Bengal has a glorious football tradition, even before the concept of dividing countries with borders came into effect in this region. Football in South Asia before the undivided Bengal was all about the footballers hailing from the Bengali community. Kolkata, the then capital of British India, was the hub of major football activities, starting its traces from the second half of the 19th century with the establishment of clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Kolkata Mohammedan. The place was later graced by one of the greatest footballers India have ever produced - Syed Abdus Samad, popularly known as Magician Samad or Football Wizard. Samad spent the initial stages of his glorious career at Tajhat Football Club of Rangpur before moving to Kolkata Football League, which was usually dominated by the players from East Bengal. When Bagan became the first Indian team to win a major football tournament, the IFA Shield, there were eight key players on the pitch hailing from the eastern part of Bengal. The IFA Shield is known as the fourth oldest tournament in the world. The competition was always ruled by the players from British Army until Bagan broke the 18-year jinx in 1911. Ten out of the 11 players played barefoot in the final against a team, whose players all wore boots. The introduction of the Dhaka first division league 17 years after the inception of the Kolkata League increased the football activities among the existing clubs of Bengal like Wari Club, East End Club and Victoria Club and also among the students of Jagannath College and Dhaka College.
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Islington Corinthians' India tour brochure. Corinthians won 27 out of 32 matches in their India tour[/caption]
A popular British team named Islington Corinthians traveled around four continents to play 95 matches from 1932-39. During their India tour, the Corinthians contested 32 games against different opposition, winning 27 ties, drawing four times and losing only once. They toured India at the end of their fifth year of the global tour and their India tour was termed "extremely successful" as they defeated every top team in South Asia like Bagan, All Indian XI and IFA XI. The Corinthians conceded their only defeat in India against Dhaka XI, formed mostly by college and university-going players and organised by Dhaka Sporting Association. Pakhi Sen had scored the all-important goal for Dhaka XI.
Football back then was so popular that 55,000 people watched the game between the Corinthians and All India XI in Kolkata. Some people however, say the number of spectators was beyond 100,000. In another Corinthians match in Chittagong, 77,000 fans were present. People from all over the region attended the matches, as far back as hundreds of miles. It was said the Indian spectators were “mad about the game”.
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Members of the Mohammedan Sporting Club Limited of Dhaka in 1952[/caption]
The partition divided the top Bengali footballers into two separate nations. Majority of the Hindu Bengali footballers settled permanently in West Bengal and continued to dominate Indian national sides for decades afterwards. Those who remained in the other part of Bengal were consistently neglected by the Pakistan government and some of them later moved to Kolkata permanently. Former Mohammedan Sporting Club Limited goalkeeper Balai Dey made his debut for Pakistan during their China tour in 1964 before switching his nationality to Indian in the following years. He played for East Bengal and Bagan and also broke into the Indian national team in 1969. He earned the title "Indian Rock" for outstanding performances in the Merdeka Cup in Malaysia in the same year.
Despite having the best footballers in the then Pakistan, very few players from East Pakistan were called up to the national team while fewer got the opportunity to play in the starting XI. It was a common scene in the 1950s. After a series of failures in international matches, West Pakistan started giving chances to the ones from East Pakistan. The 1960s was and still is regarded the "golden era" of Pakistan's football history and most of the success came riding mainly on the Bengali players. And after Bangladesh earned its sovereignty, the 1970s was considered Pakistan’s "darkest era" in football.
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Ghulam Sarwar Tipu (R) in action during the five-nation Friendship Cup Tournament against Iraq in Tehran in 1969 GHULAM SARWAR TIPU
Ghulam Sarwar Tipu broke into the Pakistan national team in 1967 replacing Makrani left-winger Moosa, who used to be popular in the Kolkata League. Tipu informed Dhaka Tribune
that only 23 Bengali-speaking players from East Pakistan got the chance to play for Pakistan national team in 23 years. Among those names, he mentioned goalkeeper Manjur Hasan Mintu, defender Gajnavi, Nurunnobi Chowdhury and the famous attacking trio of Ashraf Chowdhury, Kabir Ahmed and Ching Hlang Chowdhury Mari, who started played for Pakistan from 1958-60. The greatest footballer among them was perhaps Mari, who was unofficially the top-scorer of the Dhaka League, and after retirement, he also left vital contributions at Bilonia camp during the liberation war.
As soon as the liberation war began, many players from their respective regions crossed the border and stayed in different places in India, like Kolkata, Agartala, Balurghat and Krishnanagar, among others. Around 20 known footballers started playing in different leagues in the capital of Tripura while some of them formed a team, titled Joy Bangla XI, captained by Kaikobad. After the Swadhin Bangla team were formed, the footballers living near the borders were gathered at one place including the ones from Agartala. Known officially as Bangladesh Ekadosh, the Swadhin Bangla team played a crucial role in creating awareness as well as raising funds during the liberation war. Following the opening game against Nadia Ekadosh in Krishnanagar in July, they played a total of 16 exhibition matches in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and mostly in different locations of West Bengal till November. There were also many footballers, including some members of the Swadhin Bangla team, who took up guns in their hands and fought for the country in the battlefields as well.
Playing football barefoot was a norm in South Asia before world football’s governing body banned the footballers from playing barefoot in the late 1940s. But it was still in practice in the domestic competitions in the following years.
When the developed football nations were getting their modern football foundation underway, Bangladesh was fighting a war for independence. Bringing professionalism into the clubs, as well as ensuring regular training opportunities for the young talented footballers were never given attention back then.