The history of Indian football is rich, diverse and steeped in history. The nation’s affiliation with the British Empire and consequently the commonwealth ultimately meant that the sport hit Indian shores before many of the nations who currently sit at the fore of the global game.
Calcutta – or Kolkata as it is known today – was the focal point of football’s initial jaunts into British India and during the 1890’s a flurry of clubs were created. This consequently led to the development of tournaments which served as a means of providing these newly founded clubs with competitive matches. The likes of the Trades Cup and Gladstone Cup were the basis for such competition however upon the creation of the Indian Football Association a more organised approach was undertaken and with this came the IFA Shield – a trophy that is regarded as the fourth oldest football tournament in the world.
The formulation of such esteemed competitions resulted in the progression of primarily Indian clubs who began to compete strongly against their British counterparts – and as such Sovabazar’s victory in the Trades Cup was seen as a turning point in the fortunes of Indian football.
Sovabazar’s achievement however was not fully built upon until 1911 when Mohun Bagan ran out as victors in the IFA Shield. The 11 Indians who took to the field against the East Yorkshire Regiment provided a contrast of fortunes as local football finally began to take hold and flourish. The successes of Mohun Bagan also ensured the popularity of the sport during the 1910’s – as some 80,000 people were reported to have witnessed the Mariners victory.
The development of the IFA Shield since that fateful day in 1911 has seen a great deal of change in the overall format of the competition. The transformations that have occurred revolve around special invitations being handed out to foreign clubs as a means of stirring the levels of public interest for a sport that now sits somewhat on the periphery of the public’s consciousness. Over recent years Bayern Munich’s reserve set up have participated as well as Brazilian giants Palmeiras. Since the 1960’s these foreign sides have provided a little spectacle to the IFA Shield and even sides from the Soviet Union made the trip south onto Indian soil.
Ararat Yerevan’s brief stint at the fore of Soviet football during the 1970’s quickly made them a prevalent part of European football. The level of prominence that the club enjoyed – thanks to their league and cup triumph of 1973 as well as a Soviet Cup win in 1975 and their European Cup excursions of 1974 – meant that they were gradually becoming a globally recnognised institution.
The club’s rise led to them becoming a particularly attractive proposition for the Indian audience who craved to witness Europe’s elite compete against their local clubs. This led to an agreement between the IFA and Ararat Yerevan in which the club would take part in the 1978 IFA Shield against the likes of East Bengal and Mohun Bagan.
Ararat’s first fixture in the humidity of Calcutta’s fevered, cauldron-like atmosphere came against Aryans FC. It was relatively simple affair for the visitors whose quality proved to be far too great for their opponents. Arkady Andreasyan – in his final season as a professional footballer – opened the scoring for Ararat Yerevan before a goal from the burgeoning talents of 18 year old Babken Melikyan added the degree of comfort that was necessary to ensure the club’s progression to the next round of the tournament.
Calcutta’s own Mohammedan Sporting Club were the next club in the firing line for an increasingly rampant Ararat Yerevan side – who were beginning to show a level of acclimatisation to their alien surroundings which was starting to come through in their dominance on the field. The match proved to be a walkover for the Armenians as a brace from Andreasyan – which would prove to show the club exactly what they would later miss – and further goals from young centre half Ashot Khachatryan and Khoren Oganesian cemented the visitor’s dominance.
The relative ease of the previous fixtures proved to be a slight cause of concern for Ararat Yerevan as they faced up against one of India’s most successful clubs, East Bengal. The Indian side had been victorious in the IFA Shield during 6 of the previous 7 tournaments and were viewed as being a match even for a club who had only recently reached the quarter finals of the European Cup.
The preconceptions of the strengths of the East Bengal side proved to hold elements of truth as Ararat struggled to impose themselves upon their opponents in the same manner as they had in the previous rounds of the competition. The only goal of the game came from Ashot Khachatryan who, despite plying his trade in the Armenian side’s rear guard, managed to score his second goal in as many games. Khachatryan’s headed finish proved to be enough for Ararat to secure their place in the final against India’s most prestigious footballing institution, Mohun Bagan.
The final between Ararat Yerevan and Mohun Bagan was far from the tepid affair that you would have expected from a competition that was a far cry from the European Cup and Top League that the Soviet side were accustomed to. The volatile nature of the match came to a climax when Mohul Bagan’s Prasun Banerjee was struck by a stray elbow which left the full back crumpled on the ground along with some of his teeth which had been forced from his mouth.
The match itself looked as though Ararat Yerevan had finally met their match and although Khoren Oganesian gave the visitors the lead in the first half Mohun Bagan managed to pull a goal back and eventually took the lead thanks to a lapse of concentration in Ararat’s usually sound defense. As the game looked to be falling away from the clutches of the Armenians, Arman Sahakyan stood up to the plate and leveled the scores late on in the second half.
In the modern era it seems somewhat incredulous to think that as the whistle blows to call time on a cup final where the scores are level, the two teams would end up sharing the trophy. However this is the situation that the two teams found themselves in as the referee called the proceedings to a halt in the intimidating atmosphere of Calcutta.
The IFA Shield may not have had a definitive victor in 1978 however the name Ararat Yerevan remains imprinted upon the competition. It seems fitting, however, that Armenia’s most prominent footballing institution should be closely aligned with India’s most prestigious club in a tournament that is still recognised the world over as a truly historic competition. So while the Soviet Union may have been and gone, and with it the successes of yesteryear, the name Ararat Yerevan still lingers on in the memories of those who follow Indian football.