Eye on India: Making Indian football happen once and for all has been no easy feat

In his new weekly column, Wisden India's editor-in-chief Dileep Premachandran goes in depth on the sporting scene in India, this week looking at football's growth in fits and starts.

Fans of Mohun Bagan shown celebrating in the wake of hte team's I-League title last June. Subhendu Ghosh / Hindustan Times / Getty Images/  June 1, 2015
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In his new weekly column, Wisden India’s editor-in-chief Dileep Premachandran takes a look at the sporting scene in India, with a heavy focus on the country’s No 1 sport, cricket

For decades, one of the things that held Indian football back was the absence of a proper national league. There were regional versions in Kolkata, Goa and Kerala, but apart from the Federation Cup and IFA Shield, loosely comparable to the two English cup competitions, there was no contest to settle which was the country’s champion club side.

That changed in 1996/97, when the National Football League finally took off. But what has transpired in the two decades since is a depressing story of opportunities squandered.

A look at the final standings from that first season tells you everything you need to know about the chronic mismanagement that has eaten away at the heart of the beautiful game.

Jagatjit Cotton and Textile Mills Football Club (JCT), from Phagwara in Punjab – the state that produced Jarnail Singh, a central defender of such class and bravery that he captained the Asian All Stars in the 1960s – topped the eight-team final league, after 12 sides had been split into two groups for the first phase.

Only Kolkata’s East Bengal and Goa’s Salgaocar Sporting Club remain from the eight. JCT exited the league in 2010/11, citing the lack of support and direction. Organisations such as Indian Bank and Air India are no longer allowed to field teams since they do not meet the All India Football Federation’s club licensing criteria. The same fate befell the Goa-based Churchill Brothers, champions of India as recently as three years ago.

Dempo Sports Club, who have been national champions a record five times, were relegated last year and now play in the second division of the I-League, the modern-day incarnation of the national league.

Mahindra United, owned by India’s biggest jeep manufacturers and who rebranded themselves in Manchester United colours in the mid-2000s, gave up the ghost in 2010.

Before the start of the current I-League season in January, three teams – Pune FC, Bharat FC and Royal Wahingdoh FC from Meghalaya – pulled out. They joined the ranks of teams such as FC Kochin, Viva Kerala and United Sikkim that attempted and failed to transform the bleak football landscape.

A month before this I-League began, the second season of the Indian Super League (ISL) had finished with the Marco Materazzi-coached Chennaiyin FC as champions. The ISL is everything the I-League is not.

Run on franchise lines and heavily promoted on Star Sports, with backing from corporate India, it is an attempt to replicate the popularity of cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL). Television viewership went up 26 per cent from what it was for the inaugural season, with the average stadium attendance being 27,111.

Both Atletico de Kolkata (three times) and Kerala Blasters (four times), who count Sachin Tendulkar as their majority shareholder, attracted crowds of more than 60,000. Clearly, it is not popularity that is the problem.

Even the I-League, which could be branded the Invisible League in comparison, saw a crowd of more than 20,000 for last season’s title decider between Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC, coached by Ashley Westwood, the Englishman who is a graduate of the Manchester United academy.

Westwood has done a sterling job in his time in charge, finishing first and second, but is still clueless as to whether his contract will be renewed in May at the end of the current season.

“There is not enough football for kids, not enough teams, not enough quality places to train,” he said in a recent interview with Firstpost.com.

“In England, for example, by the time you are 14-15, you are playing 90-minute matches every other weekend. It’s the old 10,000-hour rule, you can’t master a trade without spending that much time on it.”

The I-League has also mirrored the national team’s struggles, with defeat to tiny Guam in a World Cup qualifying representing the nadir for a country that had the Asian Games champions in 1951 and 1962.

MS Dhoni’s show of loyalty sets him apart

When the new Indian Premier Legue season starts in April, a week after the final of the World Twenty20, Chennai Super Kings – two-time champions and perennial semi-finalists – will be missing.

They were banned for two years on account of the antics of Gurunath Meiyappan, once part of the ownership group in addition to being the son-in-law of N Srinivasan, former ICC and BCCI chairman.

Chennai were more than just a successful team though. They enjoyed by far the most support of any franchise.

Match days at the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chepauk would mean a sea of yellow in the stands, the signature whistles, and percussion accompaniment from Sivamani, the drummer who was one of the team’s celebrity fans.

Central to that passion was one man, Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

He wasn’t just captain of the national side and Chennai, but a talisman that the city took to its heart.

Few men can command the sort of adulation that Tamil movie stars such as Rajnikanth do.

Dhoni came very very close.

With Chennai no longer part of the picture, Dhoni has moved to one of the two new franchises, Rising Pune Super Giants. But at an event to unveil the new team jersey earlier this week, he made it clear that out of sight would not mean out of mind as far as the yellow hordes were concerned.

“All of a sudden, if you want me to say that I am very excited to play for a new team, and if I don’t give credit to CSK and the fans for the love and affection they have given us, it will be wrong on my part,” said Dhoni.

“I would be lying if I say I have moved on. That is the special part of being a human being. There has got to be an emotional connection after eight years with CSK.”

There has long been a suspicion that several stars view an IPL contract as nothing more than a big meal ticket.

Dhoni’s show of loyalty vindicates those thousands of fans that always saw him as a man apart.

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