“Professional” clubs showing a new direction of Indian Club football

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I-League-indiaA little known fact is that club football in India pre-dates a number of more affluent footballing nations in the world. Starting in second half of 19th century, India is home to three of the oldest club tournaments in the world – Durand Cup (1888), Rovers Cup (1891) and IFA Shield (1893). Clubs such as Mohun Bagan AC, Mohammedan SC and Aryan Club are some of the oldest clubs in the continent. Yet, club football in India has never really taken off in the continental scene and staying true to its archaic origins, remains largely primitive.

While the cash flow isn’t as little as some would like to believe, Indian club football is beset by some very basic problems. Very few clubs have modern training facilities; even fewer own a stadium. A bigger problem is the general lack of interest among the masses about I-League – the Indian top tier. While sports bars often overflow with people during high profile matches in the Premier League, stands remain pretty empty when local teams play in the national league. Most of the clubs are unprofessional, often managed by people with very little knowledge about the game.

The eastern city of Kolkata is often referred as “Mecca” of Indian football and boasts of three of the most popular and successful clubs in the country – Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan SC. These clubs have a significantly large and dedicated fan base with derbies between them drawing an average of 50,000 to 70,000 people. Indeed, a derby between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal in 1997 garnered a crowd of over 131,000 – a record in any sport in India.

However, these clubs are run like personal fiefdoms with a handful of officials having power to make a difference. They often lack basic infrastructure and given the strong bond that exists among the fans, the club officials tend to take them for granted – refusing to give fans basic respect. While these clubs still enjoy bulk of support among Indian football fans, a new breed of clubs have come up in recent times who are trying to set a new precedent in Indian football. Clubs like Pune FC and Bengaluru FC are young on the scene and are often referred to as just “professional” clubs.

The term “professional” here doesn’t necessarily mean that other clubs in India are amateurs in the truest sense of the word. Just that these new clubs have a more polished and professional approach to the game, in contrast to the stagnant operations of the older clubs. The first professional club in India, FC Kochin, was launched with great fanfare in 1997 in the southern state of Kerala.

Their rise to stardom was meteoric as they lifted the prestigious Durand Cup in their debut season, defeating Mohun Bagan in final. In some quarters this was hailed as a passing of baton. Kochin officials provided footballers with insurance, branded kits, flight travel and plush hotel accommodation – things never seen in Indian football before. Their performance in the national league was also encouraging as they consistently finished in top half with local hero Raman Vijayan topping the scoring charts in their first top flight season.

However, everything then went wrong. The club had pumped in too much money at start, without any plan of sustaining in a world where cash inflow is meagre. Their financial meltdown was an almost inevitable process which ironically had begun right at the time of their inception. FC Kochin got relegated in 2002 and soon ceased to exist as their fans were left misty eyed thinking of the bright days which promised bigger things. At that point it seemed as if professional clubs wouldn’t have found success in the completely unprofessional structure that is Indian football.

In 2007, another professional club began its journey from a city which had very little past history in the game. Started the western city sharing its name, Pune FC aimed to excel where clubs before them had failed. They focused on youth academy, a rarity in Indian football and aimed to build bottom up by improving their infrastructure slowly. They also made a conscious effort to create a fan base – using a logo which would appeal to local fans.

While FC Kochin tried to do too many things too quickly Pune FC tried the patient approach and their efforts have paid wonderful dividends. The club has steadily risen upwards in I-League table and despite the fact that they are yet to win a major trophy Pune FC is now considered as one of the best outfits in the country. The “Red Lizards” as they are nicknamed, have tried to attach itself to the local community through various social activities and have built up a loyal fan base with each passing season.

Their approach on youth development is also bearing fruit now. Pune FC’s U19 team has bulldozed its way to the last two I-League titles, while a clutch of players have graduated to the senior team this season. Their investment on infrastructure has brought them praise as they became the only Indian club to fulfill every condition given by AFC to recognize a professional club and they will be participating in the qualifiers of AFC Champions League this season.

Following their example the wealthy JSW group has started a football club of their own in the southern city of Bangalore. Bengaluru FC, as they are called, has somewhat followed Pune FC’s model to connect with local fans. They are active on social networks and have even started an unprecedented trend of having footballers interact with fans in coffee shops.

In order to rope in the “hip” younger crowd metal songs are played during half-time, a first in Indian football. The results have been astounding. In a city which boasted of a barely four figure average attendance for I-League matches in past Bengaluru FC has seen figures of 7,000 plus. Fans have been encouraged to buy club merchandise in the stadium itself and the number of blue BFC shirts in the stadium has increased with every passing round.

BFC is not the only club, though. Encouraged by Pune FC’s success clubs like Lajong FC, United Sikkim FC have tried to emulate the professional model, with varying degree of success. Mumbai Tigers FC, a club funded by Middle Eastern conglomerate Dodsal group is also waiting in the wings and is likely to participate in the promotion battle for next season. The efforts of these new clubs to build a fan base has also worked so far and an official source confirmed recently that I-League attendance has risen by 50% this season – quite an achievement.

As the I-League season goes into a mini winter break Bengaluru FC and Pune FC are entangled in a title fight, with the former leading the table. In a sharp contrast to them, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan, two of the best supported and worst managed clubs are stuck lower down the table. There is always a chance of corporate clubs like these getting turned into “plastic” clubs if and when the authorities backing them decide to discontinue the club seeing there is little financial gain. Right now, though, these new and “professional” clubs have opened a potential new vista to Indian football.

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