13,47,143 Indians shattered the record for largest attendance at the Under-17 World Cup. With India making its presence felt on Planet Football, it’s time to take stock and make a sobering assessment of where the game is headed. Wiser after their travels to the six World Cup venues – Guwahati, Goa, Kochi, Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi – The Indian Express reporters find out how older nurseries at traditional centres have gradually rung hollow. And, football in metros is all style – weekend at EPL sportsbars, FIFA on Playstation and ugly takedowns on Whatsapp – and little substance.
Indian football’s big two — Mohun Bagan and East Bengal — let winds of change pass them by, refusing to join the ISL with their stand-offish behaviour while desperately clinging onto anachronistic tradition. India’s spiritual home must now pay the price, says Shamik Chakrabarty.
Uma Kanta Palodhi always turned up for Mohun Bagan matches on an empty stomach. A post-match feast, or all-day fasting, depended on the scorelines. On an early autumn evening in 1975, Palodhi committed suicide. East Bengal had hammered Bagan 5-0 in the IFA Shield final, which proved to be a little too much for the die-hard green-and-maroons fan.
Subrata Bhattacharya, a callow Bagan centre-half then, who went onto become one of India’s most celebrated defenders and an Arjuna Awardee, couldn’t return home that night. A boat on the Hooghly River sheltered him from the irate mob. He feared for his life.
In 1978, when Surajit Sengputa was the East Bengal captain, he bumped into an East Bengal season ticket-holder who was late for a Calcutta League fixture. A little curious, Sengupta asked him about the reason for the delay. The fan solemnly replied that his son died in the morning and he had to perform the last rites.
Those were days of extreme fanaticism but Bagan and East Bengal were part of almost every Bengali household then — with the respective club allegiance writ large. Mohammedan Sporting had their own fan base and clubs revelled in monopolising fan’s emotions.
About four decades later, in 2014, the Indian Super League (ISL) was launched and a new force arrived in the city’s football circles. Atletico de Kolkata, now ATK after snapping ties with Atletico Madrid, came with the potential to create its own fan-following. Unlike the traditional clubs, this franchise-owned entity brought in a more professional and corporate football structure and an intense marketing drive. Hitherto unthinkable, but the new beast shrugged off tradition like fleshy fish leaves the bone.
They wowed the locals with their team promos and played their home matches in front of big turnouts at the Salt Lake Stadium.
ATK won the title twice in the last three years and made its presence felt in Kolkatan football. Younger fans started to take an interest in the nouveau riche.
For the first three seasons, the ISL ran as a private tournament, without any affiliation. But this year, it earned the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and FIFA’s recognition. The ISL champions will now feature in the AFC Cup qualifying playoff; a major shot in the arm that the franchise-based tournament needed.
By adding new teams and extending the duration of the tournament to five months – November to March — the organisers have sent a message that this is going to be Indian football’s mainstream in the near future. But there’s always a gap between optimism and reality. At the moment, there’s enough scope for confusion because Bagan and East Bengal, the country’s two biggest football brands, haven’t been incorporated into the set-up yet.
Sony Norde scored a goal for Mumbai City FC against ATK and went near the stands at the Salt Lake Stadium to celebrate. That was the 2015 ISL. One supporter handed over a Bagan flag to the Haitian and the latter wrapped himself in it and did a jig. Norde was on loan to the Mumbai franchise from Bagan for the ISL. He would return to his parent club for the I-League that started in January.
The situation this term is a little different. The ISL and the I-League would be played simultaneously and a popularity test could well be on the cards in Kolkata. The ISL has the moneybags and prime time TV slots. The I-League, on the other hand, will have Bagan and East Bengal. Let alone fans, even players are caught in a dilemma. Arnab Mondal, arguably India’s best centre-half at the moment, discusses the dilemma.
“Honestly, it’s between high-standard football and not so high-standard football. The ISL boasts of expensive foreigners and almost 90 per cent of the Indian senior national team players. Only three-four players from a 27-member senior national squad would be in the I-League. And going beyond the glamour and hype, the ISL is a better platform in terms of players’ development because it has a professional structure and excellent coaching and support staff. Until last year, top Indian players featured in both, the ISL and the I-League. But it’s different this term and I think the I-League is the loser,” Mondal says, speaking to The Indian Express.
Contracted to East Bengal, Mondal will not play in the ISL this season and he laments the missed opportunity. “Given a choice, any footballer would prefer to play in the ISL. I will certainly miss it. You learn a lot just by sharing the dressing room with the likes of Teddy Sheringham (ATK head coach) and Robbie Keane (the team’s marquee player), for example. ATK don’t have the fan-following of Bagan and East Bengal. It’s impossible to create such fan base. For ATK, playing a match against Bagan or East Bengal in Kolkata would be like turning up for an away fixture. But from a player’s point of view, the ISL is a better option.”
A tea stall owner near Ultadanga in the eastern part of the city broke into a conversation on Jadon Sancho and England’s beautiful football after the Young Lions rolled over Chile in their opening game of the U-17 World Cup. Asked about his excitement over a World Cup that featured the kids, he looked amused. “A World Cup is happening and we have an opportunity to see the future of England, Germany and Brazil. Our football needed this.”
The shop owner predicted a popularity upsurge for the upcoming ISL — a carry-over effect of the FIFA event. Apart from the Kolkata derby, he hardly mentioned the I-League.
Maybe, Bagan and East Bengal missed a trick by not joining the ISL this year. Bengaluru FC did but the Kolkata giants backtracked even after collecting the bid documents. They refused to pay the franchise fee, Rs 15 crore, on principle and asked for special favours from the governing body. Emboldened by support from the West Bengal government, the two big clubs refused to “compromise their dignity”.
“We are not corporate entities and should be treated differently, considering our huge legacy and contribution to Indian football,” Bagan secretary Anjan Mitra had said.
Bagan and East Bengal gave Kolkata football its identity. But modern-day football is not about having a rich history. It’s more about ushering in modernism and a corporate structure. The two big clubs have failed badly.
In 2007, then FIFA president Sepp Blatter came to Kolkata and visited the Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting club grounds. His reaction was a one-liner: “Their infrastructure is from the past, past century”. Not that the Kolkata clubs didn’t have the opportunity to upgrade. In 1998, Vijay Mallya’s United Breweries became the title sponsor of both Bagan and East Bengal under different brand names. Money rolled in, but the two clubs failed to look beyond their mutual football rivalry and spent lavishly on overseas player recruitments. They started to invest on academies and youth development only after getting a slap on the wrist from the AFC.
“The powers-that-be in Indian football fear the collective might of Bagan and East Bengal and this is the reason why we have been kept out of the ISL,” Mitra grumbled. The fact of the matter is that the ‘big two’ always stuck to the stereotype and never tried to get out of their comfort zone.
Kolkata clubs falling on hard times was an after-effect of the multi-crore Saradha ponzi scam. One of their main financers disappeared overnight and even the players’ salaries started to go into a three-month backlog. Then again, a few corporates made overtures even during the crisis period. One multinational company had opened talks with the Bagan management about a possible takeover. But the club officials refused to cede power in the boardroom. The possibility was neatly nipped in the bud.
The millennials, who grew up on a steady diet of European club football on telly, hardly connect themselves with Kolkatan football. And Bagan and East Bengal have done very little to woo the younger fans. History is important in football but the ability to change and embrace modernity is a pre-requisite. This is applicable even to the football First World. Otherwise, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers wouldn’t have fallen off their perch and languished in the lower leagues in England.
“Indian football administration thrives on nepotism. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) is being run by incompetent people. A technical or governing committee with proper knowledge of the game would have sorted out this ISL-I-League conundrum. We are rejoicing in a world record stadium attendance in the U-17 World Cup. But what next? You can’t take Indian football forward by excluding Bagan and East Bengal. At the same time, Bengal football is on a sharp decline and that’s the reality. We might host World Cups and set attendance records, but Indian football will not move an inch if the game at the grassroots is neglected,” Subrata Bhattacharya said.
In 1991, Manmohan Singh initiated economic liberalisation in India. With cash flowing in and the licence raj disbanded, rapid urbanisation began. Promoters and builders jumped at the opportunity and green patches started to disappear in rural areas. Bengal used to have thriving district leagues that nurtured countless young players who would go on and become India internationals. Save a few, the district leagues are gone. The current senior India team has five players from Bengal. The U-17 World Cup squad had only three.
Last year, the West Bengal government announced financial doles to 13 clubs in Kolkata. Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting received Rs 50 lakh each. Bhattacharya, however, called for giving money to the district affiliates so that they can revive their local leagues. Away from Kolkata, young footballers struggle to buy their kit. In the smaller clubs in Kolkata, a lot of players survive on Rs 1,500-2,000 per month. The Nursery League introduced by the IFA in the 1990s has now become a biennial affair because of funds crunch. The prestigious IFA Shield has become an Under-19 event, although association secretary Utpal Ganguli said this has been done to synchronize the local football calendar with the AIFF itinerary, and also to give youth a chance.
Subrata Dutta, the AIFF vice-president, tried to put things in perspective. “See, we started concentrating on the grassroots for the last two-three years. Before that, everybody spoke about catching them young, but nobody caught them young. Over the past two years, we have given accreditation to close to 100 football academies all over the country. We have started the U-13 and U-18 leagues. We have started appointing professional scouts. We have started ‘B’ licence coaching to nurture the grassroots. We are looking for a proper technical director to look after the whole development. We will soon launch a baby league headed by Richard Hood, for six -to eight-year-olds.”
Club officials in Kolkata begrudge the AIFF’s step-motherly treatment towards Bengal football. Bagan and East Bengal’s non-inclusion in the ISL is the real bone of contention. “IMG-Reliance wants to run the ISL in such a manner where the investors are rich enough to do it the way it should be done. Bagan and East Bengal, despite being century-old institutions, still haven’t fit in. They should have developed their financial stability. They were given an opportunity to join the ISL. They didn’t submit their bids, otherwise they would have been part of the ISL this year,” Dutta explained, adding: “Indian football got its permanent address — the Football House in Delhi — in 2006. Before that, the office used to move with the residence of the Federation secretary. A professional structure was introduced in 2006 and from that point of view, Indian football in its modern form is only 11 years old. We have managed to present the sport as a career option in many states, especially the North-East. So I would like to see the glass as half-full.”
The Indian Federation gets an annual grant of Rs 5-6 crore from FIFA. Paul Pogba’s weekly salary at Manchester United is a little over Rs 2.5 crore. There’s consensus in the AIFF that without IMG-Reliance, Indian football still would have been a baby, beginning to crawl. The buzz inside the Federation is that the ISL would prosper and it’s unlikely that a corporate structure would allow special favours to the two clubs.
AFC president Shaikh Salman came to Kolkata to attend the FIFA Council and dropped enough hints that from next season onwards, India will have only one league. Kolkata football will have to choose between accepting the reality and falling by the wayside.