Needing a win in their final game to give themselves a remote chance of surviving the drop, the five-time national champions lost 2-0 to fellow strugglers Salgaocar in Goa on Saturday to be relegated, triggering rumours the club will disband its senior team.
The club’s owner Shrinivas Dempo, however, said they will not shut shop but instead focus completely on youth development. They are also expected to reduce their budget drastically. “We would be slashing our salary budgets because we won’t be recruiting foreign players or some of the top Indians. We will take part in the second division but our focus will now be on youth development,” Dempo said.
Dempo is also the co-owner of Indian Super League (ISL) side FC Goa. Having teams in ISL and I-League meant he was bleeding money and without a proper revenue model in place, sustaining both was always going to be difficult. At present, Dempo spends around Rs 10 crore in the I-League and Rs 30-35 crore in the ISL.
With ISL and I-League likely to merge in the coming years, Dempo hoped his club would become a feeder to the ISL team. “That’s an option available. But we would like to become a feeder club not just to FC Goa but all the ISL teams,” said Dempo, who is also the All India Football Federation vice-president.
Fall from grace
The result marks a remarkable fall from grace for the giants. Over the last decade, Dempo had redefined the way Indian teams played football and managed the clubs. At a time when most teams splurged on foreign players and kept chopping and changing their teams one season after the other, Dempo’s strength was in their stability.
For five seasons between 2005 and 2011, their squad was almost identical and was considered by many as the best team to have featured in the I-League ever. “You’ll not see a time like that ever again in Indian football. Never,” says Brazilian Roberto Mendes da Silva, who marshalled the midfield during the club’s most successful period.
While most Indian clubs hardly had a philosophy and playing style, Dempo’s short passing style stood out. Most of their success was attributed to their former coach Armando Colaco, who took over the reins in 2000 when the club was relegated to the second division. He then built a side that broke Kolkata football’s supremacy at the domestic level and guided them to great heights.
Dempo won the National Football League twice and the I-League three times. In between this period, they also clinched the Federation Cup, Durand Cup and the Super Cup. They stamped their authority in Asia as well by becoming the first Indian club to reach the semifinal of the AFC Cup in 2008.
During this period, Dempo became a virtual feeder club for the national team with more than half a dozen players — including the likes of Climax Lawrence, Mahesh Gawli and Sunil Chhetri — from their usual starting XI also featuring prominently in the Indian XI.
After 13 years, Colaco parted ways with Dempo in 2013 which triggered the club’s downfall. Colaco’s successor, Australian Arthur Papas tried to force in too many changes in the squad and at the same time the club slashed its budget, which forced them to release several key players.
He was replaced by fellow Australian Trevor Morgan mid-way through this season but the damage was done. “I believe too many changes at one time had its impact. The stability was disturbed and transition wasn’t smooth,” Dempo said. “Arthur tried too much at once. He was replaced mid-season and by the time Trevor understood the team, it was too late.”
Grim picture in Goa
Dempo’s decline also underlines the waning dominance of Goan clubs on the national scene. Not too long ago, it had become a norm to see teams from the coastal state occupy places in the top half of the table, all contenders for the title. This season, however, all three Goan clubs in the I-League were placed at the opposite end of the table, involved in a tight relegation battle. Former champions Salgaocar and Sporting Clube de Goa kept Dempo company at the bottom half for almost the entire season.
Many believe Goan football is coming to a grinding halt following the mining ban. Most Goan clubs depended heavily on the profits from mining. However, ever since the Supreme Court imposed the ban on mining in 2012, the budgets have been slashed drastically. Clubs like Vasco, Sesa Goa and even Salgaocar have been affected, with Shivanand Salgaocar — the owner of the Vasco-based club — saying they have kept the same budget for the last three years.
“The ban has greatly impacted the clubs. SESA Goa want to shut their academy and football team. The slump in the iron ore market has also resulted in our budget being restricted,” Salgaocar said.
Dempo sold their mining stake much before the ban, but its impact was felt nevertheless, primarily reflecting in the budget.
Bagan a point away from title
Ironically, Dempo’s fall comes at a time when a Kolkata club is closest to winning the I-League for the first time. Dempo ended Kolkata’s stranglehold in the mid-2000s, and in a twist of fate as they went down, Mohun Bagan find themselves just a point away from being crowned the champions. They will face holders Bengaluru FC on Sunday in the concluding match of the season, which is virtually a final. While a draw will be enough for Bagan, Bengaluru can only retain the title if they beat the Kolkata giants.