Has the IFA Shield Lost its Charm?

One of the oldest tournaments in the world no longer draws the crowds it used to. Kaushik Saha analyzes the possible causes of its decline and ponders over ways to revive the lost glory

The IFA Shield was a premier football tournament, not just in India but in South Eastern Asia, for a significant part of the last century. Started in 1893, it is the fourth oldest club tournament in the world, and the second oldest in India after the Durand Cup. Over the years, a number of strong teams from different countries have played in the tournament, and some of the victories by Indian clubs over these teams have attained folklore status.

Mohun Bagan’s victory won that historic IFA Shield in 1911, East Bengal had beat Pyongyang Sports Club of South Korea in 1973 and PAS Tehran of Iran in 1970. A reserve team of Bayern Munich has been champions as recently as 2005, while the 1993 final between Pakhtakor (Uzbekistan) and Pavlodar (Kazakhstan) is widely considered to be the best match played between two clubs on Indian soil. The IFA Shield, along with the Durand Cup (winners do not qualify for Asian Football Confederation tournaments) and the Rovers Cup (now defunct) formed the Triple Crown of Indian football at one point of time.

The lack of interest by stakeholders

I watched the IFA Shield final between East Bengal and Prayag United FC last year in the Salt Lake Stadium, and this time on television. Besides the two same set of finalists, there was something else that was common to both the finals – a stadium that was not packed to its full capacity.

An empty Salt Lake Stadium during IFA Shield 2012 final
Last year I had reasoned with myself – the start was at 3.00 p.m., it was a warm spring afternoon on a weekday, hence crowds are sparse. However, this time the situation was different – the match was played under lights, it was a 5.30 p.m. start, and most would have had their office timings over by then.
Then what was the reason? Was it because an East Bengal-Prayag United match did not hold as much interest as an East Bengal-Mohun Bagan derby match? But then, even the derby, surprisingly, saw a lower turnout than the I-league matches. The reason was not difficult to guess – the IFA Shield is not given as much importance as before. But this is not just about the spectators. The tournament is almost neglected by the organizers themselves – the Indian Football Association. And the teams, at least the major clubs based out of Kolkata do not seem to take it seriously either.
Take this year’s tournament for example – it was hastily scheduled, there was confusion regarding teams (Muktijoddha Sangsad KC from Bangladesh were invited who had to back out in the last minute owing to visa issues) and even deciding the groups. East Bengal, the defending champions, went ahead to play an AFC Cup match in the middle of the tournament. Mohun Bagan threatened to pull out twice after lack of clarity on the schedule.

What are the causes of IFA Shield’s decline?

The trend of last five-six years has been very disturbing. There is no separate window for any tournament in India by All India Football Federation (AIFF) or the IFA, and a lot of matches are played according to convenience of the two teams involved rather than a fixed schedule. However, there is still a calendar that is prepared by local bodies like the IFA and sent over to AIFF, which then schedules the I-League matches and Federation Cup accordingly.
In the last few years, the tournament has been set in the extreme heat and humidity of March – this dissuades a number of teams from participating in the tournament to begin with. The quality of teams, especially those from outside India has gone down for this reason. Poor scheduling continues with important matches being scheduled on weekdays, thus keeping the office-going and college-going fans away.
The national league, I-league has emerged as the premier football tournament in India (that’s not a bad sign for Indian football, but not good for other domestic tournaments which has ceded space to it). As a result, most of the top Indian teams (from Goa, especially) want to preserve their players from exhaustion, and hence keep away from the IFA Shield. The handful of sponsors and TV channels (even those from Kolkata) who want to invest money in Indian football prefer to do it in the higher profile I-league.
The Yuva Bharati Krirangan, or Salt Lake stadium is the pride of the Indian football fraternity – and has been hosting the IFA Shield for years. However, in recent times, it has been used for purpose other than football – opening ceremonies of other sports tournaments, cultural events etc. Lack of facilities and negligence of the stadium has led to some spectators keeping away. Also, a few matches are held at stadiums in places like Howrah, where medical facilities are at a premium – in this year’s edition, the goalkeeper from Costa Rican club Saprissa, Douglas Espinoza lost consciousness on the field and almost lost his life – and chances of a mishap are high.

What can be done to bring back the glory of IFA Shield?

First and foremost, have a separate window for the tournament, neither in the rainy season nor the summer. Preferably, between October and February. December will be a good time to start. Also, the tournament should be held in a tight schedule – 10 days at the most, with derby matches and knockout stages being held on the weekends. With a pleasant weather, most teams won’t mind playing matches with smaller gaps in between.
Winter break in most leagues around this time of the year will also ensure participation by good teams, both from India and other nations. This will ensure higher TV viewership as well and bring in the sponsors. Given the holiday season, even non-resident Kolkattans visiting home can watch the matches along with the derby. Tickets for select portions of the stadium can be thus priced higher, earning more revenue.
Another important task would be to develop infrastructure in stadiums other than the Salt Lake Stadium. This implies keeping emergency medical facilities and amenities for the spectators too. It will come at a cost, but if the state government is keen to showcase the football culture of the state, they should take the initiative.
The IFA Shield is in a way symptomatic of the mess Indian football has been, and reviving it will trigger positive signals. As fans, we shall keep our fingers crossed.

Kaushik Saha

About Kaushik Saha

Kaushik Saha works for a stock exchange and follows Indian football. He can be reached @kaushiksaha1982 / kaushikcrouncho@gmail.com