From clubs with hundreds of years of history like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, to the ones we lost like JCT FC, to the present-day powerhouses like Chennaiyin FC and ATK, which are the biggest clubs in the country?
Football, like cricket, was first introduced by the British in India. Initially, football was a sport solely played by army teams, before club football took shape in India with the formation of Calcutta FC in 1872.
With Calcutta being the capital of British India, other clubs emerged throughout Bengal as several tournaments came to life during the late 19th century, including current competitions like the Durand Cup and the IFA Shield.
Regulatory bodies like the Indian Football Association (1893) and the All India Football Association (1937) were formed as football was becoming known outside of Bengal in other parts of the country.
India qualified for the Olympics consecutively from 1948-1960, while the country also won gold at the Asian Games in 1951 and 1962. India qualified for the 1950 edition of the FIFA World Cup, too, but failure to comply with the necessary requirements meant that team never left for the World Cup.
However, in recent years, for a cricket-loving nation, football is rapidly emerging as a prominent sport in the minds of people with a huge ceiling, especially the youth. The Indian Super League has brought with itself a sense of professionalism and competitive streak among the local players that is due to bore fruits in the near future.
(We fully expect you to have a personal version of this list, so make sure to drop your rankings in the comments section down below.)
So without further ado, let’s take a look at the ten biggest football clubs in India.
#10 FC Goa
Founded seven years ago as part of the eight-team inaugural edition of the Indian Super League, FC Goa has been one of the most consistent teams in the Indian Super League. Under Brazilian coach Zico, The Gaurs finished second in the league standings during the first season but lost out to eventual champions, Atlético de Kolkata, on penalties in the semifinal playoffs.
The following year, the team finished top of the league and made it to the finals, only to narrowly lose a 3-2 thrilling finale against Chennaiyin FC. Things then went south for the club as Salgaocar and Dempo stepped down from the ownership of FC Goa. All the reshuffling off the pitch resulted in the team finishing the 2016 season plum last on the league table.
Following a catastrophic season, the club roped in Spanish coach Sergio Lobera. In his first full season in charge, Goa made it to the playoff semifinals before losing to eventual champions Chennaiyin 6-5 on aggregate, while in his second season, Lobera led the club to its second ISL final after finishing top of the league standings, only to lose the final to Bengaluru FC 1-0 with Rahul Bheke scoring in the second half of extra time.
FC Goa became the first Indian club to qualify for the AFC Champions League after winning the inaugural ISL League Winners’ Shield. The team also beat Chennaiyin FC 2-1 in the final of the 2019 Indian Super Cup to win its first trophy. However, Sergio Lobera and his staff left the club after 15 league stage matches during the 2019/20 season, and under new boss Juan Ferrando, the club enjoyed an impressive campaign before bowing out in the semifinal stages of the 2020/21 ISL season. Goa also participated in the 130th edition of the Durand Cup and lifted its first-ever Durand Cup after beating Mohammedan SC 1-0.
#9 Chennaiyin FC
Founded in August 2014 before the inaugural edition of the ISL and owned by business owner Mrs Vita Dani, Bollywood actor Abhishek Bachchan and Indian cricketing legend MS Dhoni, Chennaiyin FC is one of the most successful ISL teams in the country.
The Marina Machans finished the inaugural season top of the league standings but lost the two-legged semifinal against Kerala Blasters 4-3 in extra time. During the second season, Chennaiyin retained six players, but crucially signed back Stiven Mendoza on the final day of the transfer window, which proved to be the difference.
Mendoza was the star of the show as he single-handedly carried the team to its first-ever ISL final, where it clinched the trophy after beating FC Goa 3-2. However, similar to FC Goa, Chennaiyin had a season to forget the following season as it finished one point above last-placed Goa in the league standings.
Former coach Marco Materazzi left the club, and former Aston Villa manager John Gregory took the wheel. In his first full season, Gregory managed to clinch Chennaiyin’s second ISL title in three years, while Chennaiyin became the first Indian club—representing the ISL—to play in the AFC Cup. Although the club made it to the Group Stages and narrowly missed out on Knockouts qualification, the management team made a bizarre call to release some of their key players from the previous season. In the end, John Gregory, too, resigned and left in 2019.
Owen Coyle was the next manager in line and took the team to another ISL final in 2020 after beating FC Goa 6-5 on aggregate but lost the final 3-1 to ATK. The following year, Csaba László was brought in. The half Romanian, half Hungarian had an average season with the team, with the Marina Machans registering just 3 wins and 11 draws in 18 league stage games to finish the 2020-21 ISL season in 8th place.
#8 Salgaocar FC
Salgaocar FC is an Indian football club based in Vasco, Goa. Owned by VM Salgaocar Group of Companies, the 65-year-old club has seen its fair share of ups and downs throughout its history. Salgaocar became the first Goan club to clinch the National Football League title in 1998/99 under the guidance of coach Shabbir Ali.
Salgaocar FC is also the first Goan club to win: the Goa Super Division, the Federation Cup, the Goa Professional League, the Durand Cup and the former Indian Super Cup. Following its first league title and a few near misses and a couple of relegations, Salgaocar went on to win the I-League in 2010/11.
Salgaocar has won the Federation Cup four times, the Indian Super Cup twice (in 1998 and 1999) and has also won the Durand Cup thrice in its history (1999, 2003 and 2014). Salgaocar has also enjoyed success in the Rovers Cup, lifting the coveted trophy three times in 1989/90, 1996 and 1999.
However, after the 2016 I-League season, where Salgaocar finished in a lowly 7th place, the club pulled out of the I-League in 2016-17 citing the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) bias against the I-League.
#7 JCT FC
Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Football Club, often abbreviated as JCT FC and founded in 1971, was an Indian professional football club based in Hoshiarpur, Punjab. The club was sponsored by Jagatjit Cotton & Textile Mills under the leadership of Samir Thapar and participated in the National Football League and the rebranded I-League. However, the club was disbanded in 2011.
JCT won numerous tournaments and brought laurels to the state of Punjab. During the 20th century, JCT, along with Border Security Force SC and FC Punjab Police, was one of the benchmark teams in North Punjab, winning prestigious state-level tournaments. JCT was also the first Indian club to appoint a foreign head coach and was the first team outside of Kolkata to win the IFA Shield, India’s second-oldest football tournament.
In terms of silverware, JCT won the inaugural edition of the National Football League in 1996/97 while finishing runners-up in the final edition of the National Football League in 2006/07. JCT also won the Federation Cup twice (in 1995 and 1996) while also winning the Rovers Cup in 1996 and the IFA Shield in 1997.
#6 Churchill Brothers
Another Goan club, Churchill Brothers is a club based in Margao. It was founded in 1988, and in 1996, it became a founding member of the National Football League. Also known as The Red Machines, Churchill Brothers is one of the most consistent teams in the history of Indian football.
The club has won the I-League twice while securing a top-three finish on nine different occasions in the national league. The team finished second in the National Football League thrice but never managed to go that extra mile. In terms of cup competitions, it has won the Durand Cup three times, having lifted the trophy in 2007, 2009 and 2011.
The Red Machines won the Federation Cup for the first time back in 2013-14, beating Sporting Goa 3-1 in the final. The club also won the IFA Shield twice in 2009 and 2011. Thus, the 2008-2014 period is considered a golden era for the club as it won two Durand Cups, one Federation Cup and two IFA Shields, while also securing two I-League titles and finishing runners-up in the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons.
Continentally, the club has made it to the Round of 16 phases of the AFC Cup twice (in 2010 and 2014) while its best performance in the AFC Champions League came in 2010, when the team made it to the qualifying playoffs.
#5 Atlético de Kolkata
It only took seven years for ATK (formerly Atlético de Kolkata) and Mohun Bagan AC to merge and form the current ATK Mohun Bagan club in the Indian Super League. What the club managed to achieve in that brief period, however, is enough to warrant it the fifth place on this list.
Spanish coach Antonio López Habas led the ATK outfit for the first two seasons, winning the inaugural edition against Kerala Blasters after finishing third in the league standings, while in his second season, ATK finished second in the league but lost to Chennaiyin 4-2 in the semis.
Another Spanish tactician, José Francisco Molina, came in as the head coach for the third season. Being a defensive-minded coach, Molina saw his team lose just two games all season but win just four and draw eight during the league campaign as the team huffed and puffed its way to finishing fourth and securing the final playoff spot before going on to lift its second ISL title after beating Kerala Blasters on penalties in the final.
However, after Molina left, Atlético de Kolkata destabilised on the pitch. Following his departure, ATK appointed former Manchester United treble-winning striker Teddy Sheringham as its head coach, but ten games into the 2017/18 season, Sheringham left following a dismal start, and former Bengaluru FC head coach Ashley Westwood took the interim role. However, he too left after seven games, and Robbie Keane led the club as player-manager for three games.
Steve Coppell was brought in for the 2018/19 season on a permanent role, but the Englishman failed to make any impression on the team as it hobbled to a sixth-place finish that season. Eventually, the club went back to square one and brought in Antonio López Habas for the 2019/20 season. And right from the off, his team clicked – built on the foundation of the local players bedded in under Coppell the previous season.
Habas led ATK to a second-place finish in the league standings before securing the club’s third ISL title. Habas’ men romped to a 3-1 victory against Chennaiyin behind closed doors, led by the starman Roy Krishna.
#4 Bengaluru FC
For a club that was founded just eight years ago, Bengaluru FC‘s dominance in Indian football is something no one truly saw coming.
Before the start of the 2013-14 I-League season, there were talks over introducing two new teams as direct-entry in place of institutional teams like Oil India and ONGC. JSW Group—led by Sajjan Jindal—won the rights to form a direct-entry team in Bangalore for the 2013-14 season.
After winning the bid, it was time to assemble a team capable of competing. JSW, thus, brought in former Blackburn Rovers Assistant Coach Ashley Westwood as the team’s head coach, while a month later, the club signed its first two foreign players in John Johnson and Curtis Osano.
To everyone’s surprise, Bengaluru FC had a dream start as the team went from strength to strength and sealed its first I-League title in its very first season. The team was also involved in the Federation Cup, but failed to make it out of the Group Stages.
The following season, Bengaluru FC won the Federation Cup after beating Dempo SC 2-1 in the final. This time, though, The Blues lost the race in the league in order to secure a second consecutive I-League title after drawing the final league fixture of the season 1-1 against Mohun Bagan, with the latter needing that exact result to clinch the title.
Bengaluru did bounce back in the 2015/16 season, securing a comfortable second league title while also making it to the quarter-final stages of the AFC Cup. However, despite the team’s consistent progression in the last three seasons, Ashley Westwood left at the end of the season.
Former FC Barcelona assistant coach Albert Roca was brought in as the Bengaluru FC head coach for the next two seasons. In his first season in charge of the club, the West Block Blues finished the 2016-17 I-League season in a disappointing fourth position. However, the team did make history by becoming the first Indian club to make it to the final of the AFC Cup. Bengaluru played Iraqi club Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya in the final at the Suheim Bin Hamad Stadium in Qatar and narrowly lost with a 1-0 scoreline. But the club did win its second Federation Cup under Albert Roca after beating Mohun Bagan 2-0 in the final.
As Roca left, his assistant for two years, Carles Cuadrat, became the next permanent head coach at Bengaluru FC. Moreover, his debut season coincided with Bengaluru FC’s entry into the Indian Super League. The club topped the league standings during the 2017-18 but lost the final to Chennaiyin FC, but that defeat only spurred the team on for more as it went on to become the first team to both top the league standings and win the ISL title in the same season in 2018/19.
Under Cuadrat, Bengaluru FC created and broke many records in Indian football, but his tenure had a souring end as he mutually parted ways with Bengaluru FC, with the team having endured its worst run of form that saw The Blues go eight games without a victory.
For the current season, German coach Marco Pezzaiuoli has taken the reins with the tea having finished a disappointing seventh during the 2020/21 season.
#3 Dempo SC
Dempo SC is widely considered as one of the most successful clubs in the Indian footballing circuit due to its domestic exploits, but it also holds the honour of becoming the first Indian club to reach the semi-finals of the AFC Cup in 2008.
Founded in the year 1968, Dempo SC won its maiden league title in the 2004-05 season by lifting the National Football League. It won the league again in the 2006-07 season before the National Football League was rebranded as the I-League from the 2007-08 season. Dempo defended its crown by lifting its third league title as the team was crowned champion of the 2007-08 I-League.
However, it didn’t stop there. Dempo won two more I-League titles in 2009-10 and 2011-12, becoming one of the most successful clubs on the national front. Its five league titles is the joint-most with Mohun Bagan AC in the history of Indian football.
Apart from those five league titles between 2004 and 2012, Dempo also won the Federation Cup (2004), the Indian Super Cup (2008, 2010) and the Durand Cup (2006), while also reaching five other cup-competition finals. Needless to say, that was Dempo SC’s golden era.
#2 SC East Bengal
Founded in the year 1920, the club became associated with the Indian Football Association in 1922 before earning a promotion to the Calcutta Football League First Division in 1924. It took the club another 18 years to seal its first league title, in 1942, but since then, it has gone on to win the title a record 39 times.
East Bengal was one of the founding members of the National Football League in 1996 and has gone on to win the National Football League three times in its history. Although it seems quite less when you look at the club’s background and trophy cabinet, it is important to point out that no other team has been as consistent as the Red and Gold Brigade in the league from its inception till the 2019/20 season.
East Bengal has finished second on nine different occasions and in third position five different times. The club boasts a total of 17 Top 3 finishes in 25 seasons — that is consistency and dominance right there.
Apart from league titles, East Bengal has won the Federation Cup eight times, while holding the record for winning the most IFA Shields (29) and the joint-most Durand Cups (16). It has also won three Indian Super Cups, 10 Rovers Cups and the ASEAN Club Championship in 2003 — the club’s most dominant era (1999-2004).
To this date, East Bengal is the only Indian football club to win any major tournament on foreign soil.
2020 saw the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic which halted the then-ongoing football season in the country. The then-investor, Quess, pulled out from the two-year-old deal by July 2020. In September, Shree Cement was announced as the new investor of the club, acquiring 76 percent of its shares and renaming it from “East Bengal Football Club” to “Sporting Club East Bengal”.
Later that month, after successful bidding, the club moved from the I-League to the Indian Super League. However, it wasn’t plain sailing for the team in its debut season, as the Red and Gold Brigade struggled throughout the campaign to finish ninth in the table, while its start to the 2021/22 season hasn’t been much promising either.
#1 Mohun Bagan AC
Now for the cherry on top of the cake.
Founded in 1889, Mohun Bagan Athletic Club is one of the oldest football clubs in India and Asia. The club is most notable for its victory over East Yorkshire Regiment in the 1911 IFA Shield final, thus becoming the first All-Indian side to win a championship over a British side and providing a major moment in India’s push for independence.
Mohun Bagan has won the top-flight league a record five times — the National Football League three times and the I-League twice. It has also won the Federation Cup a record 14 times, while it has the joint-most (with East Bengal) Durand Cups — 16 titles.
In total, the club has won various major and minor trophies throughout its glorious history, with 22 more IFA Shields and 30 Calcutta Football League titles. It has also won two Indian Super Cups and 14 Rovers Cups. The club boasts the biggest trophy cabinet among Indian football clubs, but the only piece of silverware missing is one of continental or international pedigree.
In 2019, Mohun Bagan was inducted into the “Club of Pioneers” — a network of the oldest existing football clubs in the world — on 29 July 2019, as the club celebrated its 130th year in existence.
In 2020, ATK Mohun Bagan FC succeeded Mohun Bagan AC after Kolkata Games and Sports Private Limited—the company owning ATK FC—merged with Mohun Bagan Football Club (India) Private Limited, the legal entity overseeing the affairs of the club’s football section, by buying 80% of its stakes.
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