|Cheerleaders entertain spectators during a Santosh Trophy match in Kochi. (Below) Blatter in Calcutta. File pictures
When you have to share a chair with I.M. Vijayan because of overcrowding at a soccer match, it’s as good a time as any to ponder the future of Indian football.
Some desperate spectators had spilled into the press box. “Here, sit with me,” the former star said, shifting to the edge of his seat.
Pity Sepp Blatter wasn’t there to see it.
It wasn’t a Calcutta derby. Of all places, it was the Ambedkar Stadium, Delhi. And of all tournaments, the Santosh Trophy.
And that’s why, for all his acute diagnosis of Indian football, the Fifa chief may have been off the mark with his prescription, football experts say.
“India’s system, like Brazil’s, is based on state championships and then a national championship,” Blatter had tut-tutted in Calcutta last month. The future, of course, lies in professional club football.
Or does it' Sukhwinder Singh should know. Apart from a four-year stint as national coach, he has been training JCT Mills for the past 15 years.
“Blatter’s cure won’t work here. See, even after 11 years of the National Football League, Santosh Trophy remains far more popular. It’s this inter-state championship we must upgrade,” he said.
“I have never seen a full house in Ludhiana for a JCT match, but when Punjab won the National Games a few years ago, you should have seen the crowd!”
Soccer officials say that while attendance at NFL matches has plunged in the past three years despite the All India Football Federation’s unstinting support, each edition of the Santosh Trophy has been a hit.
“Yes, the crowds have been extremely poor in the NFL,” an AIFF official admitted. “Even in Calcutta, most matches had gates of less than 10,000 people. Of course, a huge turnout watched the Mohun Bagan-East Bengal game, but one match won’t help our cause.”
“In Goa, ticket sales never crossed Rs 45,000 (around 2,000 spectators) in any game,” rued Savio Messias, Goa Football Association secretary. “Even the key Dempo-East Bengal match was played before empty stands.”
In Ludhiana, Mumbai or Bangalore, the average gate is just a couple of thousands although their teams — JCT of Ludhiana and Mumbai’s Mahindra United — were in the title race.
The federation bosses, however, are replacing the NFL hurriedly with the Professional League in October, possibly with the same 10-team format.
Under PL rules, each team must have 14 contracted players, five local players, two under-19s and professional coaches besides a separate under-19 squad.
AIFF general secretary Alberto Colaco is hoping, as is Blatter, that the club fan will turn into the sort of customer that attracts investors.
But IFA secretary Subrata Dutta shakes his head. “Even the Calcutta derby’s attraction is fading. A few years ago, we used to get a full house but now, it’s never more than 60,000. The new generation isn’t interested in club football.”
Air-India coach Bimal Ghosh believes that only an expanded Santosh Trophy can bring in the fans. “In India, at least outside Bengal, inter-state football strikes a deeper chord.”
In Goa, people lined the streets till the small hours last year to welcome their heroes returning with the Santosh Trophy from Kochi.
“Goan clubs have won many national-level trophies, but I have never seen such frenzy on the streets,” said Messias.
In Kerala, newspapers and TV kick off intense coverage the day the Santosh Trophy side gathers for practice.
When Kerala won the title before a record Delhi crowd in 2004, the team didn’t return straightaway because most of the players were to play for SBT in the Durand — before deserted galleries — within a week. Their chief minister flew down to Delhi, threw a big party in Kerala House and took the team to meet the Prime Minister.
Can these fans be converted into customers' It’s anybody’s guess, but if enthusiasm is a pointer, it might be best to start by upgrading the inter-state championship and wait for club football to evolve at some later date, Sukhwinder believes.
“Building a strong club competition on the lines of South Korea or Japan needs a lot of money and fans with spending power. Since we don’t have that, why not take another line and tap regional pride' Pick the best state teams and make them play each other over an entire season,” the coach said.
“Club culture” is confined mainly to Bengal and Goa. But an inter-state format will bring in those standing at the margins, like the Manipuris.
The north-eastern state keeps throwing up some of the country’s better talents who are then split among the leading outside clubs, whom Manipuris seldom get to watch. But when these players turn out for Manipur in the two-week national championship, the Manipuri fans come out of their state in hordes to cheer them on.
“The raucous Manipuri crowd is always bubbling over with passion and pride. If there’s an Indian fan to match the European or Latin American, he’s the Manipuri spectator,” an AIFF official said.
No club culture
In Europe, club memberships and merchandise as well as ticket sales finance the game. In India, where the average fan has little buying power, the money comes mostly from advertisement: in the stadiums and on the ground panels and TV.
European clubs are tied to cities and regions — Liverpool, Manchester, Milan, Munich. Barcelona stands for Catalonian pride.
In Calcutta, half the Premier Division League teams have office names. “How can Eastern Railway, BNR, George Telegraph or Chirag evoke loyalty or pride'” a former Calcutta footballer asked.
Or for that matter, JCT, HAL, Air-India, Mahindra United or SBT'
So, club rivalry gets overshadowed by state rivalry. In a Mohun Bagan-Mahindra final, die-hard East Bengal fans would often support their arch-rival for the sake of “Bengal’s pride”.
Calcutta newspapers moan about Bengal’s continuing losses to Goa when it’s only Bengal clubs losing to Goan clubs.
“To a Dempo fan, his club beating Mohun Bagan means nothing short of Goa beating Bengal. The passion isn’t the same when Dempo plays, say, Churchill Brothers,” said a Goa soccer official.
“It used to be better when Kalighat, Bali Prathibha and Kumartuli played in the first division,” a Maidan veteran said. “Many ordinary fans staunchly backed these teams and often chipped in with a small chanda (subscription) because they belonged to these areas. Before that, Sovabazar had an army of supporters.”
An inter-state structure might need some tinkering with the existing set-up, though, perhaps allowing each team one or two foreign players.
To AIFF and Fifa bosses, however, club football is sacrosanct and the only way to improvement.
Yet, AIFF officials say that for all the money the federation has spent on the NFL and the clubs, standards and the gates have kept falling and so have India’s world ranking.
Unlike other national associations, the federation pays the clubs to play in the NFL. Other than the appearance money, they get cash for finishing in the top six — even for winning each match.
“We give the clubs so much, but we have no control over them,” a federation official said. “They are still run the way they used to be 100 years ago.”
“The PL is just old wine in a new bottle,” said Peter Vaz, president, Sporting Clube de Goa.