My 65-year-old father was out on an errand at the local bank with me, when I broached the subject. His face took on a steely countenance that I have seen on a few rare occasions. “These people have destroyed our beloved club, inch by inch. This might just be the final nail in the coffin. Now there is nothing to do but watch as they raze our home away from home, into the ground.”, he said with a calm voice that is reserved by medical professionals for terminal cases.
The incident in question, occurred yesterday, as a core group of senior East Bengal players were seen taking a local train ride back home after their 0-2 defeat in the semi-finals of the ongoing Federation Cup in Cuttack at the hands of the local derby rivals, Mohun Bagan. To say that this was utterly shameful would be an understatement, it is the end of an era.
On probing him further about this, my father, a lifelong card-carrying member of the East Bengal club opened up about his feelings about it. He recounted the olden days when the club was built around the emotions of the fans, and the rivalries with local competitors, rather than around money, corporate sponsorships and the ego tussles between the administrations and players.
It was a much simpler time when the club was run by people who had been involved with the sports at a ground level; mostly either former players themselves. The club was a close-knit extension of the family. Just like in a family; if a child throws tantrums, he/she is scolded to correct the behaviour, so too in the club, the image and goodwill of the club came before that of any player, however vital that player might be to the team. And no player was worth enough money to drive the club itself to financial ruin.
That scenario seems to have changed in recent times
With a huge drive towards snagging foreign players with astronomical salaries rather than develop promising local talent, the soil of Indian football has been poisoned by the influx of money seeping into it from every nook and cranny. While a steady financial support is absolutely vital towards building infrastructure and youth player development, the excess money flowing through the pockets of corporates, administrators and players seem to have turned Indian Football into a business family, rather than a powerful presence in world football that it once was. This is the general opinion of quite a few professionals involved with the current attempt to resurrect Indian Football at the youth stages.
In this attempt to ape western leagues, the clubs here, in spite of not having enough financial clout, shell lakhs into the pockets of below-par players, even those of Indian origin. The result: that these young players chose to remain nestled in the financial security of Indian Football rather than struggle in the competitive leagues outside, and learn to improve their game. The few exceptions, like Sunil Chetri, Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, have done well and thus taken the game forward while playing in national colours.
The few cases where players attempt to show more loyalty to the jersey than to other financial commitments are met with immediate retribution. Take the example of CK Vineeth. The frontman for Bengaluru FC had joined the offices of Kerala’s AG on a sports quota, two years ago. On joining, the 28-year-old had made it clear that his commitments to national jersey would always be his first priority. He was unceremoniously removed from his post a few days ago, citing the same reason as above as the cause.
The saddest aspect is that the concept of youth football academies has become virtually non-existent in India, except in the Far-East states, which have begun to show results of the model, with the example of Aizwal FC’s fairytale performance in this year’s I-League.India, as a football playing nation, had a distinct style of their play in the 1950’s; akin to the gharanas of Hindustani Classical Music. Like Brazil’s Samba, Eusebio’s Portugal with their counter-attack, Johan Cryuff’s Dutch Total Football, or the more recent Spanish Tiki Taka; India too had an illustrious history of an inimitable playing style. Close ball-control mixed with touches of Brazilian Samba and resolute Italy-like defending made Indian Football a treat to watch for its fans. Now, all that is lost to the vagaries of time. The fanbase has been significantly eroded and so has the might.
Coming back to the incident that elucidated such an article, it has come to light that the players themselves were in a hurry to get back to play in the professional office leagues and couldn’t wait any longer for the AC-bus and SUV service that was eventually arranged for, by the club. It is a stark contrast to the fact that the Mohun Bagan and BFC players were afforded air-travel to get back to their respective destinations by their clubs; after the end of the semi-final stage of the Fed Cup in Cuttack.
Only time will tell whether these are the cracks that develop into fissures leading to the loss of traditional Indian Football. It will be an irreparable loss, if it does, much like a language going extinct, because as any seasoned footballer will tell you, what is football; but the language of running feet?