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WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN

The June 10, 1854 edition of The Englishman (that would some 20 years later become The Statesman) reported one of the earliest football matches in India. The match was played in Calcutta in April 1854 between the Gentlemen of Barrackpore and the Calcutta Club of Civilians. It would be another 13 years before the first official football match would be played in Latin America on June 20, 1867. That fixture was between the Blancos (whites) and the Colorados (reds) in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that football was introduced by the British earlier in India, its prime colony, than it was in Argentina, a former Spanish colony with which the British simply enjoyed advantageous trade relations in the late 19th century. The British took their invention of football — which the Football Association in England subsequently codified in December 1863 after successfully differentiating it from the ‘other football’ of rugby — wherever they went, whether as imperial colonizers or as expatriate businessmen, sailors and workers.

But it was, unsurprisingly, cricket that was first introduced in Latin America by the British. The first ‘official’ cricket match in Argentina was played on February 3, 1852 in Buenos Aires. Cricket clubs were established wherever the British settled in Latin America, with the Mexico Cricket Club (also the MCC) in Mexico City being founded as early as 1827 by expatriate mine owners and businessmen.

In the 19th century, cricket, football and rugby were confined in India as well as in Latin American countries to British administrators and British expatriates respectively, a practice which was quickly replicated by the local gentry in both places. In India, the English public school model of including sports in the educational rubric was replicated in institutions like Presidency College in Calcutta, while the criollo (‘of pure Spanish descent’) elite in Argentina took English sports as part of their self-gentrification programme. The mimicry of sport as an indicator of class counters the erroneous notion that football was brought into these foreign shores only by working class Britons and picked up by locals after watching British sailors having a go of footie at the docks. Like cricket, football was also a posh sport in both India and Latin America and part of the English club culture.

It was, however, through another avenue that football — unlike cricket — entered the ‘lower echelons’ in both India and Latin America and gained the populist support one associates with the sport today: school education. In the early 1890s, the British missionaries, Cecil Earle Tyndale-Biscoe and Theodore Leighton Pennell, advanced the cause of football among the young locals who attended their respective schools in Srinagar and Bannu in the North-West Frontier Province.

Football was seen as an instrument of building character. “[B]undles must be turned into boys by athletic exercises and athletic boys turned into manly citizens by continued acts of kindness,” the sports historian, Paul Dimeo, quotes Tyndale-Biscoe in his essay, “Football and Politics in Bengal: Colonialism, Nationalism, Communalism”. Interestingly, Vivekananda would pick up the missionaries’ idea of character-building through football and would state in one of his lectures in 1897, “You will be nearer to heaven through football than through the study of the Gita.”

In Buenos Aires, the Scotsman, Alexander Watson Hutton, after being denied his request for a playing field and a gymnasium for students, started his own school in 1884 where physical education was a part of the syllabus. His emphasis on “manliness and physical health”, especially through football, was highly influential for a generation of middle-class Argentines as a riposte to charges of ‘Latin idleness’. This popularized football beyond the stratified criollo crowd.

Hutton plays a larger part in the history of Latin American football than just as an evangelist of Victorian physical-mental culture. As Andreas Campomar writes in Golazo!: A History of Latin American Football, “The English game’s obsession with dribbling, which meant keeping the ball close to one’s boots while a melee ensued, was verging on the solipsistic. The pass, at which the Scots excelled, was discouraged — often vehemently so... Queen’s Park, a club Watson Hutton must have seen play in Glasgow, had developed a sophisticated ‘combination’ technique, in which dribbling and passing were combined into an art form... The pass not only marginalized the more physical and aggressive aspects of the game, which was also closely identified with the English style, but in time would put an end to the cult of the amateur.” The Beautiful Game was already taking shape.

So while inculcating English football, Latin America was also subverting it — with Scottish influence. In India, however, the first decades of the 20th century saw football being used as a medium to challenge English supremacy. So the iconic-cum-clichéd victory of Mohun Bagan over the East Yorkshire Regiment in the IFA Shield final on July 29, 1911, with the backdrop of a growing nationalist atmosphere in Bengal, was subsumed in the larger anti-colonial historical narrative, rather than becoming part of a grand national sporting narrative. Thus, the strangely hyperbolic focus on Mohun Bagan footballers winning the game by ‘playing barefoot’ — as if playing without boots earned the players extra points. Thus, nationalist pride becoming an emblem of footballing prowess, rather than the other way round.

More than a century after the introduction of football in India and in Latin American nations by the British, we know rather starkly where the differences lie. That other English sport, cricket, has become ‘our football’. Football has largely returned to being a purely spectator sport — to be, to quote Campomar’s description of the criollo upper classes in 19th-century Argentina, “worn as a badge of ascension, [mimicking] those whom they saw as their betters in both belief and custom”.

Indian followers of English Premier League football, and increasingly that of La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A, not to mention the UEFA Champions League, are the desi criollo looking in from the outside at a foreign, fabulous, fabulist sport. Those cheering on their local clubs are increasingly from a different universe from the Arsenal, Barcelona, Ronaldo jersey-wearing crowds who are part of a global footballing family — without that family ever knowing that they are fellow members. The two kinds of football followers in India have become as different as chalk and cheese.

In this peripheral view, there is a silver lining. During the one month of every World Cup, Indian football fans — those following the superior global variety as well as those following the more intense and mostly desultory local ones — get to see teams from Latin American countries. Footballers like Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, Barcelona’s Neymar and Lionel Messi, are, of course, visible as players in English and European club games every season to our criollo fanatics. But during these 30-odd days that come every four years, these same footballers become Uruguay’s Suarez, Brazil’s Neymar, Argentina’s Messi, players from and of countries that aren’t European, aren’t English, and that vaguely resemble ours outside the football fields.

In these Latin American teams, India’s football fans get a glimpse of what Indian football could have been.