There is a time for celebration, a time to remember of things past, a time to regret and a time to pray. If it is the centenary year of Jallianwala Bagh, it is also the half century of the Woodstock festival where Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Allah Rakha burst onto the world scene. It is also the fortieth year when two Iranian youngsters arrived in India, first to join the Aligarh Muslim University as students and later play for football clubs like East Bengal. Incidentally it is also the centenary year of that famed Kolkata club that is celebrating the event while the Durand Cup tournament is in progress in that football-crazy city. And the two Iranians, Jamshed Nasiri and Majid Baksar, also arrived to a touching welcome. Loyal football fans do not so easily forget their former heroes whom they have seen on the ground and not on the small screen.
But how come the Durand Cup is being held in Kolkata; these are small mercies because the Durand had been making a come-back after being four years in the limbo. This second oldest tournament in the world, after the FA Cup, had an uninterrupted run even during World War II and it was the one where the President used to witness the final and join for tea with the rival captains and hand over the trophy. Started as the Army Cup in 1888, it was later opened to other clubs. The Mohammadan Sporting was the first team from Kolkata to win the cup and the other two teams from the city, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have between them won the cup the maximum number of times. So Kolkata has a hold on the trophy, forget history and tradition. Now the Subroto Cup for school teams has just started in the Capital’s Ambedkar Stadium that used to be the venue where the President had tea with the captains during the final.
The shifting of the Durand venue is just a minor quibble, compared to the state of the game in the country. Over the decades, football in this country has gone through so many changes that it is difficult to keep track. And yet it is still the most popular game, still played all over the country. This year the cup was won by Gokulam FC, a team from Kerala, defeating Mohan Bagun in their turf, and Real Kashmir, from Srinagar was in the semi-final when the state had been in turmoil over Abrogation of Article 370 that gave it a special status. The state had been under a communication clampdown as well. While Gokulam’s Trinidad and Tobago-born striker Marcus Joseph kept his promise of dancing the Calypso after winning the trophy, Real Kashmir’s Mohammed Hammad could not contact his mother to ask her to pray for the team that had a miraculous run for three years taking the football-crazy youth of the state their mind off the sense of isolation. ‘Because of the communications lock-down, I couldn’t call her and like everyone else she is caged inside her home and I don’t even know if my family has enough food and medicines,’ said a worried Hammad. An ominous cloud had hung over the Valley. They lost to Mohan Bagan eventually.
This first professional club from Kashmir had already been stunning crowds, defeating more experienced clubs to make it to I League. The rise of Real Kashmir itself is a fairy tale come out of the troubled region, scarred by an armed insurgency and a heavy troop presence. Three years back, Sandeep Chattoo was talking to his Kashmiri Muslim friend Shamim Mehraj, about the endless violence and decided to buy 100 footballs and hand them out to the neighbourhood boys.
‘We knew they had to find an outlet for their energy, we wanted them to play football instead of throwing stones, to find a new direction,’ said Chattoo who is co-owner of the club with Mehraj. Thus this team was born and the name meant to show the ‘real’ face of Kashmir with boys playing football and families cheering them on instead of the images of violence from the conflict zone.
While most of the country was crazy about cricket, the grand ambition of creating Kashmir’s first professional football club itself deserved a special status for the state for thinking out of the box. Thirty years of strife had left no infrastructure, no ground and the players had to train at the open space of a tourist centre, an open field with no fencing and not even a wash room. They also found a Scottish player and coach, David Robertson, who had spurned offers from China and Uganda.
Anyway the club had transformed life in the Valley. Chattoo recalls, ‘Real Kashmir is more than football. It’s an act of hope.’ And over 20,000 people regularly fill the 15,000-capacity Srinagar stadium and protest marches get called off during their matches. And for the 90 minutes, the people experience what it is to feel happy and normal and the roar from the stadium reverberate across the Zabarwan Mountains girdling Srinagar.
For player Danish Farooq, the support of the local people has been uplifting. ‘In the winters, with sub-zero temperatures, they come and watch us, with no cover, nothing. I guess people need something to look forward to and football gives them that,’ gushed Danish. Chattoo himself flew out of Srinagar before the clamp down as he watched soldiers deployed and tourists being turned away and he asked the players to rush to catch the last flight for Kolkata.
All this heroism has not gone unnoticed and the sponsors Adidas had announced a partnership with the team and the BBC and Al Jazeera have both decided to make documentaries. These have made Chattoo happy. ‘I want football to change life in the Valley and I want the people to be happy and Kashmir badly needs this break,’ he said.
Meanwhile elsewhere, things are not as rosy, especially the way football has been organised in the country of late. Frequent change of coaches, scrapping of established tournaments, the folding up of some of the legendary clubs for want of sponsorship or their being not viable, all these have made the fans a lot disappointed and keeping them away from the grounds.
The frequent chopping and change of the format, the relegating of the cradles of the game the like Santosh Trophy and University championships and being either relegated or been held in obscure places with no coverage and less sponsorship. To add to the problem is the shuffling of the tournaments like the Nehru Cup and Federation Cup that have all been either discontinued or are held sporadically.
Add to this is the ongoing tussle between the I-League, patterned on the J League of Japan that was introduced, and the more savvy India Premier League, patterned on England’s own Premier League, that has become a battle of attrition. The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has chipped in to recommend to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) that the ISL be recognised as the country’s main tier. This has made the Kolkata’s big two, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, sulk as the coveted spot will be allotted to the ISL and not the I League winners. The AIFF also have signed a deal with Masters Right Agreement and IMG Reliance for the latter to control football activities for the next 15 years that has raked in much cash and attracted many foreign stars though over the hill.
As early as 2016, three celebrated Goan clubs, Dempo, Salgaokar and Sporting de Goa, pulled out of the I League and the AIFF did not do anything to allay their misgivings. With ISL matches being allotted prime time evening slots and the I League given reduce air time and scheduled on weekdays, this has made the top players head for the former for better visibility and marketability. You found that clubs like Delhi Dynamos and FC Pune struggle to attract fans. All the same it is a fact that East Bengal and Mohan Bagan are far more popular than most of the ISL clubs, TV rights and exposure or not. The fans in Kolkata have not forgotten Jamshed Nasiri and Majid.
Praful Patel, the AIFF chief and also an AFC vice president and FIFA Council member, has allayed all these fears saying these developments would give Indian football a badly needed boost. But that has not gone well with most established clubs. So while there are small rays of hope from unlikely quarters like Kashmir, the overall situation seems to be quite bleak. Praful Patel’s elevation and donning of three hats has not done much for the game or for the country either, as was his earlier tenure as aviation minister for the ailing Air India national airliner that was once the pride of the country. On the centenary of East Bengal these are not bracing thoughts.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.