History of Indian football

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The History of Indian football is a long and detailed one, as it was the national sport at one time. The impetus for this was to unify the Indian Army. There is evidence for refereed team football games being played in the Indian Army since at least 1949. India is home to some of the oldest football clubs in the world and the third world's oldest competition, the Durand Cup.


Football was introduced to India by British soldiers in the mid-nineteenth century. It spread because of the efforts of Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari. In 1888 the Durand Cup was founded by then India's Foreign Secretary, Mortimer Durand at Simla, India. The Durand Cup is the third oldest football competition behind the FA Cup and the Scottish Cup. It was initiated, as a recreation for British troops stationed in India. Royal Scots Fusiliers won the first edition of the cup by beating Highland Light Infantry 2-1 in the Final. In 1893 the IFA Shield was founded as the fourth oldest trophy in the world. Calcutta, then capital of British India, soon became the hub of Indian football. Sarada FC was the oldest Indian football club.

In 1889 India's oldest current team Mohun Bagan A.C. was founded as Mohun Bagan Sporting Club. This was the first club to be under the rule of the army. Several football clubs like Calcutta FC, Sovabazar and Aryan Club were established in Calcutta during the 1890s. Tournaments like the Gladstone Cup, Trades Cup and Coocbehar Cup also started around this time.

The first Indian Federation, the Indian Football Association, was founded in 1893 but did not have a single Indian in the board.


During this time period actual Indian football started to take place. Several clubs were founded, more Cup competitions were introduced and Indian players became more common. The major event that showed a rise in Indian Football was in 1911 when Mohun Bagan beat East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 in the final of the IFA Shield. This was the first time and Indian team won a major national cup.

Indian teams started touring Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in the late 1930s. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) was formed in 1937. The 1948 London Olympics was India's first major international tournament, where a predominately barefooted Indian team lost 2–1 to France in the opening match, failing to convert two penalties. Sarangapani Raman scored the only goal for India in that match and thus the first Indian international goal ever in the Olympics.

The 1950 World Cup[edit]

India qualified by default for the 1950 FIFA World Cup finals as a result of the withdrawal of all of their scheduled opponents. But the governing body AIFF decided against going to the World Cup, being unable to understand the importance of the event at that time. Reason shown by AIFF was that there was the cost of travel, although FIFA agreed to bear a major part of the travel expenses, lack of practice time, team selection issues and valuing Olympics over FIFA World cup.

Although FIFA imposed a rule banning barefoot play following 1948 Olympics where India had played barefoot, the suggestion that the Indian team refused to play because they were not allowed to play barefoot is not entirely true; according to the then-Indian captain Shailen Manna, it was invented to cover up. The team had not made it past the first round of the FIFA World Cup Qualifiers until 2018, when they defeated Nepal 2-0 over the course of two home-and-away games.

1951-1962: The Golden Era of Indian Football[edit]

The period from 1951 to 1962 is considered the golden era in Indian football. Under the tutelage of legendary Syed Abdul Rahim India became the best team in Asia. The Indian team started the 1950s with victory in the 1951 Asian Games which they hosted. India beat both Indonesia and Afghanistan 3–0 to reach the final where they beat Iran 1–0. In 1952, India continued their form by winning the Colombo Quadrangular Cup held in Sri Lanka. This is called as the Golden time of Indian football. As four years earlier, many of the team played without boots but after the result in the Olympics AIFF immediately made it mandatory to wear boots.

India also won three further editions of the Quadrangular Cup, which were held in Burma, Calcutta and Dhaka in 1953, 1954 and 1955 respectively. India then went on to finish second ? in the 1954 Asian Games held in Manila.

At the 1956 Olympics they finished fourth, this is the second time India made second history in the world of football. India first met hosts Australia, winning 4–2 with Neville D'Souza becoming the first Asian to score a hatrick in the Olympics and also making India the first Asian team to reach the Olympic semi-finals. They lost 4–1 to Yugoslavia, and lost the third place play-off match 3–0 to Bulgaria.

India participated in the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo, Japan where they finished fourth, and the Merdeka Cup 1959 in Malaysia finishing second. The side started off 1960 with Asian Cup qualifiers in which they failed to qualify. India went on to win the 1962 Asian Games where they beat South Korea 2–1 in the final, and two years later finished second in the 1964 Asian Cup which was held in round-robin format. India played in the Merdeka Cup in 1964, 1965 and 1966 where they finished 2nd, 3rd and 3rd .

1963-1984: Post-Golden Era[edit]

Rahim's death in early 60s pegged Indian football back after a successful period. India played in the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok but were eliminated in first round. India then took third place in the 1970 Asian Games, beating Japan 1–0 in the third place, play-off. In mid-70s, Indian youth team jointly won the Youth Asian Cup with Iran. Indian football would go through a barren phase in 70s, 80s and 90s, gradually losing its foothold as a top Asian team.

In 1984 India qualified for the 1984 Asian Cup. The team were placed in Group B but ended in last place after losing all but 1 match (which was a draw). India also failed to score during the Asian Cup as well which brought up questions about team selection.


India won gold medals in the SAF Games of both 1984 (in Dhaka) and 1987 (Calcutta). They won the inaugural SAARC Cup in 1993 in Lahore, and finished runner-up in Colombo two years later. By 1997 the competition had been renamed as the SAFF Cup, and India won it in both 1997 and 1999 edition, when they hosted it in Goa.

India also got a major boost when the All India Football Federation created the National Football League in 1996. This was India's first ever national domestic league.

2000-2010: The rebirth of Indian Football[edit]

Although India failed to qualify for the 2004 Asian Cup, the senior team gained the silver medal in the inaugural Afro Asian Games, with victories over Rwanda and Zimbabwe (then 85 places ahead of India in the world rankings), losing the final 1–0 to Uzbekistan. As a result, Indian football has steadily earned greater recognition and respect, both within the country and abroad. In November 2003 then-India coach Stephen Constantine was named AFC Manager of the Month.

India lost to Pakistan and Bangladesh in the 2003 SAFF Cup, and defeats in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers meant Stephen Constantine was sacked. The LG Cup win in Vietnam under Stephen Constantine was one of the few bright spots in the early part of the 2000s. It was India's first victory in a football tournament outside the subcontinent since 1974. India defeated hosts Vietnam 3–2 in the final despite trailing 2–0 after 30 minutes.

In 2005 Syed Nayeemuddin was appointed as India coach but he was immediately sacked the following year after heavy defeats in 2007 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers. Much traveled and experienced coach Bob Houghton was later appointed coach of team in 2006. Under Houghton India saw a huge revival in World Football. In August 2007, the Indian national team won the Nehru Cup for the first time in its history beating Syria 1-0. In August the following year, India defeated Tajikistan 4-1 to lift the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup and in turn qualified for the 2011 AFC Asian Cup in Qatar. In 2009 August, India again won the Nehru Cup beating Syria again but this time in penalties (6-5).

Club wise Indian Football took a turn for the better as the National Football League folded in 2006 and in 2007 the brand new I-League was started. The first I-League season was won by Goa club Dempo. During the 2008 AFC Cup Dempo made history when they made it all the way to the semi-finals of the AFC Cup before losing out to Safa Beirut SC.

2011: The 2011 AFC Asian Cup[edit]

In the beginning of 2011 India took part in the AFC Asian Cup for the first time in 27 years. India were placed in Group C with Australia, Bahrain, and South Korea. On 10 January 2011 India played their first match against Australia where they lost 4-0. Then on 14 January 2011 India played Bahrain where again they lost 5-2 with Sunil Chhetri and Gouramangi Singh. Then on 18 January 2011 India played their final match of the tournament against South Korea where they again lost 4-1. Sunil Chhetri was the goal scorer for India which meant that he scored the most goals for India in the tournament with two goals in three matches.

2011: A new beginning[edit]

Since the 2011 Asian Cup the All India Football Federation has been working very hard on Indian Football. They allowed former coach Bob Houghton to coach the Indian side in the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifiers. India played its first match in 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualification on 21 March winning 3–0 against Chinese Taipei, with Jewel Raja Shaikh, Sunil Chhetri and Jeje Lalpekhlua scoring the goals. On 23 March they faced Pakistan. India came from behind and defeated Pakistan 3–1 with Jeje Lalpekhlua scoring 2 goals and Steven Dias scoring one. On 25 March they faced Turkmenistan their last 2012 AFC Challenge Cup qualifying game and India drew the game 1–1. The result meant that they finished on top of Group B and qualified for the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup.

In April 2011 Houghton was resigned as India coach after reports of racial abuse to an Indian referee during a match against Vietnam. In May 2011 the AIFF appointed Armando Colaco as Indian head coach. The Indian senior team defeated Qatar 2–1 in an historic international friendly before the start of the world cup qualifier against UAE (United Arab Emirates). India went on to lose the qualifying encounter by 5-2 on aggregate over two legs, having contentiously suffered two red cards and two converted penalties in the first 23 minutes of the opening leg, which the UAE won by 3-0. The Indian national team went on a friendly tour to the Carrebiean Islands, which turned out to be very unsuccessful. Recently they were beaten 2-1 by Guyana.