Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, a bunch of British soldiers was kicking a ball around at the Calcutta FC ground, where a very young boy had stopped to watch them. The unruly ball had rolled towards that boy, who was then asked to kick it back. That boy, Nagendra Prasad Sarbadhikari, answered with his feet to become the first Indian to kick a football.
So enthused was Sarbadhikari with this experience that he galvanized his schoolmates at the Hare School into forming squads to play the game. Among the students who took to football inspired by Sarbadhikari was Kalicharan Mitra, who had played an important role in the history of Indian football by discovering the legendary Goshtho Pal. But that’s another story. Despite being very young, Sarbadhikari used the charm of football to breach the firmament of orthodox Bengal in the late 19th century, when an acquired Patrician outlook had become a way of life for a laid-back Bengali race. Too physical an activity, football wasn’t up their street – art, culture and counter-literary critiquing in landed homes and the common man’s submission to prescribed colonial life were failing to bridge the gap between worthwhile human aspirations and consequent goals that needed to be reached around the turn of the century. It was during this period Sarbadhikary brought football into the realms of Bengali dreams, converting the man on the street, the aloof, the impervious and the high-brow into a physically-intensive game. Football soon became a common calling.
To bolster the cause of football, Sarbadhikary founded the Friends Club, the first of many he had incepted, with Presidency and Wellington clubs following his roadmap. As a matter of fact, Wellington founded in 1884 was one of his top projects. Fissures developed in Wellington, so much so that its founder disbanded the club and set up the Sovabazaar Club in 1887. Incidentally, Sovabazaar was the first fully native club to have taken part in organized football and its victory in the Trades Cup in 1882 was also a similar ‘first’.
To a great degree, Sarbadhikari played a critical role in bringing about certain social reforms through football. Not only did he introduce football, he charted a new course for the game in India as well. His efforts to popularize football reached fruition during his lifetime. By the time he passed away in 1940, the Durand Cup, the Rovers Cup and the IFA shield had become most-followed tournaments in the sub-continent.
Using the game of football, he had instilled a sense of conviction among the Indian followers of the game, ushering in an element of pride and courage that was missing in the collective psyche of undivided Bengal.