a political meeting.
Many years after he retired from playing football, I met Cheema when he was visiting Delhi. He told me that he came to study in Vishakapatnam University with the hope of returning to Nigeria to join the civil services. His father had given him strict instructions to focus on academics and not waste any time on sports or any other so called extra-curricular activities. Cheema said he in any case never considered himself a good footballer as he was considered an average player when he played the game in his neighborhood as a child. While in Vishakapatnam University Cheema would watch the University football team practice on the ground from the window of his hostel room. One day he went up to the coach and said that he too would like to join the practice session. According to Cheema, the moment he first kicked the ball, the coach was so impressed that he immediately asked him to be a part of the university team.
Cheema, like Jamshed, was one of the most expensive players during the 1980s. During one of the transfer season in Kolkata, where players were bought and sold for the next season, Cheema was `kidnapped’ by the management of Mohd Sporting club and kept in a hotel until the transfer deadlines were over. It was rumored that he was paid what was considered in those days a whopping amount: Rs 3 lakhs for the whole year by the club.
The football riot
It was sometime in the mid-1980s when a semi-final match of the DCM Cup between Mohd Sporting and East Bengal was played. Ambedkar stadium was jam-packed with over 25000 spectators, a vast majority of whom belonged to Mohd Sporting.
Until midway half time, the scores were level. Then the famous Prasanto Banerjee of East Bengal scored a goal, and the Mohd Sporting players demanded that the goal be disallowed as they claimed that Banerjee was off-side. The referee did not entertain the protest and the decision was upheld. Within no time, the field was invaded by spectators, chairs from the west side balcony were being flung onto to the lower stands and there was complete chaos. I was a teenager and watching the match alone. I panicked because my eyes had started burning and watering and there was a stampede.
Somehow, I managed to exit from the nearby gate. Outside the stadium there was greater chaos. People were running aimlessly, there was a jam at the busy Delhi-gate crossing, police was charging people on horseback and I could hear gunshots. I reached home many hours later with swollen eyes and heard on the AIR news that one person had died in the firing, several people were injured in the lathi-charge and the tear gassing that the police had to use to disperse the rioting crowd. Until now this is still the most violent event in the history of sport in Delhi.
The newly formed ISL is drawing huge crowds. It offers lots of foreign players, spectacle, entertainment, TV replays and all that comes with modern technology and big finance. But it cannot invoke the kind of passion, communitarian spirit and the spirit of ownership that the old clubs and spectators offered.
Without Mohd Sporting and Ambedkar stadium, football will never be the same again in Delhi.