Updated: Jan 30
The game of football, though a British import in colonized India, was promoted among the natives by Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikary, now known as the 'Father of Indian Football', in the late nineteenth century. Prior to that, the natives were derided, deprived and cornered by the colonizers when it came to playing the game.
As a teenager, Sarbadhikary started playing the game with his classmates at Kolkata's (then Calcutta) Hare School and infused enthusiasm among many local boys who watched them play. It was a revolution in its own right, a classic case of the empire 'playing' back.
Kolkata was the focal point of football in India back then. As the game started spreading its wings across the country, a number of football clubs began to be established in Kolkata such as Mohun Bagan, Aryan, Kumartuli, Sovabazar and National Club, to name a few.
This list was soon joined by East Bengal Club, and even though the name might suggest a connection with the erstwhile eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh), the club was born in the northern part of Kolkata, with the Kumartuli Park being its first ever homeground.
So how did the club come into existence? Interestingly, players of East Bengal origin had been dominating club football in Kolkata since much before East Bengal Club’s inception. Legendary Indian defender and Padma Shri recipient Gostha Behari Pal, despite playing his entire football career with Mohun Bagan, hailed from East Bengal’s (present-day Bangladesh) Dhaka district. In fact, the Mohun Bagan team that clinched the historic IFA Shield title in 1911 had many players of East Bengal origin playing in it. Yet, these players of East Bengal descent never looked to form a separate team of their own.
The need for setting up a new club comprising players of East Bengal origin was first felt in 1920. Had it not been for a disagreement between Jorabagan Club and its then vice-president Suresh Chandra Chaudhuri, the Red-and-Golds would never have come into existence.
What happened was, Sailesh Bose—a regular member of Jorabagan’s cricket and football teams—was left out for Jorabagan’s Coochbehar Cup game against Mohun Bagan on 28 July 1920 for no explicable reason whatsoever. This incident irked Chaudhuri so much that he decided to sever all ties with Jorabagan Club.
Not one to be put down by the incident, Chaudhuri took the initiative of building a completely new team with players of East Bengal origin, including Sailesh Bose. This new club participated in its maiden tournament, the Hercules Cup, in the very first month of its birth and went on to win it. Since the tournament was not affiliated with the Indian Football Association, Chaudhuri had no difficulty in convincing players from other clubs to join his side.
After tasting success in the Hercules Cup, Chaudhuri advanced to give the club a permanent shape. He was helped by renowned advocate and member of the rich Bhagyakul Roy family of East Bengal, Tarit Bhushan Roy in this cause, and on a day in November 1920, several notable names of East Bengal origin assembled at Roy’s Kumartuli residence to discuss their plans. Chairing the session was Sarada Ranjan Roy, who was a renowned cricketer himself and whose long beard earned him the nickname of the ‘Indian W.G. Grace’. The new club was named ‘East Bengal’ and Sarada Ranjan was unanimously selected as its first president.
Gradually, with the large influx of refugees in India post Partition, the club's support base grew by leaps and bounds. In East Bengal Club, they found a mirror of their own struggle for existence, an embodiment of their never-say-die attitude, which was integral to their pursuit of livelihood in a new milieu charged with socio-psychological-economic difficulties.
With the passage of time, East Bengal has won numerous laurels on the field, thereby becoming one of the most decorated clubs not only in India, but also in Asia. Off the field, the'Torch' continues to give solace to millions of dreamers the world over, who never bow their heads down before life's obstacles and fight down to the wire, with their heads held high.