If there is a takeaway for Utpal Ganguli from Mohun Bagan’s no-show in the Kolkata derby earlier this month, it is this: the time has come to overhaul the rules of Asia’s oldest football league. Ganguli is the general secretary of the Indian Football Association (IFA), which was established in 1893 and helms the sport in West Bengal. The IFA predates the All India Football Federation (AIFF) by 44 years.
For far too long, the IFA has had to negotiate and operate, especially with clubs that act like prima donnas, said Ganguli, in an interview to HT. “I think there is a feeling at least in the mind of some club officials that they are obliging IFA by playing in IFA-organised tournaments. This needs to change. And they need to understand that football in Bengal is bigger than any club or any institution.”
If, in the process, some clubs opt out so be it. “I don’t want an unwilling horse to run the race. Don’t play if you don’t want to but if you do, respect the rules,” he said. To that end, Ganguli said he would recommend to the governing body that is at the apex of the IFA’s hierarchy that an agreement of participation between the IFA and clubs be put in place. As things stand now, a club registered with the IFA must take part in competitions organised by it.
Mohun Bagan or East Bengal pulling out of from a 118-year-old league could mean a massive financial blow to the IFA, which has already lost heavily in the aftermath of the Saradha chit fund scam and owes clubs around Rs 2 crore, but Ganguli said he would personally arrange for whatever financial consideration needed to compensate that.
Having managed corporate organisations in the Caribbean and the UK, Ganguli has been with the liquor trade in India for nearly three decades and admitted to using his contacts to get the IFA sponsors because “it is part of my responsibility.”
“While it is undoubtedly true that the absence of any one of those clubs would affect the popularity and financial viability of the league, what hasn’t been put to test is whether any of them not being part of it would severely affect their viability and popularity as well,” he said, justifying the willingness to thrown down the gauntlet.
Ganguli said he would suggest multiple changes to reaffirm that the IFA is “not a rubber stamp. I think a time has come where the IFA must establish its responsibility. That it is the parent body to develop and run football in West Bengal.”
Hit where it hurt, the pockets
For that to happen, the discretionary elements in the rules need to change. Such as a team being docked only two points if it informs the IFA in advance of its inability to play a match. Just as Mohun Bagan did ahead of their match against East Bengal on September 7. The reasons cited ranged from the venue in Kalyani being too small for a derby --- after Mohun Bagan had agreed to play there --- to seeking a postponement so that they could have one training session on the match pitch.
“I think that should be removed. If a team doesn’t play after having agreed to, after agreeing to its fixtures, there should be specific punishment, financial and otherwise. That should be spelt out in the agreement. And the participating team should think, consider and accept it before participating,” said Ganguli.
Ganguli said he intends to start work on this once the league ends so that by the time the next edition comes around in 2017, the IFA is ready. “I am confident that the Bengal football fraternity will accept these. Primarily because the logic is strong. You will only disagree if you openly admit that your intention is to disturb the league,” he said.
The rules were last revised in 2004, he said, but in 12 years the dynamics of football in India has changed. “And even then it was more correction than overhaul. I think rules need to be overhauled.”
Need change at IFA too
It is not just the clubs’ attitude that Ganguli seeks to change. The IFA, with whom he has been involved since 2001 in different capacities including being chairman of its finance subcommittee, too has to take a hard look at itself, he said.
“By and large, corporates who have any interest in Bengal are fairly easy to convince that there is potential in football. Once the partner believes us and comes in, we then don’t think it is our responsibility to ensure our promise needs to be fulfilled. It’s a fundamental attitude problem. We need to improve our performance against our promises.”
For the Kolkata league to stay relevant in the time of the I-League, the Indian Super League and talk of integrating them from 2017-18, Ganguli said the clubs will have to cooperate. “If from the beginning, a club says that winning it is not its prime target but that we are in it only to develop players, it will go down.”
Popularity fillip post merger
But should clubs play ball, Ganguli is convinced that the popularity of this competition will only increase with a longer national season where Mohun Bagan and East Bengal will hope to be key players.
“If the I-League and ISL merge, I think Kolkata league will gain rather than lose popularity,” he said. It can then serve as a season opener for Kolkata teams involved in the national scene, he said. It will also be the platform for a large number of local players and that is an easy hook for eyeballs in a state where Ganguli is convinced football runs in the blood.