Sunday, January 19, 2014

Indian Football: A kick in the right direction?

By John Cheeran

Football fever comes a little early to Kerala in the year of World Cup. The average Indian football fan, who will never make it to Maracana in his lifetime, has an opportunity to trot into stadiums in Kochi and Manjeri to kick themselves in frustration, cheer and jeer footballers, as Federation Cup begins today.

This could be the poor man’s World Cup, with each I-League club having up to four foreign players in their starting XI, most of them hailing from African continent and a few exceptions from England, Australia and Brazil.

The 35th edition of Federation Cup, a tournament that has lost much of its punch and prestige since the National League began in 1997 (later avatar I-League in 2007), brings together 16 top clubs – all the 13 I-League teams and three second division outfits –in a group-cum-knockout format.

It’s the homecoming for Federation Cup. The tournament began in Kochi in 1977. Till then the premier football championship in the country was the inter-state championship for Santosh Trophy and Durand Cup, the longest running football tournament outside of Britain, which began in 1888. Although there were tournaments with the recognition of All India Football Federation (AIFF), there was no premier competition for clubs. When AIFF headquarters was moved from Bombay to Bangalore in 1975 with A T Vijayarangam taking over as president, the stage was set for a new tournament.

A R Khaleel, chairman, I-League, and president of Karnataka Football Association (KFA) told ARRACKISTAN that Federation Cup was the brainchild of Rangam. Khaleel, who was then a member of KFA disciplinary committee, says: “Rangam was more than a great administrator. He was a passionate football fan. The trophy was crafted by a jeweller in Madras of pure silver, costing Rs40,000, a princely sum in those days.”

Federation Cup then was the ultimate prize in Indian club football (the current paycheck for winners is Rs 25 lakh and for runners-up is Rs 15 lakh), an equal opportunity tournament for clubs other than the Kolkata giants of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting. It was significant that the first final was won by ITI (Indian Telephone Industries) Bangalore, an institutional team that was shut down in 2005 owing to paucity of funds, ending the supremacy of Kolkata clubs. ITI stunned Mohun Bagan 1-0 in the final.

But boots of Kolkata clubs continue to deliver the goals despite such odd defeats. In the last seven editions of Federation Cup –between 2007 and 2012- the champions were either Mohun Bagan or East Bengal, a fact that underscores the vim and vigour of Kolkata league.

All that may change in 2014. With Bengaluru FC, the team floated by JSW Group, making waves in its debut year in the I-League, (the club is leading the I-League charts), the established teams and managements have reasons to rethink their positions and strategies. Managed by former Manchester United youth player and former Blackburn Rovers assistant manager Ashely Westwood, Bengaluru FC could end the Kolkata-Goa duality in Indian football.

Sunil Chhetri, the highest valued Indian player (Rs 1.35 crore earnings a season), and the captain of the national squad, provides the steely resolve to the side. Bengaluru FC has chosen its four foreign players (AIFF allows clubs to play a maximum of four players in the XI) wisely – with two defenders -- former English Premier League player John Johnson, and Kenyan Curtis Osano, and midfielder --Liberian Johnny Menyongar and a striker --Australian Sean Rooney.

The established tradition gets another kick with the emergence of Pune FC as a force to reckon with in Indian football. Formed in 2007 by the Ashok Piramal Group and guided by astute Goan manager Derrick Pereira, Pune FC grabbed second spot up in I-League in 2012-13.

With a new coach at the helm – Dutch Mike Snoei – and led by Kerala defender Anas Edathikode, Pune will raise a strong bid for the championship in Kochi. Pune, too, has a dominant foreign foot with defender Calum Angus (England), midfielder James Meyer (Australian), striker Riga Mustafa (Ghana and Dutch) and midfielder Douhou Pierre (Ivory Coast) in the line-up.

The changing goal post in Indian football is reflected in the current I-League standings. The top four clubs, midway into the season, are all non-Kolkata – Bengaluru FC, Sporting Club de Goa, Pune FC and Meghalayan side Shillong Lajong FC.

A tournament lacks drama without a Group of Death and here it is Group B. Defending champions East Bengal, Bengaluru FC, Sporting Club de Goa, and Meghalayan side Rangdajied United will see close contests with only group toppers qualifying for semi-finals.

The team to watch-out will be the Goan side Salgaocar FC. With Pereira back as coach, they could be the surprise package. In recent history, only Salgaocar have broken the Kolkata stranglehold on Federation Cup (2011).

Not much is expected of Eagles FC, the only Kerala club in the competition. Eagles got the ticket when Langsning FC, Shillong, failed to match Asian Football Confederation’s licensing criteria. The second division club has been accommodated in the tournament in a bid to fill the galleries.

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