A History of Assam Football
Subodh Malla Barua
Assam, the land of red rivers and blue hills, has had a very encouraging sports environment in all disciplines. But it was the British which popularized football in the State.
After the Yandaboo Treaty of 1826, the British consolidated their presence in this picturesque valley, first confining themselves to the tea estates and later branching out to the lush green fields of the State with soccer balls. And thus the game of football took its birth in Assam. In the early stages, people tried to ignore football and hence it remained confined to the British soldiers and civilians. They used to play it in the gardens of Shillong, Silchar and at some places in Guahati (now Guwahati). It is difficult to say exactly when the game was introduced in Assam but can be safely presumed that the game was first played sometime in the latter half of the 19th century.
In Guwahati, the Britishers played football at Borpool (now Gauhati Medical College Ground at Bhangagarh) and at Jorhat at the Gymkhana Ground. After expanding their base to Shillong and Surma Valley, the British introduced the game there. They also initiated and organized Football meet at the club meets at Jorhat and Shillong. H.C.Harler organized the Jorhat Football League in 1911, whereas Shillong had became the hub of football in the late 19th century. After setting up of the Shillong Club (1878) and the Shillong Town Club, the Britishers organized National Cup, Earle Cup and Association Cup among the club teams. In 1915 in the Earle Cup final, the organizers treated the match as a charity one, and this is the first recorded charity match in the whole of North-East. The funds collected from the match were sent to the soldier of allied forces of World War I. In the Surma Valley, members of the British Tea Company along with some sports enthusiasts established India Club and started to promote football in the Valley. On the other hand, in Guwahati’s football blossomed after the establishment of the famous Cotton College in the year 1901 and after few years the Guwahati Town Club (GTC) was established.
At that time, three tournaments- Prasanjit Cup, Raj Saheb Cup and Manik Chandra Baruah Shield were organized with full gaiety. In 1911, a Shillong team played an exhibition match against G.T.C. at the Judges Field and probably this is the first exhibition football match of the region. The first four decades of the 20th century saw efforts to encourage football at club-level and the game made rapid strides in different places.
Formation of State Association
As time went on, football enthusiasts realized the need for an organization at the state-level, especially after the city-based Maharana Club had to face tremendous difficulty in participating in the 1946 IFA Shield. At that time, there was a clause to produce certificate from the state association, failing which the concerned club was barred from participating in the Shield. So, an association was formed in 1946 under the name of Assam Football Association.
At the same time, another association in the same name was formed at Silchar. Naturally, differences among the two groups cropped up. Football in the State had to face some unfortunate incidents because of this. However, things were finally sorted out amicably at the behest of Pankaj Gupta, the then AIFF president. Since then, football in the State has made rapid stride in popularity and standard. Manipur, now a power house of soccer in the country was part of Assam Football Association till 1972. Manipur won the first district championship under the banner of Assam Football Association. In the early years, Manipur produces stars like Basanta Kabui, Gopeswar Singh, and Lungaini Kabui. Basanta represented India in Asian Youth Football and dominated the inter-district football helping his side win the trophy several times. In 1973, Manipur got affiliation from the All Indian Football Federation and started playing in the Santosh Trophy with considerable success. They won the Santosh Trophy in 2004 and also produced footballers like India international Rennedy Singh, who also captained the Indian team. On the other hand, Mizoram got the affiliation from the AFA as a district unit in 1957. In the eighties, Mizoram get the affiliation from AIFF and started playing separately. Mizoram also won the Santosh Trophy in 2014.
The legacy of Assam Football has been gigantic. It has produced great talents the decades spanning its glorious history. The glorious achievements of Assam football can be divided into two parts. The first phase consists of the pre-independence era. And the second part began when Assam started participating in the Santosh Trophy, since 1947. Santosh Trophy was played for the first time in 1941 but Assam played its first match in 1947. In the very first match Assam lost to a formidable opponent Mysore 1-3. In the first phase, Assam’s achievements were synonymous with the achievement of its various clubs. Clubs like Maharana Club of Guwahati, Silchar India Club were known for an attacking brand of football. They also dazzled the Calcutta Maidans in the early stages of the IFA Shield. Talents like Sarat Das, Dr. Talimeran Aao, Animesh Ganguly, Ashutosh Dutta, Capt. Nalini Mohan Gupta, Bhuban Gogoi, Prasanta Bardhan, Kamal Ganguly, Abdul Khaleque, Ramesh Adhikari, Satyabrata Majumdar, Ajas, Mohan Gupta,Nurul Amin, et al., carved out their own style in their hey days, and drove football fans wild. No wonder the Big Three of Calcutta – Mohan Bagan, East Bengal, and Mohammedan Sporting-- were more than willing to open their doors for these players. Sarat Das and Dr. Talimeran Aao could be regarded as two of all time greatest players. Both played for Mohun Bagan for long time. Naga boy Talimeran Aao of Maharana Club studied in medicine at Carmichael Medical College of Calcutta (what was later renamed as R.G. Kar Medical College), become the first football captain of independent India. He led the Indian football team in the London Olympics in 1948. Though several clubs with some talented players put Assam on the road to glory but Silchar’s India Club was the first to represent Assam with their participation in the 1917’s IFA Shield at Calcutta. India Club participated in Dhakas Nirmal Shield in 1931 and were runners-up. But Maharana Club, established in 1907, created a flutter in the history of Club football in Assam. In 1929, Maharana participated in Rongpur’s (Bangladesh) Govindalal Shield with pride. They won the IFC Shield at Lucknow in 1939. Maharana, the second oldest club of the Brahmaputra Valley, produced a breathtaking performance at Calcutta, when they participated in the IFA Shield of 1946. Maharana drew with Calcutta league champion Mohammedan Sporting for first two days with some scintillating football. But on the third day, Maharana eventually lost by the barest of margin against the same opposition. They lost the match but won the hearts of thousands.
Post-independence, soccer scene in Assam picked up to even greater heights. Stars like Kanak Bordoloi, Monoranjan Bannerjee, Prafulla Hazarika, Dr. Sailendra Dasgupta, and Dr.Sarat Das played with grit and honour. In this era, Assam also tested its first victory in the Santosh Trophy when they defeated Orissa in the 1953 edition. In the sixty years of football post-Independence, Assam produces as many as 14 international players at the senior level. Apart from Dr. Talimeran Aao the others included Toshen Bora (1972 pre-Olympic) Gilbertson Sangma (1975), Swadhin Deka Raja (1975, 1976), K. Kawla Mizo (1976, 1977) Subir Choudhury (1976, 1977), Debashish Roy (1977, 1979), Arup Das (1981, 1982), Babul Phukan (1985), Syed Abid Amin (1985), Jowel Bay (1989-1993), Samshi Reja (1998), Holicharan Narzary (2014) and .... (2016). In the year 1960, Assam produced superb football in Santosh trophy but lost to formidable Services 0-1 in the semis. In the third-place play-off, Assam drew with Kerala to end up at the third position.
However, since 1960, Assam has never got beyond the quarter-final stage in Santosh But in 2007, it created history winning the gold in the National Games, held in Guwahati, beating Tamil Nadu via a tie-breaker. This has by far been the best performance of Assam at the national level football. In fact, this period could well be termed as the purple patch of football in Assam when one considers the fact that in the 1999 National Games held at Imphal it lost to Maharastra to settle for a silver.
Though Assam has failed to live up to the expectation at the senior level, but at junior level, Assam has time and again shown its capacity to be a team to reckon with. Assam has been a finalist for four times (1964, 1970, 1985 and 1997) in the national junior football. In the National Youth Football, Assam lost to Manipur by a narrowest of margin in the 1994 final. In the sub-junior football for Mir Iqbal Hussain Trophy (U16), Assam created history by winning a hat-trick of titles beginning 1979. In 1981 they joint won the honour with Kerala. At the school-level, Assam has won seven titles (1969, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1992, 1997, 2000). In the prestigious school tournament Subroto Mukherjee Cup in 1986, Assam’s Kokrajhar Government HS School won the championship under the able guidance of Pabitra Gogoi. The feat repeated by another school, Arya Viduapith HS School of Guwahati in 1992.
Though Assam has produced lots of individual talent, yet they have never achieved their long cherished dream of winning the coveted Santosh Trophy. Though famous footballers of yesteryears like Toshen Bora, Gilbertson Sangma, Debashish Roy, Babul Phukan are of the opinion that the standard of Assam football is progressing steadily vis- a-vis Indian football yet it is clear to any dispassionate football fan that there is a lot that needs to change if we are to achieve what we are targeting. Former stars like Tapash Chatterjee, Ganesh Rai, and Pabitra Gogoi say that social condition, lack of professionalism and organizational barriers at various levels are some of the facts holding football in Assam back. Williamson Magor started a football Academy, under the guidance of ex-international Shyam Thapa, at Monabari. After a decade, the academy was disbanded, citing financial reason. This is reason enough for Assam Football Association to work towards the setting up of an academy.
(The author is the sports editor of Dainik Asom)
PHOTO : Assam Football Association