With the FIFA World Cup fever raging, most people in Chennai appear to have switched to being awake during nights. The lucky ones manage to sleep through the day and the others go about their work like zombies. Who would have thought namma Chennai would respond like this?

It is rather appropriate that the birthplace of football in the city is also awakening from a long hibernation. I allude to the Madras Gymkhana Club, which is coming back to normal after a strike. In 1895, The Sketch, a Journal of Art and Actuality published in England noted that football was making rapid progress in Madras despite being practically non-existent till a couple of years earlier. “Last year, a few ardent devotees came together and decided to make a start. The game found support at once, and when, at the General Meeting of the Gymkhana Club a request was made for a Tournament Cup to be played under certain conditions, a uniform consent was accorded,” it said, thereby dating the advent of football in our city to 1894. The Gymkhana Club, founded nine years earlier, may be more of a social club today but in its youth was very much the place for all kinds of sports barring cricket, which of course had its home on the other side of the Cooum.

The first tournament in the city was held in 1894 itself with 10 teams from all over the country participating. The list of members of the Gymkhana Club who played a match in that tournament against the 5th Field Battery of the Royal Artillery is still available in full. From 1895, the Gymkhana Club hosted an annual tournament, which became a fixture, the winning team getting the EK Chetty Cup. The Governor of Madras was an honoured invitee to the finals, Lord Willingdon, being a particularly committed patron between 1919 and 1924.

By then, Indians had begun to take to football elsewhere in the city. The South Indian Athletic Association instituted the Jatprole Cup tournament. The EK Chetty Cup of the Gymkhana Club regularly went to regimental teams until 1933 when the Pachaiyappa High School became the first Indian and non-military team to win it. Another powerful contender was the Minerva Club. The Gymkhana Club fielded all-European teams till 1940, when for the first time an Indian — S.K. Swaminathan — played for the club.

In 1934, the Madras Football Association (MFA) was formed thanks to the Madras United Club, a body founded by sport-loving Indians and now a mere shell of its former self. Other clubs of the city, including the Gymkhana Club, became members of the MFA, which began conducting First Division League Football matches from 1936, the Second Division beginning in 1937. In 1972, the MFA became the Tamil Nadu Football Association.

The Gymkhana Club also brought rugby to the city and in 1914, that exhaustive work Southern India, Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources by Somerset Playne noted that the club’s 15-member team regularly travelled to Calcutta and Bombay, winning cups everywhere. Arriving in Madras in January 1929 as a young covenanted officer of Best & Co, R.M. King, was summoned to meet the director of the firm — Sir Robert Denniston. He was quite apprehensive as to what it was all about only to be told to sign up as a member of the Gymkhana Club immediately. The club had to play a rugby match against a team from a visiting ship — HMS Emerald, and was one man short! King left his impress on Madras sports and in business, for he rose to become a director at Best.

The Second World War ended the Gymkhana Club’s interest in football and allied sports. With several playing members opting to fight at the front and never returning thereafter, the Club last hosted its football tournament in 1941. But it ensured an everlasting legacy — our city’s love for the game.

The Madras Gymkhana Club Team that played on January 9, 1894

Goal – WF Pelly

Backs- J. Hunter and A. Corben

Half Backs – E.F. Freeland, A. Smith and A.W. Clark Kennedy

Right Wing – R.E. Firth and J.A. Douglas

Centre – A.H. Wellman

Left Wing – E.R. Ross and A.R. Nethersole