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HindustanTimes Fri,25 Apr 2014

Football

A losing game for Indian club football
Dhiman Sarkar , Hindustan Times
August 02, 2013
First Published: 17:10 IST(2/8/2013)
Last Updated: 17:19 IST(2/8/2013)

To say that in the context of the global game Indian football is, well, 20,000 leagues under the sea wouldn't be understating the obvious. Clubs are struggling for funds, their infrastructure somewhere between creaking and non-existent. Few fetch up to watch the I-League, the country's premier football competition, and fewer seem to care. The average attendance in the I-League last season was around 3000.

Nobody typified the reality of Indian clubs better than an official at Kolkata's United SC who when asked how's life said "You don't ask a dead man that, do you?"

Having been on his own discovery of India unsuccessfully scouring for a backer, the official is staring at an uncertain future. Not exactly what you would expect of a club that finished fourth in the I-League last term and still has the competition's highest goalscorer, Nigerian Ranty Martins, on its roster.

In 2012-13, United SC assembled one of the most expensive teams in the country, recruiting India stars Subrata Pal, Gouramangi Singh and hiring Dutch coach Eelco Schattorie. It is said to have cost them Rs. 14 crore.

This time with the existing backers iffy and feeling the impact of the chit fund scandal, the club is struggling to raise one-third of that. About the only silver lining is that its players, Martins included, are with them, even helping in the search for an angel investor.

The purple shirts aren't the only club hit by a fund crunch though they are definitely the worst off.

Mohun Bagan still owe some players last season's salaries and like East Bengal, pruned their team budget this season. As India struggles with a sliding rupee, it fits that football clubs would be hit but that's only part of the malaise.

Over the years, these clubs have done nothing to reach out to fans. To understand this, try buying a Mohun Bagan shirt from the club.

Historically endowed with followers, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal perhaps thought they needn't ever be involved with the community and got caught on the wrong foot now.

Log on to the website of Dempo, India's most successful club in the new millennium, and you'll see that its official fan club is "coming soon". At 45, Dempo is three years older than Paris Saint Germain.

Shillong Lajong's soldout games have been a welcome exception but most I-League clubs struggle to get people to watch them play. Largely because they have done nothing about it.

Indian cub football's biggest tragedy is that only one game - the Kolkata derby - sells. East Bengal won their most important game in a decade, against Myanmar's Yangon United in an AFC Cup pre-quarter final at a Salt Lake stadium that was more empty than full.

On his first visit to Kolkata, the All India Football Federation's Dutch technical director Robert Baan, seeing a handful scattered on the yawning terraces watching Mohun Bagan play Churchill Brothers in the I-League, asked "Why play if so few come to watch?"

Sixteen years after starting a national league and six seasons after it was rechristened, little's changed. Bhaichung Bhutia's convinced about it and no one's earned the right to talk about the game in India more than him.

With every new season, Indian football struggles to stay relevant in an India increasingly aspirational and urban.

Unable to think of revenue streams, clubs are dependent on benefactors and spend almost everything they get on their first team.

So, despite having organised football for nearly 150 years, Kolkata still doesn't have a football academy worth the mention. And though understanding Fifa rankings is as easy as getting a grip on the Duckworth-Lewis system, it is a fact that India were ranked 112 once in 1997 and are now 146th and below Afghanistan.

In this situation, enter the new franchise driven competition planned by the commercial partners of the All India Football Federation. With the promise of Hindi film stars as team ambassadors, marquee imports (no clarity yet on who they would be though), matches under lights at spruced up stadia and with the idea of stoking inter-city rivalry, this would be everything Indian football now isn't.

It will also be the first time football sees players being auctioned. The curiosity factor for that is huge as HT found out on an invitation to Bayern Munich last year with a group of international journalists.

From an American website to the reputed magazine France Football, everyone was talking/writing about the possibility of players being sold to the highest bidder when news broke that such a tournament was being planned in West Bengal.

It proved a non-starter but the football world's focus was on India. It could be again if IMG Reliance manages to put this league in place.

No one knows whether it will stick with the huge Indian football audience, one that's growing daily weaned on packaged diets of top European leagues but about this there's no doubt: in the current scenario something needs to give. It can't get any worse than this.


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