Bangalore’s Forgotten Heroes Who Beat the Brits at Their Own Game
In the sports room of Bengaluru’s Al-Ameen College, an attendant carefully dusted the photos he had dug out from an obscure storeroom. He was careful not to cut his hands on some of the frames that had cracked. Those that were not damaged had suffered still, from years of lying forgotten, faded and layered with dust.
He was curious about the sudden interest in these otherwise inconspicuous photos, but he kept his questions to himself, and continued cleaning.
“Here it is. One of the few remaining photos of that historic team,” said Mumtaz Ali Khan, the Chairperson of the Al-Ameen educational institutes, pointing to the photo of a football team.
These forgotten photos, trophies and distant memories in the minds of a few old men are the legacy of the football team that once put Bangalore on the world’s football map.
The Bangalore Muslims
The men in the photo wore their long-collared shirts buttoned all the way up. The shirts were black with white sleeves, pockets and collars. These were the members of the Bangalore Muslims football club, the bootless gang that beat the British at their own game.
During the early 1910s, Bengal United, a team consisting of Indian soldiers, played the tournament but during the First World War, this team fizzled out. In 1923, Indian civilian football clubs were allowed to participate in the tournament .
Even though Mohun Bagan reached the finals that year, the dream of an Indian team winning the tournament remained unfulfilled for 45 years, until the barefoot men of Bangalore Muslims created history at Bombay’s Cooperage football stadium.
The match was a thriller. According to news archives, more than 20,000 people gathered at the stadium to watch the two Indian teams - Bangalore Muslims and Mohammedan FC - who had reached the finals after defeating the British regiments.
Going Beyond the Name
The significance of the Bangalore Muslims team goes far beyond their Rovers Cup victory. The team’s composition was anything but what the name suggested. In the team that won the tournament in 1937, five players – Dharma, Kadervaelu, Linganna, Murugesh and Laxminarayan – were Hindus and from different ethnic backgrounds.
Novy Kapadia, author of Barefoot to Boot: The Many Lives of Indian Football, said that in 1937, a special welcome was organised by the unit of the Indian National Congress in Bangalore for the team. They were felicitated as representatives of secularism and their victory was considered a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity.
The players of the Bangalore Muslims team had developed a signature style of playing. They kept possession of the ball as much as they could, they dribbled a lot and tired out their opponents. This peculiar style of playing soon earned the nickname ‘jalebi’.
Mumtaz Ali Khan watched the team as a child and later became the owner of the team. The team, according to Khan, was a joy to watch, an absolute entertainer.
According to Kapadia, this style of the Bangalore Muslims emerged more from necessity than strategy.
“The players in this team developed impeccable skills in short passes and keeping possession, because they were playing barefoot against the well-built English soldiers. So, they had to adapt,” he said. This style was perfected over the years and became the ‘Bangalore school of football’.
In the years that followed, Bangalore Muslims remained a powerhouse of Indian football. The club won the Rovers Cup once again in 1948 and several of India’s football greats, like Ahmed Khan, played for the team. In fact, Khan’s performance with the Bangalore Muslims earned him a place in the Indian national team at the 1948 London Olympics.
Ahmed Khan passed away in 2017 and by then he was the last living member of the golden era of Bangalore Muslims.
Having been a fan since childhood, Khan took over the club, but had an uphill task ahead of him. In the 1960s and 1970s, football in Bangalore was taken over by public sector undertakings (PSU). Bangalore’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Indian Telephone Industries (ITI), Electronic Radar Development Establishment (ERDE) and others had good football teams. The job security offered by these PSUs soon drew the cream of Bangalore’s football talent to these teams, and thus began the downfall of many football clubs, including Bangalore Muslims.
With the lack of good players, the Al-Ameen college football team is sometimes fielded as the Bangalore Muslims team. Khan says that the trust is now in the process of resurrecting the team.
While Bangalore celebrates its cricket heroes from the garden city, the memory of a truly historic football team is fading.