Corporates in Indian Football – I

Indian club football received a major shock when former National league winner Mahindra United shut shop in 2010. That was exacerbated when another titan of Indian football and the inaugural national league winner Jagatjit Cotton Mills (JCT) FC also decided to close their football club in June, 2011. Established in 1971, JCT had created a niche of its own in Punjab – sometimes referred to as Pride of Punjab – and later on at the national level. Some of the famous players like Inder singh, Sukhwinder ‘Sukhi’ Singh, I.M Vijayan, and Baichung Bhutia have set the football pitch on fire in JCT’s red and white colours. One of their chief accomplishments was winning the first edition of the National Football League in 1996 and got the opportunity to represent the country in Asian Club Championship in 1997. In a very gloomy and depressing evening of 20th June, 2011, the club announced its pre-mature exit from professional football activities with immediate effect.
This means that there is not a single I-League club in North India, after Indian Arrows, formerly based in Delhi, decided to shift base to Kolkata. Mumbai has lost its place in the I-league but for Air India FC – who are also in a downhill slope – earlier with the withdrawal of Mahindra United. Kerala and rest of the south India seem to be on a downhill road too. So we are left with only two major football playing hubs in the country – Kolkata and Goa. For a country with the 2nd largest population in the world, this is not a good sign.
But things looked bright and sunny in 2008 when JCT FC formed an association with the English Premier League side Wolverhampton Wanderers for footballers, coaching staffs and academy coaches to make visits between clubs and share technical knowledge. Later that year, AFC Chief Bin Hammam certified that JCT
was the one of a handful of Indian clubs to have a good youth development structure with flawless management and a decent stadium to be proud of.

JCT was hit hard as they failed to retain its star players. Fan base for a club grows only after they can connect with a charisma of a player, or playing style of the team. In the past, JCT has been renowned for holding its own when football flourished in Punjab. But subsequently, players started preferring to join other clubs for more lucrative offers. Key players from the first team signed and established themselves in clubs like Churchil Brothers, East Bengal and elsewhere. The last nail in the coffin was the 2010-11 season when JCT was relegated for the first time in their history – the former champions had the worst record – losing as many as 14 matches out of 26 played in that campaign.
JCT joins Mahindra United, another prestigious club which rose to glory in the ‘90s and made an exit from competitive football a year ago at a time when they were sitting pretty in the second place of the I-league table. This incites a doubt about termination of a club, playing professional football in India. There is a school of thought which believes that it has to be much more than just relegation – even the mighty RED DEVILS had faced the music, however unrealistic it may sound now.
The lack of support and TV exposure, especially in North India, compelled the club releasing a statement stating:
“JCT Limited has taken a strategic decision to pull out for the time being till football in India shows some possibility of generating value for corporates and their brands, besides bringing up popularity of football among youngsters“
The club statement also elaborates its frustration to the fact that in today’s world of merchandising, football teams around the globe have become self-sustaining enterprises for which highest level of coverage is a must to build viewership and spectators in the stadium. JCT won the inaugural national league in 1996, where there was high quality TV exposure and widespread public interest. But since then the league has had trifling exposure and the teams’ interests have been ignored. The club statement also briefs that JCT Limited being a corporate entity, needs to substantiate to its stakeholders the effort v/s visibility of the football team.
The rumour was always around the corner for the past few months, especially after the club’s much talked about relegation and flurry of players leaving the Guru Nanak Stadium. The club has gone through major financial crisis in recent years. Dying interest in the sport has forced the authorities to kick off some home matches amidst empty stands and deteriorating pitch condition. JCT, just like Automobile giants Mahindra and Mahindra, issued a very diplomatic statement that they are shifting their focus towards nurturing talent at the grass root level. JCT football club has again ascertained that they have no plans to close their famous academies. Only time will tell how much interest is left in them to run the academy.
Former players have raised their concern under these circumstances and they would like to see professional football clubs in India being managed as a commercial entity. They are worried that there would be more clubs following the footprints of Mahindra United and JCT FC, if the ‘not-so-subtle’ problem remains unaddressed. The most prolific Indian footballer for the last 2 decades, former Indian captain, the iconic Bhaichung Bhutia exclaims:
“In 1996, when we won the inaugural National Football League, that was the golden period of JCT football. Myself, Vijayan, Jo-Paul (Ancheri), Carlton Chapman, Tejinder Kumar formed the core. All the stars wanted to play for JCT. But you have got to understand their sentiments. Year after year, they have been spending crores of rupees with minimal returns.”
Samir Thapar, JCT chief for almost 20 years, who is also the president of Punjab Football Federation, holds AIFF accountable for not marketing the game in the right way, even after the booming deal of Rs. 700 crore AIFF signed with IMG-Rellaince last year. The top management certainly cannot wash their hands off from this debacle. In EPL, clubs can get up to 60 or 70 per cent of their revenue from TV rights.
Here, AIFF does not have any formal structure to distribute the revenue earned from the broadcasters to the clubs. The issue is made further complicated by the fact that the I-League does not have a broadcast partner for over a season. This definitely has resulted in poor people awareness and ultimately has led to a fall in attendance at the stadiums to tthe tune of 40-50 % compared to last year, according to a club official.
Just at the time when every Indian football lover felt that Indian football was about to be rejuvenated, this news comes as a shocker to them. AIFF president Praful Patel though was not worried. He dished out an undisclosed list which contained at least 10 corporate houses willing to launch new football teams. He blamed poor management and organizational structure for this untimely demise of JCT and earlier Mahindra United.
The question then comes that if so many corporate houses are looking to venture into the game then why AIFF has not been able to get a sponsor for its development side Indian Arrows in the first year of their conception (Pailan group has come up to the cause recently but it remains to be seen if they can withstand the test of time) and also why I-League matches were not telecast live. These questions have
remained unanswered. Despite AIFF’s bold announcements, the corporate(s) think otherwise and many have justified JCT management’s decision.
Most of them believe that AIFF itself is not professional enough in running the game efficiently. One of the main reasons for JCT’s pullout might also be lack of a full-fledged second division. The second division is not a great place to be. Teams play for one or two months in a year – if they do well, they get promoted and if they don’t, they remain in the second tier. The JCT management might have thought that signing players for 12 months and then to play for two months only in the second division of I-league, which will be hardly watched by anyone, was not a great commercial idea.
Mockingly the uneven structure of the Indian football system came to the forefront just when JCT FC announced its exit. Odafe Okolie, the I-League’s most prolific striker, signed a record deal worth over Rs 1.5 crore with Mohun Bagan, while Bangalore’s Xavier Vijay Kumar will pocket a handsome Rs 90 lakh after signing with Churchill Brothers. At the same time the colts from JCT wrapped up the under 19 I-league. Long live Indian Football!
(Next month, we will follow some more experience of corporate in Indian football)
Debojyoti Chakraborty is a hardcore Manchester United and East Bengal (India) fan. He can be reached at