India’s football past gasping for survival
It fit that Kolkata, once described as chance-directed, chance-erected, has given the 72nd Santosh Trophy a place to stay when the tournament was struggling to find one. It began quietly less than two nights after a packed house in Bangalore watched Chennaiyin FC win their second Indian Super League (ISL) title.
There could not have been a more telling statement of the old order changing in the domestic football scene which is now dominated by the ISL and the I-League.“I played in the Santosh Trophy final in 1993, Maharashtra v Kerala. Tickets were sold out a day before and on match day, people were also sitting behind the goalposts,” said Yusuf Ansari, the former Maharashtra and Air India goalie, in Mumbai. It would often be the same for the Rovers Cup, the Durand Cup and the IFA Shield, which comprised the coveted ‘triple crown.’
Along with others, these tournaments provided entertainment to a country still far away from when world football was the click of a remote away.
“You can revive these tournaments, but who will take part? They took the Bandodkar Gold Trophy to the villages (in Goa) but there was hardly any crowd,” said Armando Colaco who is in Kolkata as Goa’s Santosh Trophy coach.
To that Godfrey Pereira, a twinkle-toed creator with Air India and India, added from Mumbai: “Rovers Cup should be revived and only the top teams should play. There will be no charm if the best players are not playing.”
For Shaji Prabhakaran, president Football Delhi, Renedy Singh, a former international who captained Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, Subrata Dutta, senior vice-president of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), and Savio Medeira, AIFF technical director, these competitions can lend a hand to the changing times. And without financial help from the AIFF, they said. There are enough investors willing to support them, said Prabhakaran.
“Our leagues can accommodate 20-30 clubs but India would need more than 500 active clubs to create enough opportunities for players at the local level. Our problem is that we link every tournament with only the big, established clubs,” said Prabhakaran in New Delhi.
One idea is to slot them before the leagues start. “If tournaments like Rovers Cup are organised as pre-season tournaments, ISL, I-League teams can use them to get ready,” said Renedy from Imphal.
Prabhakaran felt the Durand Cup should stay in New Delhi; it may move to Kolkata this season which Dutta too feels is a bad idea but for a different reason. “There are many places in India starved of live football. Even if the Durand is held in Kochi, it will get a good crowd. It will do well in Kashmir too. If they involve North-eastern teams and hold it in Aizawl, there will be a lot of interest,” said Dutta from Silvassa in Gujarat.
“If Rovers Cup is revived, it’s the smaller cities they should concentrate on; Kolhapur would be a great place to hold it,” said Renedy.
In 2014, a part of the Federation Cup was held in Manjeri in Kerala and the stands were overflowing. If the average attendance in the I-League rose by nearly 60% - from 6500 to 10354 --- a large part of it was due to newbies Neroca FC getting an average of 24,494 per game in Imphal. Prabhakaran and Medeira felt these tournaments could also be used for reserve teams. Seven of the 10 ISL teams have one in the I-League 2nd division. To that Jo Paul Ancheri, perhaps the most versatile footballer India has had in three decades, added that clubs from the region where the tournament is held should be included for local connect.
Another route to staying relevant could be to use them for the youth like the IFA Shield already has by going under-19. “I think the Rovers Cup can be made into an under-20 or under-23 tournament because we need more tournaments for the youth,” said Medeira.
Western India Football Association (WIFA) CEO Henry Menezes said that is how the Rovers Cup could be revived in two-three years.In the 72nd Santosh Trophy, each team must have five under-21 players with three on the pitch making it a platform for talent-spotting. Last year, Bengal’s Manvir Singh scored the matchwinner in the final and was signed by FC Goa.
(With inputs from Bhargab Sarmah in New Delhi, Sarthak Bal and Camilo Fernandes in Mumbai.)