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.

The caption of the photo read: “Rovers Cup winners, 1937. Bangalore Muslims Football Club. The first Indian team to win this trophy since the inception of the tournament 45 years ago.”

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

An undated photograph of the Bangalore Muslims team. 

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.

The Rovers Cup was the second oldest of the three big tournaments in the country, started by the British in 1891. During its early years, the tournament only included the football teams of the British army regiments.

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.

The match ended 1-0, with Laxminarayan of the Bangalore Muslims scoring the winning goal. A year later, the Bangalore Muslims lifted the trophy again, this time beating the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders regiment of the British army.

Going Beyond the Name

Bangalore Muslims team after winning a local tournament.

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.

As Bangalore had several other football teams with the city prefixed to their names (Bangalore Blues, Bangalore Rovers, Bangalore Crescent), the team members were referred to as ‘The Muslims’. Even the Hindu players in the team donned this name with pride.

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.

"“For the INC, the victory of the Bangalore Muslims strengthened its claim that India should remain an undivided and secular country after independence.”" - Novy KapadiaThe Jalebi-Style

A screenshot from the file footage of Rovers Cup in Mumbai. 

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.

"“If you made a map of the player movement on the field, it would look like a jalebi. Because they dribbled the ball and moved around in the same place to tire the opponent.”" - Mumtaz Ali Khan

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’.

The Downfall

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.

It was in the 1960s that the trust which was then running the team approached Mumtaz Ali Khan and his Al-Ameen trust with an offer for them to take over the club.

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.

Despite its decline, this historic team continues to exist today. But the once- champions are now struggling to move from division C to division B in state level football.

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.

Back at the sports room, after a brief inspection, the old photos are bundled together again to make their way back into the storeroom.

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