Irrespective of its current status, India started playing football before most European or South American countries. Calcutta was the capital of British India till 1911 and was also one of the most important ports in the region. It was British soldiers and sailors who first introduced football in India. They would have small, primitive matches in fields adjoining ports. One of the earliest mentions of the game can be found in chronicles of Rani Rashmoni. The queen was once retuning from the Ganges after a bath; on the way, her grandson saw some soldiers playing a game by kicking a ball.

Origin of IFA Shield

The origin of organized football in India can be traced back to one Nagendraprasad Sarbadhichari. After learning about rules of the game from English soldiers, Sarbadhichari made efforts to spread the game among masses. He popularized football in Hare School, one of the premier educational institutions in Calcutta. Later he founded “Boys Club”, which was the first attempt to set up a football club in India. In 1893, the Indian Football Association (IFA) was formed. IFA Shield was started in 1893, making it the 4th oldest football competition in history. Curiously, Indians were not allowed to join in the Indian football federation for till 1920s. IFA consisted of high ranking British army officials while football tournaments usually included British regiment teams.

In the late 1890s, numerous football clubs came up which were managed by Indians and employed Indian footballers. Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan SC or Aryan Club were still in their nascent stages and rarely challenged the regimental teams. First significant success for an Indian team came in 1892 when Sovabazar Club captured Trades Cup. Nineteen years later, eleven Bengali players donning the Green and Maroon jersey would go on to create history.

The Immortal XI

First Indian team to win IFA Shield

Mohun Bagan’s 2-1 win over East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911 IFA Shield final was undoubtedly the biggest pivotal moment in Indian football. It established football as the most popular game in Bengal – this was a game where Indians could compete with British overlords and trump them. 80,000 people wildly cheered Mohun Bagan during the final match. Iconic Bagan captain Shibdas Bhaduri played a crucial role scoring a goal and assisting Abhilas Ghosh’s winner.

Mohun Bagan might have created history by winning the IFA Shield in 1911 but further success eluded them. Instead, it was the black and white clad Mohammedan Sporting which would go on to become the first Indian club to sustain a successful run. Mohammedan’s legendary team of late 1930s was invincible and went on to create records which lasted for decades. Mohammedan won its first IFA Shield in 1936 and became the first Indian club to defend the Shield successfully in 1942. Aryan Club became the third Indian club to win IFA Shield in 1940, while East Bengal captured its first Shield title in 1943. 1945 saw the first Kolkata derby in a Shield Final – East Bengal defeated Mohun Bagan 1-0. Mohun Bagan gained sweet revenge 2 years later, defeating East Bengal 1-0 in the first Shield final after independence.

Shield in Post-Independence Era

British teams stopped participating after 1947 as IFA Shield became one of the most important tournaments in Indian football calendar. Among British teams, Royal Irish Rifles was the most successful side – winning the title 5 times. In the 60s and 70s, IFA Shield, Durand Cup and Rovers Cup were considered as the three ‘blue ribbon’ tournaments in Indian football. In 1953, Indian Cultural League, a Mumbai-based club ran by Bollywood football enthusiasts became the first non-Bengal team to win Shield. They didnt win the title on the field however, as East Bengal was punished for playing an unregistered player in final. 1960s belonged to Mohun Bagan as they captured Shield 5 times in that decade (twice as joint winners with East Bengal). Bengal Nagpur Railways (BNR) triumphed in a memorable Shield final in 1963, thus becoming first Indian institutional side to win the Shield.

If the 1960s was dominated by Bagan, then the next decade belonged to their arch rivals. East Bengal started the decade with a 1-0 win over Iran’s Pas club, a victory that has gone down into Indian football folklore. From 1972 to 1976, East Bengal won an unprecedented 5 consecutive Shield titles. The zenith of this successful run came in 1975 Shield final when East Bengal toyed with Mohun Bagan to record a mammoth 5-0 derby win. By late 70s, Mohun Bagan had turned a corner after an unsuccessful 6 year spell. They captured a hattrick of titles from 1977 to 1979. In 1980s, the two Kolkata giants exchanged titles between each other. With the advent of Federation Cup, IFA Shield’s importance was slowly decreasing as the tournament was not held for the first time in 1988.

By mid-1990s, the Shield had lost most of its charm. Not many teams from outside Bengal participated while the Kolkata teams often sent weakened squads. One of the most memorable Shield finals of 1990s came in 1994 when a young Sikkimese striker named Baichung Bhutia struck a golden goal to earn a 2-1 win for East Bengal after a hard fought match with Mohun Bagan. In 1996, JCT became the first team from Northern India to win the IFA Shield.

Pk Banerjee and Shyam Thapa after 1975 Shield final

In the new millennium, Shield is considered more of a hindrance than a prestigious tournament. Bigger clubs, including the ones from Kolkata, have often declined to participate choosing to focus on National Football League. The Kolkata teams have also lost their dominance in the IFA Shield. Since Mohun Bagan’s triumph in 2003, none of the teams from Bengal have managed to lift the 3-foot high trophy. Mahindra United has been the most successful club in recent times, having won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.

East Bengal is the most successful club in the IFA Shield. The Red-and-Golds have captured the trophy 27 times, while finishing as runner-up 10 times. Mohun Bagan is in 2nd place with 21 titles and 15 2nd place finishes. Mahindra United is the most successful non-Bengal team with 2 titles.

Foreign Teams in IFA Shield

Over the years, involvement of foreign teams has been one of the USPs of IFA Shield. East Bengal’s win over Pas Club was first victory of an Indian club over a foreign club since 1947. Iran was an Asian powerhouse and Pas club was one of the strongest teams in domestic football. Having scored eight goals in 3 matches, Pas was considered a favorite for the title. They started brightly with star player Asgar Sharafi running riot. Spurred on by 60,000-strong crowd, East Bengal slowly came back into the game. Sudhir Karmakar and Nayimuddin played out of their skins to keep out Iranian strikers. A minute before final whistle, substitute Parimal De latched on to a Swapan Sengupta cross before unleashing a fierce shot from outside the penalty box. East Bengal supporters went mad with joy after winning Shield as both De and the title was carried by a wave of supporters from Eden Gardens to club tent.

Three years later, East Bengal displayed another master class performance in front of a foreign team – this time Pyong Yong City Club from North Korea. Subhas Bhowmik, nicknamed “bulldozer” was unstoppable in this match. He scored East Bengal’s 2nd goal after dribbling past 4 defenders and finishing from an almost impossible angle. He also assisted Akbar’s opener and scored East Bengal’s 3rd goal in a memorable 3-1 win.

Mohun Bagan too had their share of good performance against foreign teams when they faced off against Soviet club Ararat Erevan in the 1978 final. Bagan, then the best team in India, had went unbeaten for almost a year and had scored 82 goals in 27 league matches. The Russians took an early lead but struggled as it began to rain after some minutes. P.K Banerjee made a game changing sub by bringing on Bidesh Bose. Ararat defenders struggled to cope with Bose’s pace on  the muddy ground. Akbar made it 1-1 from Bose’s cross, while Manas Bhattacharya made it 2-1. Mohun Bagan completely dominated the rest of the match but was unable to get past the Russian ‘keeper. Ararat came back to score a late equalizer as the match ended 2-2.

East Bengal vs Palmeiras B, 2001

Penarol FC is the most renowned football club to have ever played in India. The Uruguayan behemoth has participated in Copa Libertadores a record 38 times, winning the title of South American champion five times. They have also won a record three Intercontinental titles. Penarol’s win in 1985 IFA Shield was sandwiched between two domestic league titles. In the final, they defeated Shakhtar Donetsk – Soviet champions in 1983. In 1993, another all-foreigner final saw Pakhtakor Tashkent, the most successful Uzbek club, defeat Pavlodar FC, the most successful Kazakh club after a tie-breaker.

Clubs from abroad have enjoyed considerable success in the last decade. In 2004, Finance and Revenue club, Myanmar, won the title. Next season it was turn for the Bayern Munich reserve team to capture the Shield. Coached by the legendary Gerd Muller, Bayern defeated Ever Ready (currently known as Chirag United) 5-1 in final despite conceding an early goal. Shenzhen Ruby FC from China participated in 2006 but was eliminated by Mahindra United in the semi-final. Mahindra defeated another foreign team to win their 2nd Shield title. This time it was Santos FC from South Africa, who had played some dazzling football including a 4-2 win over Mohun Bagan in the semi-final.

There has been more than a few controversial episodes in the IFA Shield, but nothing comes close to the free for all brawls between East Bengal and Palmeiras ‘B’ team in 2001 final. After 35 minutes of play, Palmeiras players, who had already played a rough match in semi-final, started the fight. The match was canceled as Jo Paul Ancheri suffered a painful injury after being kicked by a Brazilian player. The Federation once again proved its inefficiency in failing to submit a report of this match. AFC promptly banned Indian clubs for one year from its competitions.

This year’s Shield also has a foreign team along with a host of Indian clubs. It surely promises to be an exciting tournament.

For a list of IFA Shield winners and runners up click here.