TIME TO TAKE LOCAL SOCCER SERIOUSLY 

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 7.07.99
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Just as it has been for some time now, the Calcutta Football League got underway quietly. Not many remember when. And not many seem to care anymore. Nothing exemplifies this more than the public galleries staying unrepaired in the Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting grounds. While Mohammedan Sporting?s stadium is in acute need of repair, the state association?s ham-handed management led to it releasing League fixtures without procuring fit certificates for even the members? stands of the two other clubs. The green galleries, as the public stands are called, however, are yet to be repaired. It will be interesting to know what the Indian Football Association (IFA), or for that matter, the state government has done in these past 11 months to get the galleries ready. It was in August last year that a section of the terraces in the Mohammedan Sporting ground collapsed under the weight of the club?s overflowing supporters. A lot was then said about replacing the wooden structures with more permanent ones in concrete. Everybody associated with running the local football show then promised to do the needful. But time went by, other things took up our time and nothing got done. It was only late in May, a full nine months after that fateful Mohammedan Sporting-Peerless match, that the government funds were allocated. Nothing though is being done in concrete with repair being more of patchwork than complete overhaul. The National League has greatly reduced the glamour of this once-popular competition. Closing out the paying public, even if it is temporary, certainly won?t help matters. There was a time when the apex tier of the Calcutta League generated tremendous interest not only in Bengal but in rest of India and parts of the sub-continent as well. Mohammedan Sporting?s five successive League titles at the expense of English teams, were stuff legends were made of. The club became an institution and its exploits an inspiration to those struggling to break the shackles of colonial rule. Even after Independence, players from Pakistan and the rest of India would flock to Calcutta for that is where all the action was. After all, not many other cities had an organised competition going and one which was followed with such passion. Not many do even now. The beauty of this League was the different and difficult conditions players had to master for survival. Not everybody could. A player from south India, dubbed ?Black Stanley? by sections of the British-controlled press, failed so miserably that he had to go home quietly on a third-class railway ticket! In those days the League would begin around when the nor?westers hit Bengal. The grounds would initially be hard and bouncy and matches often played in fierce evening storms. And just as one got used to the drier summer turf, monsoon would make football a totally different ball game. Adjusting to such diverse conditions is akin to a tennis player?s adapting to different surfaces in next to no time. Leander and Mahesh did it in the span of two weeks and that is why they are such great champions. Having an India-wide League is fine but it certainly does not mean we will neglect the one at the local level. Calcutta suffered the most because of the National League for it stopped the till-then unidirectional player traffic. And having to go through the grind of the Super Division, the Calcutta teams suffer most in the National League. Local competition can be given a leg up by increasing the interaction between the Super Division teams and those from other tiers; starting inter-division play-off matches to decide who will be promoted and who stays behind. And of course, getting teams from Calcutta to play their counterparts in the districts. Little is being done by way of football promotion in the hick towns and hinterland of our state. Making the fifth division an exclusively under-16 affair won?t be a bad idea. Since inception, the Calcutta league has survived a lot of crises. I just hope it tides over this one as well. The National League may have altered equations in domestic football but some things never change. I am talking of our preparations for international tournaments. Few days from now, India travel to Thailand for the Olympic qualifiers. Forget arranging exposure trips or even a handful of friendlies with top Indian clubs, not even footage about our opponents could be got till Tuesday. This aspect of our preparations hasn?t changed over time. Matters haven?t been helped by an accident virtually ruling out key midfielder S. Venkatesh for the away tie on July 17. Even Kasif Jamal, a likely replacement, is injured. Sans quality practice ties, sans long-term preparations, the boys are trying as best as they can. They are training twice a day and for over two months now.. Time will tell whether that is enough.