Histories are written, not only in battlefields but also on the fields of sport. The history of the spread of the game can be painted on the canvas of the British Empire’s rise to global dominance. We spoke with anthropologist and cultural heritage entrepreneur in India’s Dehradun Lokesh Ohri, and asked him to illustrate a picture of how football is weaved into this history, and what remembrance and education might offer toward the future. Here is what he had to say.
The Nepalese Gurkha
The story starts in 1815, when the Anglo-Gurkha War was fought between the British and Nepalese forces in Dehradun. This is a valley in the Himalayan foothills in the north of India. Soon after the battle, the British recognized that the Nepalese, the Gurkha as they were called, who had given them a tough fight before abandoning fort, were seasoned fighters. They decided to recruit them in their own armies, and until this day, the Nepalese Gurkha are officially recruited to the United Kingdom Army.
A brigade football team
British forces were stationed in the area in the mid-19th century. Troops stationed at Dehradun and Chakrata introduced football to the fields of the “Doon Valley”, as the British called it. By 1888, when the first league was being established in England, Dehradun Brigade Football Team had emerged a formidable side. They played internationally, as seen in the image playing in France. In 1922, when the Prince of Wales, the later King Edward VIII, visited Dehradun to inaugurate the Royal Indian Military College – now RIMC, Rashtriya Indian Military College – one of his major engagements was the presentation of the Gurkha Brigade Football Cup to the 9th Gurkhas team, who had won the cup a few days earlier.
Playing after the war
In 1946, an all-star football team of the time, including three A-rated stars from the English Premier Leagues, Ted Bitchburn, Robert Jack Robinson and Johnny Morrison, playing as the Tommy Walkers XI came to the valley to take on the Dehradun team. 20,000 people purchased expensive tickets to watch this thrilling encounter. Various teams from the valley continued to play football, reaching India’s championship finals three times in the 1950s. In 1966, and in 1969, the Gurkha Brigade lifted the Durand Cup. The Gurkha Boys’ company also claimed the Subroto Cup three times in 1969, 70 and 72. During these decades the valley was one of the important hubs for football in India.
A bygone era
Though India has always been an under-achiever in Football, the 1970 Asian Games Bronze it won, after defeating highly rated Japan, was by a lone goal scored by Amar Bahadur Gurung. Another great, Bhupender Rawat, from Dehradun, was a part of India’s greatest team ever that won the title in the 1962 Djakarta Asian Games. Shyam Thapa, shown in the images with Pele, was known as the quicksilver of Indian football for his ability to score from impossible angles.
Locally eclipsed by cricket
After a few international successes in the sport of cricket, India has become a cricketing nation. Even the few pitches where football was actively played in the Dehradun area have been taken over by cricket. Football is floundering due to lack of sponsorship support and there are few active players. Only a few old-timers know or care about this history. But this history does shed light on locally valuable heritage. Even though Cricket has taken over Dehradun’s legendary football fields, the sport of football emerged as the great unifier, bringing together three diverse nationalities that had fought each other only a few years ago.
Opportunities for remembrance
Remembrance is very significant. Since the city has forgotten its greats and their achievements. We have not inscribed their names or dedicated any pitch or site to their memory, they remain forgotten. The youth have no role models to look up to in Football as of now. This can be reversed by reestablishing remembrance, through the creation of spaces of memory for the sport and combining it with the best of training for youth.
Football in India arose from the presence of British troops, but the game that could unite, was later eclipsed by cricket. A local story from India.