What Drives The Beautiful Game?

What Drives The Beautiful Game?

by Jay Bhattacharjee - Tuesday, August 9, 2016 12:16 PM IST
What Drives The Beautiful Game?Football fans
  • Euro 2016 is just over. What is it about the world’s most popular sport, one that can cause wars between countries, and bring warring armies together?

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.

— Bill Shankly Scotland, 1938-43
Manager of Liverpool,1959-74

For a month, one game occupied centre stage in the world’s mindspace as Euro 2016 was played out in France. The host country, too, became the focus of attention because of the way it organised such an inordinately complex and intricate exercise. There was a sigh of relief when the tournament went through without any security glitch—terror struck France a few days after the tournament ended on an emotional high with Portugal defeating France to win the Cup. But that’s another story.

What is it about “the beautiful game” that generates so much passion, excitement, drama and pathos? Even in a country like ours, that is besotted with cricket, interest in football was very high from 10th June to 10th July. Media coverage was extensive. But sadly, India’s fascination with football was short-lived and transient. We watch the English Premier League, the Bundesliga, the Euro Cup, the FIFA World Cup on TV obsessively; we even support individual teams like Manchester United, Arsenal, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid with great enthusiasm; but that is about it.

India’s ranking in FIFA’s world table, released after Euro 2016, was at an abysmal 152, just above South Sudan (153, in the midst of a vicious civil war) and lower than Afghanistan (150) and Burundi (125). Readers will get the drift. But it was not like this always. Once upon a time, football occupied an exalted position in India’s national psyche and collective consciousness. More on this later.

Football is the principal game played in more than 200 countries. FIFA’s table ranks 205 countries, and if one takes out the United Kingdom’s multiple entries like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, we have 202 political entities. In contrast, cricket is played seriously in not more than 15 countries, and rugby, a first cousin of football, is regularly played in just about 25 countries.

We should now look briefly at the history of the world’s most popular sport. Some scholars have traced the origins of the game to the second and third century BCE in China. In the Chinese version, opposing groups used a leather ball filled with feathers and hair and tried to put it into a small net. Some variants of this sport have also been described in Egyptian and Greek documents, which only shows that football has a venerable history. In the Middle Ages, several versions of modern-day football were played in Scotland, England and even Italy. But truth be told, the roots of modern football must be ascribed to the English upper class and its infamous “public” schools, so popular with Indian Anglophiles and Gunga Din types. Actually, these “public” schools were private bastions of the elites. Be that as it may, they took the leading role in framing the rules of football in the 19th century. The ordinary people of old Albion were completely out of the loop, since the English working classes had a gruelling work schedule of 12 hours or so every day.

The impact of

Mohun Bagan

winning the IFA

Shield in 1911

on the Indian


movement was

The impact of Mohun Bagan winning the IFA Shield in 1911 on the Indian nationalist movement was tremendous.

The Football Association, the game’s first governing body, was established in 1863, and soon drafted a set of rules. Football, or Association Football, as it is officially called, was on its way to world domination. Thereafter, the game spread outside the British Isles at astonishing speed; the most enthusiastic converts to the sport were the poor and the working class in Europe and South America.

Some historians of football have credited Britain’s power and influence for football’s expansion. However, this is hardly a satisfactory assessment. In Europe, for example, there was no Empire and the game was popularised by British tradesmen and businesspersons. The primary reason why the beautiful game spread was its “sheer simplicity”, according to the historian Richard Sanders. Football conquered the world because it had only 13 rules—all that the players required were a flat ground and a ball.


The game was introduced to Indians by the British in the late 19th century. The British army teams were the protagonists and the sport was largely confined to the cantonments. However, ordinary Indians slowly picked up the sport and it became popular in Bengal, to start with. Fortunately, some wealthy zamindars and businessmen started patronising football. Mohun Bagan Club was set up by three affluent supporters in 1889. The club quickly made its mark, but its day in the sun came on 29 July 1911, when it defeated the East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 to win the coveted IFA Shield. The importance of this event in Indian politics cannot be emphasised too much. It was a significant landmark in Indian history, though it has hardly been given the importance that it deserves. We can forget about the reel history trotted out in Lagaan et al—the actual events were much more dramatic.

Eleven barefoot Indian civilians defeated the booted and fully-clad British soldiers in an epic match that resonated for years in our collective psyche, but which has slowly been obliterated over time. In the country’s freedom struggle, it played a cardinal role, especially after the events that followed the Partition of Bengal in 1905. There are various accounts of the Mohun Bagan captain, Shibdas Bhaduri, exhorting his players before the match thus: “Football, perhaps, is the only place where we can kick and injure without fear of retribution.” The Mohun Bagan team comprised :

Hiralal Mukherjee (Goalkeeper), Bhuti Sukul, Sudhir Kumar Chatterjee, Manmohon Mukherjee, Rajendranath Sen Gupta, Nilmadhab Bhattacharya, Srischanda Sarkar, Bijaydas Bhaduri, Jitendranath Roy, Abhilas Ghosh, Shibdas Bhaduri.

The story goes that as an exhausted Shibdas Bhaduri was leaving the stadium, an anonymous Brahmin priest walked up to him and asked: “You took down the British today on the field; when will you take that down?” and pointed to the Union Jack fluttering over Fort William, the British military base. “It will happen, it will happen,” replied Bhaduri.

The “Johan

Cruyff turn”

invented by

the great Dutch


often left his

challenger flat

on the field.
The “Johan Cruyff turn” invented by the great Dutch footballer often left his challenger flat on the field.

Also, for the record, the British shifted their capital from Calcutta to Delhi within four-and-a-half months after this match. On 12th December 1911, a safer Delhi became the political centre of the Jewel in the Crown. But the seeds of change had been sown. The myth of the European white man’s physical superiority was shattered, as also the stereotype of the Bengalis being an effeminate people. The whole of India took note. Fast forward to the 1950s and 1960s, after a rather uneventful interlude, when the game steadily progressed within the country, without any worthwhile landmarks. India’s most significant achievement on the international stage was when it came fourth in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. Under the captaincy of Samar Banerjee, the Indian team defeated hosts Australia 4-2 to make it to the semi-finals. In Asian football, India did better by winning the Asian Games in 1962 under Chuni Goswami. Our last international podium place was in 1970 when we were third in the Asian Games. It has been downhill ever since.

However, we must remember some of the great footballers we have had in recent times who could have reached the very top if they had played in other countries. Jarnail Singh, Chuni Goswami, Peter Thangaraj, P.K. Banerjee and Sailen Manna come to mind, though some other players are equally worthy of entering the pantheon of Indian football greats. The respected British magazine The Economist carried a full-page obituary on Manna—today unknown to most Indians, and forgotten by the others—when he passed away in 2012.


It was after World War II that international football really took off. It also saw the steady development of the game in South America and Continental Europe. Countries like Brazil, Argentina, Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, Holland and West Germany became leading teams and ruled the world stage. Sadly, this was accompanied by the decline of England as a football power. The following are some vignettes of football history in the second half of the 20th century. The choices are definitely subjective, but hopefully based on detailed assessments.

England lose to USA in the 1950 World Cup: The second biggest surprise in football history The English press could not believe it when the tickers announced on 29th June 1950 that USA had beaten England in a World Cup league match. England were 3:1 favourites to win the tournament, and the team included legends like Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey and Stan Mortensen. In the 38th minute, USA scored, when a high clearance from the back went to the Haitian-born winger Joe Gaetjens. He dived at it, barely touching his head, and scored.

The sequel is incredibly tragic. Gaetjens went to play in France before returning to his native Haiti, where the murderous Duvalier regime, for no apparent reason, imprisoned him and killed him in jail in 1963. The American government did not lift a finger.

Hungary decimates England in an epic match in 1953, followed by another a year later The twilight days of the game’s inventors came unannounced when the Hungarian team virtually destroyed England on its home turf on 25th November 1953. Hungary’s 6-3 victory at Wembley continues to rankle in English minds. The sheer brilliance of the Magical Magyars is still talked about with awe, and the pathetic quality of the English is lamented. The football world changed forever on that night. The legendary Hungarian team included Hidegkuti, Puskás, Kocsis, Czibor and Budai.

A few months later, on 23 May 1954, England were mercilessly thrashed by the same Hungarian team 7-1 in Budapest. The English football empire was over.


Two of the most innovative movements devised by footballers are the Panenka flip/ penalty and the Cruyff turn. In the Panenka penalty, conceived by the Czechoslovak player Antonin Panenka and used with deadly effect in the Euro 1976 final match against West Germany, the penalty taker makes a delicate chip towards the centre of the goal, when the goalkeeper has already moved in one direction in anticipation of the shot. The chip requires enormous concentration and nerves of steel.

In the Cryuff turn, named after the Dutch titan Johan Cruyff, the player feigns a pass or cross, but instead he drags the ball behind his planted foot with the inside of his crossing foot, rotates 180 degrees, and speeds away from the opponent. Please watch it on Youtube.


On 8 July 1982, France played West Germany in the World Cup semis. When leading 1-1, the French captain Michel Platini sent the midfielder Patrick Battiston through with a beautiful pass. Battiston had an open goal in front of him, when he was savagely assaulted by the German keeper Harald Schumacher. Schumacher shoulder-charged Battiston so brutally that even today he suffers from a cracked vertebra and damaged teeth.

This shameful incident still resonates in football history. There was no red card shown to Schumacher, no penalty awarded to France, not even a free kick. To cap the injustice, France was defeated by the Germans in a penalty shoot-out after extra time. Like a Greek tragedy, France had to wait 34 years before obtaining much-delayed justice in the Euro 2016 semi-final on 7 July.


It’s back to Euro 2016 to end this overview. The host country put up a splendid show for one whole month, when not only Europe, but the whole world, basked in a football fiesta. Even terror was on hold. France purged a traumatic memory in its psyche and Iceland, a country of three lakh people (roughly Karol Bagh in Delhi or Dadar in Mumbai) knocked out the mighty English, four days after the UK voted to leave the European Union. Social media erupted with jokes about two Brexits within a week. “We’ve been beaten by a country so small, there’s an app to make sure you aren’t dating within your family.” “Relax, Boris Johnson, the England players are taking care of Brexit.” “I’d fit into the England squad coz I’m an embarrassment to everyone I know.”

There was pure anger too: “England’s manager was paid £3.5 million a year. Iceland’s manager is a part-time dentist.” “You do realise that if the England players had to clap they’d miss.” “I’d like to announce my official retirement from watching England play.” Football’s power and passion must be recorded—it sparked a war between two South American countries.

Tension had been simmering between Honduras and El Salvador for years over large-scale immigration of Salvadorans to Honduras. But it was football that brought it to a head. In June 1969, the countries met for three World Cup qualifier matches (El Salvador went through), which saw massive fan violence. On 14 July, the two countries went to war. But the game could also cement bonds between two groups of warring soldiers in 1914, when the British Tommies and their German enemies celebrated Christmas on a frozen Flanders field. All firing ceased as they played the game with abandon and also sang “Silent Night/ Stille Nacht”.

The great late Johann Cruyff should have the last word: “You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you.”

Jay Bhattacharjee is a policy and corporate affairs analyst based in Delhi.
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