The Sports Ministry has decided to fund once-iconic domestic tournaments that are now dying a slow death — declaring, in a communication to national sports federations last week, that it would give up to Rs 25 lakh per year to the organisers of these “prestigious” competitions.
The Ministry has defined prestigious: the tournament must be at least 30 years old, and held regularly with a good participation of teams and players. It has identified four such competitions — Durand Cup and Subroto Cup in football, and Bombay Gold Cup and Obaidullah Gold Cup in hockey — and said it would accept recommendations from experts to add more tournaments to the list.
The government has stepped in at a crucial juncture. These tournaments, once the lifelines of their sports, have long been on life-support. It came as no surprise when the Army — organiser of the Durand Cup — decided to pull the plug this year. Most domestic hockey tournaments operate on a shoestring.
To begin the infusion of funds, the government has chosen the two sports where traditional tournaments have been overshadowed by jazzy, cash-rich cousins. The Indian Super League (ISL) and Hockey India League (HIL) — both imitating cricket’s IPL — have changed the way these sports are played domestically. And suddenly, some of the country’s oldest tournaments have ceased to appear ‘prestigious’ enough.
For the first time this year, five major domestic competitions around which Indian football revolved, were not held. While Rovers Cup (Mumbai) and DCM tournament (Delhi) have long been discontinued, the IFA Shield, Durand Cup and Federation Cup (the winners of which got a chance to play the Asian club championship) have been “put on hold” — primarily because the organisers did not have enough funds, and also due to a cramped calendar.
The impact on players, teams and the sport has been profound. Winning these tournaments has been a matter of pride for clubs. Tales from these championships are part of Indian football folklore — Baichung Bhutia’s hat-trick for East Bengal in a 4-1 win over Mohun Bagan in the 1997 Federation Cup semifinal at the Salt Lake Stadium for example, or Bagan’s historic win over East Yorkshire Regiment in 1911.
The tournaments attracted big crowds, which acted as incentive for the top players. As the tournaments lost significance, it was the players who were impacted the most. Today, they are left with just one tournament to play — the I-League.
With not enough tournaments, some clubs — like Mumbai-based Mahindra United and Phagwara’s JCT — shut shop, while others like Pune FC are likely to disband their first team and focus only on juniors. It has left many players without a club, jobless.
Offering financial help to competitions like the Durand Cup may yet breathe life into domestic football. It is now up to the organisers to package their product in a way that it again attracts the country’s top clubs. Even the Navy, which organises the Subroto Cup, for long the country’s premier grassroots competition and the nursery for talents like Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri, wouldn’t mind extra government assistance.
The case of hockey is similar. Tournaments like the Bombay Gold Cup, Obaidullah Cup and Beighton Cup were the cradle of the sport in India — and winning these tournaments was a matter of extreme pride for players, even more than the national championships. Until the emergence of the HIL, these tournaments were de facto selection trials for the national team.
The degeneration over the years has been methodical, and has come from the top. The troubles that engulfed the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) percolated to its state units, which organised these tournaments. The infighting meant no sponsor was willing to come in, leaving the associations and the sport in a crippling drought of funds.
If hockey has survived still, it is due to emotions, not economics. Organisers often depend on banks, PSUs or wealthy individuals — all lovers of hockey — to fund their tournaments.
To be fair, Hockey India is doing its bit to ensure these tournaments stay afloat. HIL has changed hockey’s ecosystem in a good way. It has helped make hockey self-sustainable to some extent. The money generated from the HIL has been allocated to state associations, who utilise it to conduct tournaments.
It shows that glitzy franchise leagues and traditional tournaments can co-exist, provided they strike a balance. The same, however, cannot be said of football, where all Cup tournaments have folded up. India needs to look to England, where there is the same feverish anticipation for the world’s oldest competition, the FA Cup, as for the cash-rich Premier League.