Review: Scoring Off the Field: Football Culture in Bengal, 1911-1980, by Kausik Bandyopadhyay

This is the text of the pre-publication print of: Matthew L. McDowell, Review: Scoring Off the Field: Football Culture in Bengal, 1911-1980, by Kausik Bandyopadhyay, Sport in History 32 (4) (December 2012): 582-84. There may be small textual differences between this version and the published version. Any reference made to this paper should refer to the published version.

Kausik Bandyopadhyay, Scoring Off the Field: Football Culture in Bengal, 1911-1980 (Routledge: London, 2011), Pp. x + 315. ₨895. ISBN 978-0-415-67800-1.

While every aspect of life has been revolutionized since independence… only one thing remained intact towering like the Pyramid amidst all upheavals, the sufferings of Calcutta Football Public (p. 212).

The above statement from the Indian Football Association Shield Souvenir 1957 refers to the lack of a stadium for Calcutta’s football supporters. The continuing struggle for proper accommodation would last until early 1980s, when a solution was forced upon Bengali football by a major disaster: the 16 August 1980 Calcutta League meeting of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, at Eden Gardens. The resulting rough play, crowd trouble, and park safety failures ended up leaving thirteen dead, and many more wounded. Football’s overwhelming popularity (around 80,000 were present at Eden Gardens) had outpaced the development of effective crowd control, as well as any attempts by government to delineate a clear sport policy. Before this incident, however, ‘being in the maidan’ was considered the essence of the Bengali spectator experience, and helped to develop the vibrant, if raucous supporter culture seen in the region (p. 217).

Kausik Bandyopadhyay’s impressive monograph, Scoring Off the Field: Football Culture in Bengal, 1911-1980, explores these and other tensions present in the Bengali game. The shrinking availability of space certainly helped to create the conditions for a lack of adequate sporting accommodation in Bengal, but related to this were demographic changes in the region from pre- to post-Partition India. Previous to World War II, the amount of open space available in Calcutta and other Bengal locales helped to fuel the game’s popularity; after 1947, however, this space came at a premium, when Hindu refugees from East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) poured into urban areas, and a squeeze was placed on land. One football club in Calcutta benefited from this influx, however: East Bengal, formed in 1919 by a migrant to Calcutta from Dacca, became the rallying point for the bangal (immigrant) community in the city. The old Mohun Bagan, on the other hand, became the chosen club of ghoti (settlers). This, however, was not just a tale of space and demographic pressure, and the inflow of migrants highlighted, rather than introduced, old divisions in Bengali football, and their close relationship with similar splits in society and politics. It is these divisions, conflicting loyalties, and the all-important nuances in between that Bandyopadhyay, a renowned expert in the history of Indian football, explores in great depth.

Mohun Bagan’s 1911 IFA Shield victory over East Yorkshire Regiment was certainly a national triumph over India’s imperial masters. It was not, however, explicitly nationalist in the political sense. Their victory was the culmination of several decades’ worth of propagation of physical culture within Bengali society, largely to combat British stereotypes of Bengali males as effeminate. Displays of physical culture were irrelevant without a competitive dimension, and football – very much a game controlled by the British and pro-British elites – allowed a medium for competing against and even beating the colonisers at their own game, and was seen as a socially-acceptable, non-political form of nationalism. The national question, however, was always relevant: Mohun Bagan’s stock began to rise during the late 1900s, the period of the anti-partition movement, and many of Bengal’s most successful footballers famously played without boots, a clear means of creating a unique Indian style of football (and an acknowledgement that many less well-off footballers could not afford them).

But Mohun Bagan were a Hindu team, and the rise of crack league side Mohammedan Sporting Club, from 1927 through their glory days of the 1930s, challenged the IFA’s Hindu administrators. From the club’s 1894 inception, the influential Muslim gentlemen who helped to form the team were opposed to the Hindu-dominated Congress Party, and the 1930s were a time when the Muslim League became the ruling party in Bengal. By then, Mohammedan Sporting were not only making a conscious effort to symbolise Muslim successes all over India, but they were also willing to change tactics, and wear boots in wet weather to add ballast to their squads. The side’s perceived ill treatment at the hands of the IFA and their referees forced the club to confront the association; and, after a dispute which saw Mohammedan Sporting withdraw from the Calcutta League, the club were allowed back in in 1940. In this instance, the associational power had shifted to a different group of elites, and this was an era where football changed from ‘community’ to ‘communal’ in its organisation (p. 137). But who really had control of the game, and had Indian football administration’s tectonic plates shifted in the mid-1930s? In the new All-India Football Association’s bid to unite and take control of the myriad associations of the country, the Calcutta-dominated IFA might have had the backing of the English FA, but the AIFA nevertheless had a more powerful ally on their side: the Army Sports Control Board. Throughout all of these labyrinthine machinations, Bandyopadyay shows a clear understanding of the club and organisational politics of Bengali and Indian football, and their relationship with the wider social and political milieu.

There are flaws here, but mainly in layout more than anything else. This is as thorough an account as one can possibly get for seventy years of Bengali football. The primary source quotes used by Bandyopadhyay are long, as are the footnotes, some of which dwarf the text with explanations of events, people and places discussed in the prose. As such, this makes the book a brilliant reference material, but a bit more cumbersome for the non-specialist reader. The longer secondary-source quotes especially need paraphrasing. Then there is the question as to whether the book’s remit is too wide. There certainly is a great deal of both exposition and contextualising in the events at the time of writing: why stop at seventy years? At the same time, some subjects inevitably get shorter shrift: despite Bandyopadhyay’s critiques of other historians who focus overwhelmingly on Calcutta football, the end result is similar here, with Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal getting the lion’s share of coverage. This cannot solely be labelled as the fault of the author; and, as he addresses himself in an excellent final chapter on supporter historiography and football’s wider impact on Bengali popular culture, historians can only sometimes work with what they have. Bandyopadhyay’s heavily social history based-book certainly qualifies as an excellent insight into football’s importance to the people of Bengal.

MATTHEW L. McDOWELL © 2012

University of Glasgow

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