Depending on how you look at it, JCT shutting shop is either a sign of the old order yielding to new or another wrong turn in the disturbing history of Indian football.
By inducing a coma to their first team at 40 - the press release issued last Monday did mention a comeback if Indian football revives to their satisfaction - JCT became the second Indian champion club to be disbanded. JCT, relegated last season, and Mahindra United have won pretty much everything domestic football had to offer. But like all top-tier Indian clubs save Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Pune FC and Lajong FC, back in the top tier this time, they played to empty stands in atmosphere more funereal than festive.The problem
And if the number of those at the decrepit Yuba Bharati Krirangan in Kolkata is any indication, the fan base of even Mohun Bagan and East Bengal - two clubs bestowed by history with a fan base - is dwindling. (Mohammedan Sporting, another club with a fan base, have been kept out because they don't play in the top tier). That the average crowd in I-League 4, where 182 games are spread over six months, was 3913 tells its own story. The figure was provided to HT by the All India Football Federation (AIFF).
"Indian clubs have traditionally done nothing to build support bases. The relationship between fans and their clubs here is ridiculously one-sided and one-sided lover affairs usually don't last," said Dr Shaji Prabhakaran, managing director of Futfire Sports India Private Limited and a consultant on football. Prabhakaran was director of the Vision India programme started by the Asian Football Confederation from 2005 to 2009 and has done his doctoral thesis on football.
Sukhwinder Singh has an explanation for this. "Most football clubs are full of technical people. I know how to strategise, build a team and train it but I have no idea what it takes to distribute T-shirts and caps bearing the club's logo," said the former India and JCT footballer, who has also coached both the national team and his club.
Prabhakaran thinks this lack of connect is Indian football's biggest problem. "If communities are not involved, clubs can never be a business proposition. If JCT or for that matter, Mahindra United had a committed set of fans, the clubs wouldn't have wound up this easily.
"It isn't Indian clubs alone who spend more than they earn. After all, 56% of football clubs worldwide are in debt. Look at South America. Clubs there have a tradition of being bailed out by governments and that happens because politicians realise and respect the power and the passion of the communities that support these clubs. JCT has been around for long and it is sad that they pulled out, but tell me, how did they add value to the community?"
From Savio Messias, the general secretary of the Goa Football Association, to RAJ Gomes, who helms I-League 4 champions Salgaocar, and Amit Sen, a board member of Kingfisher East Bengal Football Team Private Limited, all agreed that little is done by clubs to build a relationship with their fans. Gomes though mentions a village youth meet organised by Salgaocar and promises to continue it this time too.
"That's why the younger audience stays away from football. Even for games involving Dempo and Salgaocar in Goa, you will mostly find people in their 40s and 50s," said Messias.
Sen adds: "Supporters of Indian clubs back their teams only when they are winning. No sooner than East Bengal stumbled against Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers this time that supporters turned their backs.
"1860 Munich share the Allianz Arena with Bayern Munich and even though they aren't in the Bundesliga (since 2003-4), their fan shops do brisk business on match days. And I still have a photograph mailed by a Blackburn Rovers fan of their last match in the Premiership in the year (1999) they went down. The stadium was full of supporters," Sen said.
Salary or mindset?
Escalating players' salaries being his pet peeve now, India coach Armando Colaco blames that for the clubs' lack of initiative. "How can clubs spend so much money to rope in fans when the amount of money being given to players is so massive? And clubs get nothing in return. It isn't feasible to institute a proper structure. Also, now matches are often held at 1.30 pm and 2.30pm, so who will come? Plus, now there is better football available on TV for them," said Colaco, also the Dempo coach and general secretary.
Prabhakaran though thinks mindset more than money is the reason. "Most Indian clubs expect returns but are loathe to formulate a business plan. You can't build a club thinking of only trophies or avoiding relegation. Top clubs have an annual budget of around Rs 10 crore or more. There's no reason why 5% of this can't be kept aside to build a community around the club." Messias agrees and points out how Pune FC, set up in 2007, are trying to buck the trend.
The way forward
Messias feels it is time the AIFF took some hard decisions. "Stop promotion and relegation for three years and force clubs to invest in improving infrastructure and community development. Japan did it."
About everyone agrees that television money is an important part of survival strategy. Problem is: top television companies may not find Indian football sexy.
Asked why ESPN didn't renew its 10-year deal with the Indian Football Association, which runs the sport in West Bengal, Rathindra Basu, senior director ESPN-Star Sports India, said: "We didn't get enough returns." Signed with fanfare in 2005, Zee TV and the AIFF ended their partnership halfway through the deal.
In separate interviews, AIFF general secretary Kushal Das mentioned plans being formalised to increase the visibility of the next I-League and president Praful Patel assured that there would be a broadcast partner. There was one last season too but being a regional channel, the feed wasn't available everywhere.
"On the one hand, JCT's pulling out shows that Indian football is not financially viable. On the other, it could make way for teams that are better managed and with a fan base," Prabhakaran said.
Pune FC and Lajong FC are as much proof that doing things differently can work as they are a message to the rest that the times they are a changin'.
(With inputs from Tomojit Basu in Pune)