The creation of the Indian Super League was supposed to be a turning point for Indian football. At the time of its inception, this was seen as a revolutionary move that would help world football’s sleeping giant wake up. And while there have been some positives that are evident in terms of increased interest, more time on television and slow growth in quality of football, there have been negatives that have gravely impacted some aspects. Since 2014 – the first time a ball was kicked in the ISL – there have been worries over the state of some of India’s older professional clubs, and in the short time since, those worries have been justified.
Take Kolkata, for example. One of India’s most prominent football regions, they host two of India’s oldest club in Mohun Bagan and East Bengal who square off in one of the fiercest derbies in Asia. Those two clubs have been on the fringes in recent years and that has even affected Kolkata’s ISL team, Atlético de Kolkata, or ATK, as they’re now known. And one of the most affected states has been Goa, a place whose domestic football scene has been one of the most prestigious in India. Goa plays host to FC Goa in the ISL, however, it is not the presence of an ISL teams that the other Goan clubs face an issue with, it is the shot-callers at the top, the All India Football Federation.
Goan clubs like Dempo Sports Club, Salgaocar, Vasco Sports Club, Churchill Brothers and Sporting Clube de Goa have played in the I-League – the top tier of Indian football – and the mismanagement by the AIFF, where they have been unable to find the right way to accommodate and satisfy both the ISL and the I-League clubs, has played a huge part in altering some of Goa’s older teams’ history. For decades, Goa has been a hotbed in Indian football, with the senior national team largely consisting of players from the small western state in major tournaments. But in recent years, Goan football has been in decline, and the fault of the AIFF and leading authorities is clear as day.
Since the ISL kicked-off in 2014, it has run from October to December, while the I-League has been conducted from January to May as the shortage of players meant that the two leagues could not be conducted simultaneously. However, that schedule only ran till 2017. That was when India hosted the U17 World Cup that year, meaning that both leagues were forced to be held at the same time – running from November to April – and there would be a vast scramble for players. The scheduling conflicts were only a part of the problem for the I-League, as the greater issue was the league’s dwindling popularity.
The Indian Super League was the more attractive, prestigious prospect meaning that more players – local and international – were snapped up. From 2017 onwards, the winner of the ISL was also granted a place to participate in the qualifying rounds of the AFC Cup – Asia’s secondary competition – which gave the league greater credibility. More money, more attention and more integrity led to further claims that this was now India’s premier competition, despite the AIFF claiming that they treat both leagues equally and that the I-League was still one of their top priorities as they aimed to give India a more fluent football scene.
So how exactly has this affected Goa and Goan clubs?
As mentioned earlier, the historical clubs in India have struggled against the ISL superpower, and its not just them, several amateur players are affected as the I-League route towards the national team and a sufficient football career is hurt. Goa has had five clubs that have been synonymous with the I-League and the domestic league scene prior to the I-League’s inception in 2007. Those are Dempo Sports Club, who have won three I-League titles, Churchill Brothers, who have won two titles, Salgaocar, who won a solitary championship in 2011 and Sporting Clube de Goa as well as Vasco Sports Club, both of whom have no league titles, but still play a key role in Goa’s football intergrity.
With a combined six championships in 11 seasons, one would imagine that the state as a whole would be revered by the AIFF. But the head’s mismanagement of the situation has led to most Goan clubs withdrawing from the I-League, instead choosing to participate in the Goa Professional League – the state’s top division. For the ongoing 2018-19 I-League season, Churchill Brothers are the only Goan representative in the I-League, and in the unlikely scenario of them being relegated now or in the near future, the only state in India where football is an official sport will have no representatives in India’s supposed top tier of club football.
The AIFF hasn’t been able to draw the line between which league gets more importance and credibility. On one side, they have the allure and glamour of the Indian Super League which, at one time, set record-breaking attendance and TV viewership figures in Indian football. On the other hand, they have clubs from all over the country who have been on the scene for decades – long before the idea of something as attractive as the ISL was even thought of – and have to handle their passionate fanbases. The longer this issue goes on for, the more it damages these professional clubs and the more it affects a failing footballing nation that is eager to improve.
A BRIEF ON GOA'S FOOTBALL CLUBS
With a strong Portuguese influence, football spread across Goa rapidly. The first professional club in Goa was Vasco SC, formed in 1951 with a hint of Brazil in them as they were inspired by Club de Regatas Vasco da Gama. Not long later, Salgaocar and Dempo were born from similar ideologies – both were run by industrialists and business tycoons. After the glory years of these three clubs for over three decades between the 1950s and the 1980s, Churchill Brothers joined the scene. This was a family-run club and its founders, the Alemao family, wanted to form a dynasty in the sport. Finally, at nearly the turn of the century, Sporting Clube de Goa joined with inspiration coming from Lisbon’s Sporting CP.
Not so long ago, these five were the dominant forces in Indian football. Even before the league structure was a little more streamlined in 2007 and the National Football League was the prime league competition in India, these clubs were synonymous, not only to local fans, but internationally as well. League titles were fought for between one state, while cup tussles would often see the five progress to the final rounds of the competition, but as time went on and football changed, moving to the commercialized world, it is shocking to see all five simultaneously suffer. In its final days, the tables would turn, and they would take part in relegation battles, not title clashes.
Since 2016, Goan clubs have continuously withdrawn from the I-League. It started with Dempo, who were relegated in 2015, won promotion in 2016, but refused to accept it following second-placed Minerva Punjab’s corporate entry into the league. And soon after that, Salgaocar pulled out of the I-League in the same year, citing the AIFF’s failure to protect the older clubs. They released a damning joint statement with Sporting Clube de Goa, who also announced their withdrawal as the I-League was dealt a major blow, leaving them with just seven teams to compete with.
“Remarkably, while demanding professionalism and fiscal responsibility from I-League clubs without itself reflecting the same, the AIFF has still not settled dues to I-League clubs dating as far back as 2008.” – Salgaocar statement from 2016, explaining their withdrawal from the I-League
The loss of Dempo and Salgaocar was particularly damaging for the I-League. Dempo have been mainstays in the Indian football spotlight for decades and their legend goes a long way. From iconic players in the decades gone by such as Mauricio Afonso, an excellent midfielder with incredible vision and was the star for club and country in the 1980s to Francis D’Silva, who made his name around the country, they have been visionaries in the sport. Also, their title winning teams between 2004 and 2011 have been well-lauded, with the latter earning comparisons to Spain’s wonderful 2010 World Cup-winning team for their immediate ball retention and control.
“Like Spain’s 2010 World Cup-winning team, Dempo believed in retaining possession and rotating the ball to wear down the opponent. When they lost the ball, they resorted to high pressing to win back possession, earning them the nickname ‘Barcelona of India’.” – Barefoot to Boots by Novy Kapadia
Salgaocar, meanwhile, are one of the most respectable outfits in India. Founded by VM Salgaocar, an emerging business magnate in 1955, the club were he finest at the time of liberation from the colonial rule of Portugal in the early 1960s. Through the late 1979 until 1996, they were led by Thulukhanam Shanmugham – one of the longest reigns for any coach in India. With his flamboyant attacking style involving quick passing and verticalness, he would become one of the most revered coaches in Asia and was often touted with offers to leave Goa and move on to pastures new. But his loyalty was admirable, and he made Salgaocar one of the most exciting sides in the country.
Salgaocar were also the first Goan club to reach the Federation Cup final, when they squared off against Kolkata’s Mohun Bagan in 1987. Although they lost, it was a commendable achievement for a Goan side to reach the final of India’s premier club cup competition and especially so with a side that was largely comprising of local players that came through their own ranks. They did win the Federation Cup a year later, though, beating BSF in the final, and this was a testament to Shanmugham’s coaching skills. Many lauded his training methods and urge to maintain high fitness levels and it paid off for them in the end. In his own words, he was complementary of his team’s efforts.
“Our tactics of keeping the ball helped us win. I told my boys not to play in the air, as the taller BSF players are better in aerial duels. Also, I asked my midfielders not to allow the BSF players to hold on to the ball for long. I am glad my players stuck to the plan and we deservedly won. It was also a triumph of our physical fitness” – Shanmugham’s comments on his team’s Federation Cup final success
By the end of the 20th century, Salgaocar built on their strong reputation in cup competitions by winning Rovers Cup, Durand Cup and the Super Cup in the space of 20 days. This was a strong end to a glorious era for the club. However, the next decade would prove to be a struggle with frequent relegations from the Indian top flight and the misery was added to by the current state, where they backed out from the I-League entirely. Nevertheless, they are one of India’s most storied clubs and another reason why football is so overwhelmingly popular in Goa.
The other sides in Goa have had strongpoints as well. Vasco SC enjoyed a few glorious years in the late 1950s and mid-1960s, winning six out of 15 possible Goa Professional League titles. Meanwhile, Sporting Clube de Goa, although not entirely popular for their silverware, have done incredible work to enhance football in the local community by working on their youth systems and restructuring and renovating local football grounds. All of this has made them quite popular, despite being a little under two decades old.
It’s clubs like this that have made this fight between the historical clubs and the fanciable ISL clubs a stern nut to crack for the AIFF. Placing these sides in the “second-tier” is fairly unjust, while it is just as unfair on them to make them pay a hefty franchise fee to enter the ISL when they hardly earn much money due to the fading popularity of the I-League. The recent decision by the Star network to reduce the number of games broadcast on television also hasn’t gone down well and it is major football cities in India, of which there are very few, which are affected. Ex-Indian international, Clifford Miranda, a Goan himself, spoke about how this is a major issue for his compatriots.
“There are major ramifications here to start with; it’s not good for Goan football & Goan players. The demand for and of the players goes down, as a result, the salary goes down which is the case at this moment. Non-participation in the I-League means players can’t catch the eye of the national selectors. A four to five-month season, means, players aren’t given a 12-month contract. The overall effect is, good budding players have to abandon their dreams to pursue some other career and most importantly the clubs that have been there for so many years have started to shut down.” – Ex-Indian international Clifford Miranda
It’s not just Goa that is affected by this split, but they are one of the most prominent regions to be hit by this. The recent U17 World Cup, the first major international event to be held in India, featured no players of Goan origin and that goes to show just how bad the situation is. At a time where there is massive interest in football that sees more and more international clubs invest in Indian football, it’s a real shame that the country’s governing body for football has shown grave incompetence. For Indian football, this matter needs to be resolved soon, and for passionate cities like Goa, change can’t come soon enough.