It began with a bang but if it ends now as the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has proposed, the National Football League will do so without even a whimper.
Eleven editions of what was supposed to revive Indian football have seen our FIFA ranking plummet to 162 (it was 120 when the NFL began). The Premiership and the J-League are not much older and began with similar ideas but they have succeeded just as spectacularly as the NFL failed.
FC Kochin, the first big club to have sprouted after the NFL, have gone bust, a whole lot of tournaments have dried up and the two best-known faces of Indian football over the past two decades are players who predate the NFL concept. I.M.Vijayan and Bhaichung Bhutia were sought-after names even before the winds of change began blowing in the mid-90s.
With Philips as a sponsor, quality television coverage, even though it was not live, air travel, 40 lakh as top prize money (even in the time of India’s consistent economic growth it has not changed) and greater media interest, the first NFL perhaps achieved more than expected. With Vijayan, Bhutia, Carlton Chapman, Tajinder Kumar and Stephen Abarowei, JCT were rocking. Somatai Shaiza’s great form was complemented by power and panache from Africa at Churchill Brothers who spearheaded Goa’s challenge and the first edition went down to the wire.
Next year, the AIFF drafted Mohun Bagan in from nowhere and buoyed by Chima Okorie, they went on to win the title. With FC Kochin coming up and Vijayan and other sons of the soil returning to Kerala, the NFL, it seemed, would have serious challengers from north, south, east and west. Just what the doctor ordered.
But somewhere between then and now, it became just another tournament the only difference being that it ran for over three months and involved a lot of travelling. The AIFF’s inability to get clubs to change the way they ran football meant that the more things changed, the more they remained the same.
“Tell me, which Indian club has got its own ground? Why blame the AIFF alone, what have we, the clubs, done,” asked Armando Colaco, coach and general-secretary of Dempo, the reigning NFL champions.
By the time, the 11th edition ended, few knew what was happening in Indian football’s premier competition. Fewer cared. Attendance kept dipping even in traditional football centres like Margao and Kolkata and Kerala, the other football bastion, did not have a team. According to one estimate, only 200 people watched the AirIndia-HAL and AirIndia-JCT games this time. The average attendance this time was said to be 4000.
“I would say the NFL helped Indian football initially and in 2001 we had some good results (beating the UAE 1-0 at home among them). But then, with the calendar getting crowded, scheduling became a problem and that is where the League suffered the most.
“But it is undeniable that the players’s lot has improved,” Alberto Colaco, the AIFF general-secretary and the man who rid the League of birth pangs, said.
Colaco said attendance was always a problem in Ludhiana and Mumbai but it was compensated by healthy numbers from Kolkata and Goa. “It is worrying that now turnouts in Kolkata and Goa too have dropped sharply.
“We are trying to find out why though I think it is the fallout of a combination of factors like poor scheduling, poor stadia, live telecast and foreign football on television. Even though crowds at Goa are thinning, the inter-village competitions there are drawing large crowds. So, it is not just about foreign football on television,” the AIFF secretary said.
India skipper Bhaichung Bhutia offered inept referees who “don’t let the action flow” as a reason. And AIFF vice-president Subrata Dutta is convinced that decrepit stadiums inconveniently located haven’t helped.
True, the NFL achieved a lot less than what it should have but positives have still emerged. Mahindra United for instance do not just want to make up the numbers anymore like they would till less than a decade ago. Dempo’s stock has risen and Sporting Clube de Goa are here to stay. Even Churchill Brothers have revived. And Kolkata’s traditional supremacy has been threatened making Indian football’s playing field a lot more even.
“The execution may have been flawed but the idea was certainly right. I would even say that the NFL was the best thing that happened to Indian football so far. It failed because of administrative problems at the state associations, clubs and at the AIFF,” Subhas Bhowmick, who coached East Bengal to consecutive NFL titles in 2002-03 and 2003-04, said.
“And talking about India’s lack of international success post-NFL, well, tell me, barring some sporadic achievements in the 50s and 60s when were we doing well at football anyway. Did we ever take it seriously?” Bhowmick said.
Most footballers also feel that playing with foreigners have made them tougher and better. “The standard may not have dramatically improved but it has somewhat,” Bhutia said. Armando Colaco agreed and used his frontline as an example. “By playing alongside Ranty Martins, someone like Anthony Pereira has become a better striker,” he said.