In the early days, football was considered to be a western sport as it originated in England in the 12th century. India was formally introduced to football by Britishers in the 19th century. But it wasn’t as popular as cricket. Earlier, soldiers serving in the British army used to play football, and then it slowly got accepted by the general public. Calcutta FC was the first club to be established in 1872. Later, clubs like Dalhousie Club, Traders Club, Naval Volunteers Club, Mohun Bagan, and Aryan Club were formed in Calcutta around the 1890s. Calcutta, the then capital of British India, became the hub of Indian football. Gladstone Cup, Trades Cup, and Cooch Behar-Cup are some of the tournaments that were organized. The Durand Cup and IFA Shield were both started in the late nineteenth century.
During the mid-19th century, Olympic football was a top competition of football. In 1948, at the London Olympics, the Indian team played barefooted and surprised the world. The Indian team, which had legends like P.K. Banerjee, and Neville D’Souza, defeated Ajax in a friendly before returning. Later after 8 years, India finished fourth at the 1956 Olympics.
In Independent India, football was prominently played in West Bengal, North Eastern states of India, Goa, and Kerala. India first came into the spotlight of international football when they qualified for the 1950 FIFA WorldCup, but could not play due to various issues.
Football (in India) got popular in the 2000s and is considered the rebirth of Indian football. During 2003-04, the senior team participated in the Afro Asain Games. They defeated Rwanda and Zimbabwe who were very ahead of India in world rankings. Unfortunately, India lost the final to Uzbekistan by 1 goal (the final score was 1-0). This was when the Indian team earned a high reputation and recognition in India and as well as abroad. This was achieved under the then-India coach Stephen Constantine who won the AFC Manager of the Month in November 2003. Constantine had produced one the best victories for the Indian team in the early 2000s when they won against Vietnam in the final of LG Cup. Vietnam had taken a quick lead of 2 goals in the first 30 mins. India came back scoring 3 goals and winning the match with a score of 3-2. It was India’s first victory abroad (tournament outside the subcontinent) since 1974. Bob Houghton who was a much-experienced coach was then hired in 2006. Under Houghton was when India actually saw the rise and won trophies. In 2007 India won the Nehru Cup for the first time in history defeating Syria 1-0. In 2008, India defeated Tajikistan 4-1 to win the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup. In 2009 India won the Nehru Cup again. These top performances by the young Indian players renewed interest among the youth. Thus, when India won the hosting rights for FIFA U-19 World Cup in 2017, it shattered the previous record of match-spectators, with more than 1.3 million spectators. Football is also reaching a level following in India, where it is transforming to be a sport that binds together the entire population.