Philippe de Ridder Interview

Philippe de Ridder is a well-known name in Indian football circuit as he has been managing clubs, becoming Technical Director and playing (yes, precisely in this order) all around the country. Debojyoti Chakraborty of Goalden Times got a chance to take sneak peek into the inner world of this Belgian who has made India his second home. Here is the first part.

Being an ardent fan of East Bengal, one of the most famous clubs in India, I am no stranger to Philippe de Ridder. In fact, I had come across him on couple of occasions at airports but could not manage to engage him in conversation. Later when I finally got an opportunity to interact with him I very hesitantly asked him for a chit-chat session. And thankfully, the generous man did not disappoint.

PIDR

I wanted to start the conversation by asking him about his early days – his first experience with a football, his first clubs and his dreams.

Early Days

DC : What is your first memory of an encounter with a football?

PdR : It started really early to be frank. When I was born, my father had put a football in my arms and it was like love at first sight. I was sleeping with it when others were going to bed with a teddy bear.

DC : Where did you start your journey as a footballer?

PdR : My uncles, my grandfather and my father were all football players and coaches, and they trained me since the time I started walking. Then my father’s friend, who was a top Belgian football player himself, Ronald Devleegelaer, registered me and his son in a youth tournament organized by Racing White Daring Molenbeek (RWDM).I was 7-8 years old then. Some scouts spotted me there and I was soon a part of the club.

DC : What was you preferred playing position?

PdR : I was fortunate enough to play in all the positions barring the one under the posts, but my favourite position in a 4-3-3 system was that of a number 7 (central midfielder) and  in a 4-4-2 system was that of a number 10 (attacking midfielder).However I have played as a central defender (a la Fabio Cannavaro) and right back (a la Roberto Carlos – think he meant Cafu here) in the national team across different age groups.

DC : Who was your favorite player during your growing up years?

PdR : As an attacker, it had to be Johan Cruyff. But on the defensive side of the game, I always looked up to another Oranje, Johan Boskamp as one of my godfathers in football.He played in RWDM and became the first foreigner to win the Golden Shoe in Belgium. I was part of the Boskamp Boys, a group of talented youth footballers he had handpicked and trained personally. Apart from being my hero, he had a telling influence on my whole life.

By this time I had a fair idea about the jovial nature of the man. So I was curious to know about his relationship with one of the most iconic figures among children and youngsters across the World and also with his friends from his younger days.

DC : Are you a fan of Tintin?

PdR : Absolutely! On top of that he’s Belgian and from Brussels, just like me (laughs). He must have influenced me a lot. His adventures took him all over the world – to America, Africa, China, Peru, Ecuador, India – and so did mine(smiles).

Absolutely! On top of that he’s Belgian and from Brussels, just like me (laughs). He must have influenced me a lot. His adventures took him all over the world – to America, Africa, China, Peru, Ecuador, India – and so did mine(smiles).

DC : Which Tintin story is your favorite and any particular reason for the choice?

PdR : The Blue Lotus, for its graphical research, style and energy. Also, maybe because of my love for Asia in general.

DC : Which character, if any, do you think influenced you the most in your childhood?

PdR : Tintin, Robin Hood, Geoffrey de Peyrac (Angélique, Marquise des Anges fame) and Johan Boskamp.

DC : You have played with quite a few footballers in your youth who have gone on to make it big afterwards like Patrick Vervoort, Marc Degryse, Stéphane Demol and Filip De Wilde. Can you share some of your fond memories on and off the field?

PdR : On the field, it has to be the qualification for the Under 18 European Championship in England in 1983. I also had a memorable encounter against the Dutch side featuring the great Marco van Basten – we proudly came out with a stalemate.  But I have had bad days as well, none so painful than the day I missed a penalty against Ireland.

Couple of years back I caught up with Stéphane Demol (an eminent Beligian footballer in the mid 80s) who had just taken over from Sven-Göran Erikssonfor BECT ero Sasana, a top division club in Thailand. We had a blast that night reliving our old memories.

Then I happened to meet Moussa Dembéléat the wedding of Faris Haroun, who was one of the first boys I had brought into my academy in Brussels (1994).Patrick Vervoort was Moussa’s agent then and Moussa told Haroun’s father that I was the toughest defender ever in Belgium according to Patrick.Haroun’s father was surprised as I am known to be a fine technician and tough does not go well with my personality (smiles).

Actually I thought the interview would be over by now. But de Ridder was very forthcoming and fortunately for me, he seemed to have opened up. So, I gathered a little more courage and pushed the envelope a bit further to enter one of the grimmest chapters of his life.

The injury and aftermath

DC  : You had captained Belgium in various age group levels till U20 but could not make it big after that due to serious injuries. Do you think had the injury happened 30 years later in 2015, with the advanced medical attention available, you would have been able to make a comeback?

PdR : Definitely yes. If it had happened today, I would have had a better operation, a better recovery process, better post-injury training, better psychological follow up, more professional people surrounding me and still be able to play at the top level in Europe.

DC : How did the injury happen?

PdR : I had two big injuries. First one was in my right ankle – it was due to my tough tackling nature that I was involved in a lot of contact and received a lot of bruises. Also, referees back then were not so protective of the players and I remember sometimes receiving more than 10 dangerous tackles from the opponent without a single warning from the referee to the players who were purposefully going for my leg.

Also I missed the guidance of a protective coach during my growing up years. Some coaches didn’t want to rest me when I was slightly injured; they convinced me to keep playing. I even played sometimes with injections. When you keep doing that for years, your ligaments become more fragile and an operation is the only solution to put your ligaments “tidier”.

The second injury came in a match when I blocked a guy from shooting towards the goal. It was a big, huge, powerful guy and I had blocked him with the inside of the foot but his shot was so powerful that it broke all the ligaments of my knee.

After that, doctors told me that I should consider myself lucky if I could walk again normally.

DC : Have you spoken to the offender after the incident?

PdR : No. It wasn’t the fault of the player or mine, destiny maybe.

DC : Did you ever think of a comeback, a last hurrah?

PdR : A division 2 team once offered me a trial. I did not agree – It had to be the first division or nothing.

A division 2 team once offered me a trial. I did not agree – It had to be the first division or nothing.

But destiny had the last laugh here as well. Much later, when I was 30, I had to play a couple of games with a Division 4 team in Belgium. I needed that money to help my three little brothers as my parents got divorced and I had to take care of my brothers for six months.  Incidentally, the coach was Hermanvan Holsbeeck, the R.S.C. Anderlecht General Manager.

DC : How do you see life in light of your injury? I mean have you found a new perspective to it or has the injury changed you as a person in anyway?

PdR : Maybe all these injury made me a more attentive coach, protecting some players instead of forcing them to play with injury or under injections.

For example:  recently my top and only striker had an ankle injury.I did not have any other good striker to replace him and it was a very important match for us. I could have influenced him to play, and he would have played, taking the risk to aggravate his injury and potentially get ruled out for the rest of the championship. Or even worse, he could have got a big injury like I had,forcing him out of the game for months or years. I chose not to select him for the match. We lost 2-0. I have no regrets about this defeat. We got four clear-cut chances to score and if he was there we could have scored at least twice and come back with a point. But I don’t mind that – I just reminded the club that we didn’t have enough funds to recruit a second good striker, it is not right to point fingers at others.

DC : How difficult was it post injury, specially accepting the fact that you won’t be able to fulfill your promise as a footballer?

PdR : Very hard.I had to go through two very difficult years of my life to find some new objectives. I couldn’t sleep well; my head was full of questions as I was born to be a football star.

DC : Were you always interested in a coaching career or you just wanted to be involved with the game after a premature exit?

PdR : No, I didn’t think about becoming a coach. I was lucky to find a job as graphic designer in a top elite management company called MCE – Management Centre Europe – in Brussels, where I met some of the world’s best management and marketing speakers for a period of five years. It helped me a lot in my future football coaching and management career. It was only when I was 27 years old – I was in USA then – that I started to get interested in youth coaching.

The following is the most fascinating part of this conversation – the East Bengal chapter. This is a phase of de Ridder’s life I had followed closely. And now I had the opportunity to ask him some questions that I always wanted to ask for the last 10 years.

Kolkata Calling

DC : How did East Bengal happen?

PdR : For my 40th birthday I wanted to travel to Asia to present the 360 CFT (Creative Football Training) that I had already conceptualized and successfully implemented for seven years in my academy in Brussels. In fact, the results were so good that I wanted to explore it even further. That is when I met Arunava, one of the starters of the site Indianfootball.com in Koln and explained my project to him. He insisted that Indian Football Association(IFA)would be interested to see what it was all about. So I came to India and gave a presentation at the IFA academy at Haldia. I think it went pretty well.

Coincidentally, East Bengal were also looking for a coach in the middle of the season and they called me for an interview. I had not heard about East Bengal or Mohun Bagan (their fierce city rivals) before and had no clue about their huge fan base.I was offered the job and I accepted it to experiment my method on a full team.

I’ll tell you an interesting incident that happened during the same time. I played an exhibition match in Kolkata, Salt Lake, and was offered a player position in a Kolkata team United Sports Club (then known as Eveready Association) after the match. I felt honored by the proposition but was not sure that my leg could withstand the pressure of a full season. So, I took up the East Bengal coaching job.

DC : Can you share the experience of a Derby win – have you ever witnessed such a massive and passionate crowd anywhere else?

PdR : The first derby (on 8th April, 2006) was a really extra-ordinary moment of my life, especially because we won it by 3-1 with some unknown players at the time like Gouranga Duta, Anupam Sarkar, Jayanta Senalong withthe legendary Bhaichung Bhutia who was not at his peak anymore. I had taken some strong decisions for that match – like dropping Mike Okoro, who didn’t want to train but was a big star then with a huge salary.I must admit that I had taken a lot of risks that day but I felt full of joy after winning the game. I believe that God wanted it that way. Fans that day were fabulous and players did respond well tothe 360 CFT training. It was one of thosemoments that you’ll never forget in life.I must say that the Kolkata derby is very special in its own way. There are other big derbies in the world but the Kolkata one has his own character, I would recommend it to any football lover.

DC : How much do you miss East Bengal, Kolkata, the food and Salt Lake City center (a place you were often spotted)?

PdR : Kolkata will always be a special place for me as it gave me all these great derby moments and fame. Kolkata people are emotional and have been always good to me, except 3-4 people lol (laughs). I still havegot some good friends there in the football and art world. I miss the city sometimes but on the pure footballing aspect,the clubs and the players have to grow.  Players are good but not good enough for international standard. Whose duty is it to produce better players? Why has it not been done yet?

The football education from grassroot level to the A-team has to undergo a serious transformation. Lot of people “talk” of giving good football education, but they only “talk”.The reality isquite different. Besides, good role models are important for youngsters when they grow up but sadly there are not many in that part of the world.

The football education from grassroot level to the A-team has to undergo a serious transformation. Lot of people “talk” of giving good football education, but they only “talk”

City Center, Salt Lake, was one of my favorite places to hang around as I was living close to it. Good food, good movies, good small coffee bar.

DC : Why do you think Kolkata clubs are not doing well enough in the I League despite the fervent enthusiasm for the game in the region?

PdR : Well,Mohun Bagan are doing well this year as they have been in the pole position for much of the season and should win it from here.

I think football has changed a lot from the 70’s and 80’s. Some people runningthe Kolkata teams didn’t pick up the evolution and were still thinking and taking decisions like they did in the 70’s and 80’s. The basics of today’s professional football were not there at the time.It’s improved in the last couple of years but it will take some time to get things realigned with rest of the world.

 
Second and final part of the interview can be find here.
 
 

Indian Super League – The Road-map for Indian Football?

The franchise based football league, Indian Super League has been able to create a lot of buzz among the football fanatics in India and abroad. Sachin Panda takes a look at it with GOALden Times.

The recently concluded FIFA World Cup generated an estimated television viewership of 100 million in India – a steep increase from the 62 million figures in 2010. [Source: Times of India]

To put things into perspective the last edition of ICC T20 Cricket World cup could gather 120 million television audiences. The FIFA World Cup figures are even more startling because the timing of the matches –the time difference between Brazil and India meant that most of the matches, including all the knockout games, were held well past normal bedtime for the Indian audience, some even creeping into early morning hours. Cricket is traditionally the most watched sport in India but these figures show that football fever is rapidly catching up.

Desktop2

European club football and international football already generate huge interest. While the same was not always true for the I-League, the country’s premier domestic league, recent figures released by the AIFF show that stadium attendance figures are also steadily on the rise. New clubs like Bengaluru FC and Shillong Lajong have helped the domestic league reach places that have plenty of football fanaticism. Given this upsurge in interest, the logical next step for improving the state of the game in India should have been injecting more money and newer ideas into the I-league to make it more attractive for players and fans alike. Instead, there is an altogether new league coming up.

The Indian Super League, promoted by the consortium of IMG-Reliance group, is scheduled to start in the month of October later this year. The league, involving eight city based franchisees owned by business conglomerates, has generated a lot of hype among the football faithful in India. The increased involvement of corporates has resulted in significant cash injection. The franchisees have used the cash to lure out of contract veteran foreign superstars who are in the twilight of their careers or have recently retired from the game.

However, playing the devil’s advocate, one is tempted to ask what does this mean for the traditional domestic football in India? What happens to the Airtel I-league now? Is ISL the magic wand that will be a panacea for Indian football?  Will it improve the key fundamental aspects like stadiums, training facilities and football academies? Will it help in spreading football further into corners of the nation untouched by the game? And most importantly, can it increase public interest and enthusiasm in football? Let’s try to analyse some of the key aspects in order to find these answers.

Corporate ownership and sponsorships

For many years, fans and pundits have rued the lack of sponsorship and money as a major stumbling block in the development of Indian football. ISL effectively addresses the problem. It successfully marries corporate consortiums with sports franchisees. The model of corporate ownership has been proven to be extremely successful across Europe. Including corporates not only means financial might, it also means the clubs will be run with an eye on profit to maintain long term sustainability. To further increase financial stability ISL recently inked a three year deal with two wheelers manufacturer, Hero Motocorp, as part of which Hero will become the title sponsors of the league.  The league has also tied up with Star Sports for the broadcast of the tournament, which will guarantee wide television coverage.

Foreign players and International Tie Ups

One of the most significant facets of the Indian Super League is the partnership of the franchisees with elite European clubs. A host of ISL franchisees have already announced strategic partnerships with European clubs. Atletico de Kolkata, on account of being owned by them, have a strategic tie up with reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid. FC Pune City and Delhi Dynamos have entered into alliances with ACL Fiorentina of Italy and FC Feyenoord of The Netherlands respectively. Tie ups between clubs from different leagues opens up an array of interesting avenues for both parties. The European clubs can use their partners as feeders for young talent and send their reserve players on loan for more game time – rumours are doing rounds that a couple of academy players of FC Feyenoord, which has produced players like Robin Van Persie, could be on their way to the Delhi based franchisee. The European clubs can also provide their Indian counterparts technical support in the form of world class coaches, physios and fitness trainers. . This will potentially benefit a lot of domestic players who will be part of the franchisees.

Atletico-De-Kolkata
Atletico de Kolkata have a strategic tie up with reigning La Liga champions Atletico Madrid

The other significant aspect of the ISL is the concept of marquee players. Atletico de Kolkata, the Kolkata based franchisee, were the first movers when they announced the signing of former Liverpool and Spain winger Luis Garcia. Since then it’s been a trend followed by every club. The Pune based franchisee has signed Juventus and France legend David Trezeguet. The other players rumoured to join different clubs as marquee players include superstars like Alessandro Del Piero of Juventus and Italian vintage. Signing retired foreign players who have played for clubs of international repute as marquee players has given the fans a lot to be excited about. The massive following of European leagues/clubs in India means signing players who played formerly for these clubs will vastly improve stadium attendance as well as Television viewership.

Grass-root development

While signing foreign players of international repute may get the fans excited about the prospect of watching them play live, it does little for development of domestic football players. Development of young players is a must to improve as a footballing nation. There has been no official confirmation yet from the organizers over the youth policy. This clearly is an area of improvement for the league. While they can to draw on glamorous international names piggyback on the popularity of football in the franchisee cities to generate fan following, and in turn money, but in order to make a significant impact ultimately there needs to focus on developing young players.

David Monedero - Fransisco Morea 2
Boca Junior’s academy in India

One way to do it would be provide opportunities to youngsters from academies like TFA and other existing football academies promoted by international clubs like Liverpool FC and Boca Juniors to train with the franchisees. This would provide them access to the world class players and coaches who would be part of the franchisees, and let them draw from their experiences and knowhow. TFA has already been instrumental in developing players like Surkumar singh, Deepak Mondal, Rennedy singh who have all gone on to wear the national colours. The best players of these academies can also be included in the ISL draft.

Dual leagues in India

The biggest question on the mind of enthusiasts is “what happens to the Airtel I-league now?” This is a logical and obvious question to ask. Figures released by the AIFF shows that the stadium viewership for I-league clubs have been rising steadily. But will the introduction of a glamorous league with celebrity players dampen the glow of India’s premier football league? It’s too soon to predict. Clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Shillong Lajong and Bengaluru FC have an extremely loyal supporter base. Furthermore, the schedules of both the leagues do not coincide. So, the Hero ISL is unlikely to eat into the viewership of the I-league. However, neither will it help boost interest.

Bengaluru-FC-Mohun-Bagan-2
A moment from a I-League match

Then there are other potential conflicts that need to be worked around. Owing to the domestic draft pool, there are players who are playing in both the I-league and ISL. In the unfortunate event of a player picking up an injury, which party will responsible for the medical expenses – the franchisee, ISL, AIFF? This remains a grey area till date.
Another problem with the dual league is that Indian players will have to play in multiple teams and various tournaments. The Federation Cup, CFL, and AFC Cup in addition to the National team duties, create a lot of strain on the players. There are two primary issues – First, chances of injury while playing in multiple leagues is pretty high. Second, different teams play under different systems and different philosophies – How to integrate them? One way to achieve this is to incorporate a similar playing philosophy and style throughout the country regardless of the league, club, and competition (similar approach has been applied by Germany and Spain with spectacular results). However this will require a lot of long term planning and must be done top down. The ISL Franchisees or I-League clubs can’t be expected take the lead here.

This is where the real dilemma is. Should there really be two leagues in a country where the state of football affairs is already pretty shabby? Shouldn’t there be a single league where all the money, focus, sponsorships and other resources can be funnelled so that the stadium attendance and TV viewership be consolidated? These are fundamental questions for which there is currently no clear answer. One has to wait and see how the situation emerges.

To Conclude

The ISL has started with a lot of fandom and a lot is expected from the league. This is the first significant development in Indian football in decades rather than years. The model of the league is similar to that of the MLS in the states where it has proven to be instrumental in generating greater interest in domestic football. The same can be expected from ISL if all goes well. The arrival of ISL has caught the attention of even the FIFA president Sepp Blatter . “… in September I can inform you that we will have a professional soccer league in India,” Blatter said in an interview in the magazine SportBusiness International.However, in order for the ISL to make a more substantial and sustained impact on the state of affairs of football in the country it will have to act on its commitment on things that actually matter. Including youth policy as a key component of the league should be a good start. In long term, the league should also benefit from merging the I-league with it and include more franchisees to increase the duration of the league. There are just months before the inaugural edition of the league starts and we will have answers to a lot of questions by then. But nonetheless, these are exciting times for football fanatics in the country.

Bengaluru FC: The dawn of a new era in Indian Football

I-League, the national football league in India, just saw a new champion. But Bengaluru FC, the winner in its debut season deserves a special mention for some reason off the field. Read to know more from Goalden Times.

 

The Airtel I-league has finally concluded with a new champion! The organizers must be heaving a sigh of relief! It has been a rather difficult one for them in terms of managing fixtures and keeping track of the league table. Until the last two rounds, there was always some team breathing down another’s neck with at least a couple of matches in hand. Each team was trying to catch up with the leader of the pack, I-league debutants Bengaluru Football Club (Bengaluru FC or BFC). Finally, under the leadership of their taciturn manager Ashley Westwood – a former Sheffield Wednesday, Northampton Town and Wrexham player and a Manchester United trainee – Bengaluru FC won the title with one match to spare. This feat has caught the imagination of the modest I-league viewers, especially since ithas been achieved playing a brand of football marked by creativity and grit in equal measures. And yet, it’s not only the crown that is the talk of the town in the legions of sports pubs and cafes in the tech city of Bengaluru. The unit has adopted a very modern approach towards building a football club and has attracted a lot of attention from both media and viewers. Here we discuss what it is that makes this new entrant – and the new Champions of the Airtel I-league so special.

The Prelude

With AIFF making public their intentions of allowing two corporate groups direct entry into the Airtel I-league 2013-14, the period between January and May 2013 was rife with speculations. A lot of corporate groups entered the fray but it came as no surprise when, on May 28 2013, Jindal Steel Works (JSW) group won the franchise rights to own a football club in the city of Bengaluru. A family based conglomerate, JSW have considerable interest in sports and have made significant donations to the Gold Quest, India’s Olympic gold mission. But there are much more subtleties to the ownership than mere sports enthusiasm.

Get the Right People IN

Bengaluru FC’s young CEO, Parth Jindal, an Arsenal fan, has considerable knowledge of European football having spent a semester in UK, while studying at Rhodes University, and travelled for most of Arsenal’s away matches. Now while this fact might get lost in a barrage of details the actual nuance lies in the passion for the sport and the vision to run a club. At a tender age, Parth has already shown enormous intellect and vision in hiring the right people for the job as was exemplified when BFC signed former Manchester United youth player and Blackburn Rovers assistant coach Ashley Westwood as the first ever manager of the team. He didn’t hesitate to flex his enormous financial muscle when he signed former Premier league defender John Johnson and India captain Sunil Chettri.

Bengaluru FC management decided one thing at the very onset – they were not going to break the bank for any player. So they did not run after the local players who were demanding astronomical amounts nor did they seek marquee, well-known foreign players vying their trades in the Indian domestic circuit. Rather, they brought in a couple of foreign centre-backs to lay a solid foundation, put faith in the India captain to lead the line and roped in a bunch of youngsters to work their socks off– a team with the correct blend of youth and experience. Thus they saved wisely for infrastructure, youth development programs and facilities for players and club members – surely they are here to stay with an eye on the future.

Make an Impression

And, while the club was building its foundation, they were also tapping in the enormous marketing potential that a cosmopolitan city like Bangalore offers. From the use of popular outlets like Coffee Day to sell its match-day tickets at discounted prices to roping in a corporate like Wipro to sell their corporate tickets, the management was adopting a lot of popular measures to market the club. Keeping in mind the fact that many people loose out on the match day experience owing to heavy ticket demands, the club announced its partnership with Arbor Brewery Company, an extremely popular brew pub in the heart of the Garden City of India, to screen live matches and sell its official merchandise. The club started its Facebook page and Twitter account to connect with fans via social media where they post regular updates about match day, tickets, player interviews and match highlights.

Their UK contingent certainly brought in the flavour of the Premier League – the most watched and best marketed league –with them and results have been nothing short of spectacular.To connect to the fans and make them feel a part of the club, the management has come up with a unique initiative -“March to the stadium-where the fans gather at a distance from the stadium and walk towards the stadium together in solidarity.The chants of “When the Blues go marching in”, going on non-stop for the entire duration of the match,perplexed all who had never heard such war cries in the Indian football scene. For the first time in Indian football, a sizeable portion of football followers, who were more attracted to Chelsea and the Manchester United till now, began discussing Dempo, East Bengal and all other Indian Clubs.

German couple, Gert and SussaineReiger came back to the club to request a pair of replicas as souvenirs
German couple, Gert and SussaineReiger came back to the club to request a pair of replicas as souvenirs

Facilities Galore

With a host of marketing gimmicks, the club was surely creating the right hype and it showed in the average stadium attendance. While established clubs like Salgaocar, Churchill Brothers have found it difficult to fill the stadium Bengaluru FC managed to fill in the stadium to its maximum capacity on all the occasions culminating in a record attendance of 8,256 in the home game against East Bengal. As per the club statements, the average attendance for the season has been 7,500 – the highest crowd at any football match in Bangalore in over 25 years.The spectators comprised not just young boys but even women who appeared to be avid followers –a refreshing fact for football in the country.These fans were not only there for home matches, nut also travelled with the team for away matches. It was during Bengaluru FC’s Federation Cup do-or-die match against East Bengal that some 50 odd supporters overwhelmed one and all in Manjeri.Even Bengaluru’s title clinching game was watched by 500 fans in Goa.

But it’s not only the numbers in the stadium that mattered. There is a unique feel to the atmosphere inside the stadium that can be categorized as somewhat in between the mildly hostile gatherings of Yuba Bharati Krirangan (home to traditional clubs East Bengal and Mohun Bagan) to the bizarrely drab stadiums of Goa. This also has something to do with the demographic advantage of Bengaluru. The tech city, being a job haven, attracts a lot of young population to the city who are passionate about football and love to frequent the city’s endless list of sports bars to catch the live screening of European matches. BFC’s unique appeal lies with this enthusiastic support base.The crowd comes up with its own chants inspiring the players and the manager. And while the visiting players and fans are not spared the occasional witty banter, they are always treated with respect and their quality of football appreciated. The club officials were in for a surprise testament of the stadium experience.A visiting German couple, who watched the match vs East Bengal, dropped by at the stadium and, , requested them for a pair of club jerseys which the officials were happy to provide.

Facilities have been also first of their kind – a corporate box, much like the hospitality boxes in Cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL),high-end tickets of Rs 500 packed with refreshments, and an Emcee – a public announcer cum entertainer rather than a mere announcer – for the home matches.

The BFC Bazaar is perhaps the best place where fans are greeted by their favorite players who get themselves involved in selling personalized Club merchandise. Open training sessions have been arranged for fans to meet and greet the players. Then there was the BFC Day Out where 750 supporters got the chance to play and be ‘coached’ by the players themselves.The ‘Thank You’ banner from the entire squad after the final home game perhaps emphasized the involvement of fans in BFC’s expedition. If club news is to be believed, new innovative offerings like BFC Care and BFC Awards are on the cards.

“I don’t think we have done something very special. These are things you as a fan expect in your favourite Club’s home games,” Club consultant Mandar Tamhane told www.the-aiff.com.

Considering it’s just their debut season in I- League, BFC’s home support has been remarkable
Considering it’s just their debut season in I- League, BFC’s home support has been remarkable

On the field

Proper marketing, an educated fan base and a devoted management were creating a buzz around the club. But all of it would have amounted to nothing had the results on the pitch not been positive for the new boys of Indian football. And this is where the club has surprised supporters and critics alike. They stumbled twice in the long campaign when they went winless for four games in a row. But when they got going, they ensured they won convincingly. Their bad days were numbered and every now and then they came up with thumping wins. Only second placed East Bengal did a double over them, but otherwise BFC looked champions’ material throughout the league. What has been most surprising is the quality of football that the team has put on display. Manager Westwood, with his experience in English football, has formed his team laying equal emphasis on youth and experience and has them playing beautiful football with the ball on the floor. He has also brought in a new training regime, whichemphasis on dietary nutrition and physical fitness. The club then bolstered its coaching prowess with foreign imports such as Malcolm Purchase and Ali Uzunhasanoglou. This bears testimony to the club management’s resolve to help the team play to their potential. While Purchase, who claims he rejected the offer of Premier League club to keep his word to Westwood, arrives as the sports performance and nutrition coach, Ali is a goalkeeping coach with vast foreign experience having trained the likes of John Ruddy in the past.

With coach Ashley Westwood, the club is in safe hands
With coach Ashley Westwood, the club is in safe hands

Way Forward

Till now, the story of Bengaluru FC has been one of immense romanticism, vision and a result-oriented approach. JSW group has taken every step with utmost precision that augments well for not only BFC but also Indian football as a whole, both on and – more importantly – off the field.

One cannot help but applaud BFC’s pragmatic approach towards building the club and the manner in which they have adjusted to the rigors of the league. The club has been a breath of fresh air in a league otherwise marred by the extremes of occasional fan violence and bizarre under-attendance. And, if they continue their current form, the fans have every right to dream of a successful run.

But this outstanding beginning also brings forth the question “What Next?”. Well, there are so many ways in which the club can improve. The start should be with a youth academy to manage the influx of players into the first team. Then they can address the need for a better stadium. While it has been easily glossed over in all the hype surrounding the club and its league position, there is no denying  that the Bangalore Football Stadium, albeit a makeshift arena, is not one where a team from the premier division of Indian football should be playing. The dilapidated stadium doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the growing demand of tickets for BFC home games. Also the location of the stadium, close to MG Road, causes a lot of trouble for the administration to manage the heavy traffic before and after the games. The forthcoming 2017 FIFA World Cup and Reliance IMG League, proposed to start in 2014-15, should be good enough reasons for the owners to come up with a new stadium.

U-17 World Cup – A Future Prospect For Indian Football

Winning the U-17 FIFA World Cup hosting rights is the best opportunity India has bagged for itself to showcase its own football talents. It’s almost like a Pandora’s box that will not only open up a future for our young footballers, but will also create a platform for everyone associated with football, right from administrators to club owners to leave an indelible mark in the global football arena. Soumyadip Das explores the endless possibilities, if everything is done right

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U-17 FIFA World Cup is the fourth oldest FIFA competition after the FIFA World Cup, Olympic Football and FIFA U-20 World Cup. The competition has always provided a stage for young talents to showcase their calibre in front of the world, and is fiercely competitive in its own rights. India, often considered as a ‘Sleeping Giant’ by FIFA, has been selected as host nation for the 2017 edition of the tournament. It promises to be an important platform for Indian football to emerge from the shadows and rub shoulders with the elite in world football.
It’s a memorable experience for a football fan to hear the national anthem of his country played at the biggest stages of world football. Soon the Indian football fan is also going to live the experience. India, till date, haven’t played in the main stage of a football World Cup at any level. That is going to change in 2017, as India will be hosting the U-17 World Cup and as a result will automatically qualify as per tournament rules. Although the glamour is not the same as it is at the senior level, still playing a World Cup at any level is a matter of pride, and India will be gearing up to do justice to the occasion.

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Hosting Rights

Before the start of the bidding process, FIFA was keen for India to bid for the hosting rights. It is a well known fact that FIFA is interested in spreading the game in India because of the huge Indian market. Hosting such an event is a sure way of catching the attention of the media and the public. India agreed to be part of the bidding, and after some initial difficulties in getting the necessary clearances from the government, finally submitted the bid. On 4th December, 2013, a landmark day for the country’s football, India beat other bidders Azerbaijan, South Africa, Ireland and Uzbekistan and got the right to host the 24-nation biennial mega event. The news delighted each and every Indian football fan, as the nation, starved of international football experience at the highest level, finally got the opportunity to join the party and cheer for their team in the world stage.

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U-17

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Concept

A tournament where footballers below the age of 17 represent their countries, the U-17 World Cup also consists of qualification and final rounds, just like its senior counterpart. It provides the starlets a platform to showcase their skills in front of the world and is an important stepping stone to becoming future stars at the senior level.

Brief History

The first edition of the tournament was staged in 1985 in China and subsequent editions have been organised every two years since then. Called the FIFA U-16 World Championship in its original avatar, in 1991, it was rechristened as FIFA U-17 World Championship, and then again in 2007 as FIFA U-17 World Cup, its current name. The most recent edition was hosted by the United Arab Emirates in 2013. The next edition will take place in Chile in 2015, and then, as we all know, India will be hosting it in 2017.

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Nigeria has been the most dominant nation in the tournament’s history till date, with four titles including the most recent version in 2013 and three runners-up finishes. Brazil is the second most decorated team with three titles, while Ghana and Mexico have won two titles each.

The Format

The event consists of a round-robin group stage, where teams in each group play against each other. The final group standings decide which teams qualify for the knockout phase, where successive matches are played and the winning team advances through the competition while the losing team is eliminated. Eventually, the last two teams standing lock horns in the final to decide the tournament champion. The teams losing in the semi-finals face each other to decide the third spot.

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From 1985 to 2005 there were 16 teams in the competition, divided into four groups of four teams each in the group phase. From 2007 the tournament was increased to 24 teams, divided into six groups of four teams each. The top two teams of each group along with the four best third placed teams make the knockout stage. From 1985 to 1993, matches were played over two 40-minute halves with two extra time halves of 10 minutes each for knockout matches in case of a deadlock. In the 1995 edition held in Ecuador, the standard duration of matches was extended to the traditional format of 45 minutes per half (with 15 minutes per half in extra time for knockout games). From 2011, the extra time has been discontinued to save young players from getting exhausted, and all knockout games progress directly to penalties if tied after 90 minutes of regulation time. Till date, 73 teams have participated in this competition, five of them (Morocco, Sweden, Venezuela, Slovakia and Iraq) made their tournament debut in 2013. Brazil and USA hold the record for maximum participation, both having played in the final stage 14 times. Brazil with 40 matches won hold the record for most number of wins, followed by Nigeria and Ghana with 34 and 27 wins respectively. Only Brazil and Nigeria have scored 100 or more goals in the history of the competition, with Brazil holding the record for highest number of victories (142). Florent Sinama Pongolle and Souleymane Coulivaly hold the record for highest number of goals in a single tournament (9 each) in 2001 and 2011 respectively. In the 1997 edition, Spain recorded a 13-0 victory over New Zealand which is the highest margin of victory. Nigeria has won the FIFA Fair-play trophy of U-17 World Cup a record three times. Nigeria holds the unwanted record of most consecutive matches (16) without victory while Brazil holds the record for most consecutive wins (7).

Qualification

The host nation gets an automatic spot in the main event while the other teams play the qualification rounds to earn the right. Every confederation organises different tournaments for the teams to qualify. Those tournaments are- AFC U-16 Championship (for Asian teams), African U-17 Championship (for African teams), CONCACAF U-17 Championship (for North & Central American teams), South American U-17 Football Championship (for South American teams), OFC U-17 Championship (for Oceania teams) and UEFA European U-17 Championship (for European teams). Four teams each from Asia, North and Central America, South America and Africa, six teams from Europe and one team from Oceania qualify for the main competition. The remaining spot is reserved for the host nation.

Superstar in the Making

Outstanding players worldwide have been known to ‘jump’ the grades, because of their exceptional skills, straight to the senior national team at a tender age. More than 100 players have played FIFA World Cup while being eligible for the U-17 version. For example, Pele, regarded as the world’s best ever player, made his debut for Brazil in a 2-1 defeat against Argentina in 1957, aged 16 years and nine months. Even at that age, he scored Brazil’s only goal to enter the history books as the youngest goal scorer in international football. Diego Maradona too made his senior debut for Argentina at the age of 16. In recent times also the trend has continued. Argentina and Barcelona star, Lionel Messi, made his full debut in 2005 at the age of 18. His first senior game for Argentina came few weeks after he led Argentina to victory in the 2005 U-20 World Cup, beating Nigeria 2-1 in the final. Pele and another Brazilian great, Romario, in 2010, urged the Selecao’s then coach, Dunga, to include Neymar, Brazil’s newest star, in his squad for the 2010 World Cup, after some courageous performances in the Nigeria 2009 U-17 World Cup. Players like David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Landon Donovan, Fernando Torres, Andres Iniesta, Eden Hazard, Pablo Zabaleta, Tim Krul, Mamadou Sakho, Christian Benteke, Javi Garcia etc. have showed their spark in this competition through the years and have now become indispensable parts of some of the famous and successful clubs and countries. Among the players emerging from the U-17 World Cup, Emanuel Petit and Andres Iniesta have scored in FIFA World Cup final, while altogether 10 players have played FIFA World Cup final for the winning team. Iker Casillas has won FIFA World Cup as a captain (in 2010).
The following video contains some of the greatest moments of U-17 World Cup history.

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India’s Chances

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As the host country, India will participate in the 2017 edition. It is a great exposure for Indian Football. Few years ago, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said in an interview – “Indian Football is still lagging by 100 years”. The scenario hasn’t changed much till now.

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Indian football is going through a lean phase. India played in the 2011 AFC Championship, but lost all their group matches to get knocked out without a single point. Recently, India has even lost the final of SAFF Cup to Afganistan, a tournament in which India has otherwise seen success over the years. Yet, FIFA has given India a great opportunity which they must look to capitalize on. FIFA President Sepp Blatter believes that there is great hidden potential in Indian football and the U-17 World Cup will provide a platform to realise some of that.

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As India needs to develop stadiums and facilities as per FIFA guidelines, it will also go a long way towards improving the football infrastructure of the country which cries for a much needed facelift. Currently, there are two stadiums in India (Delhi and Chennai) which meet the standards required to host a FIFA match. India is planning to upgrade several more stadiums to FIFA standard and have identified stadiums in Kolkata, Guwahati, Kochi, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Goa, and Pune as possible venues. This will in turn benefit the clubs which use these stadiums as their home ground.

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Apart from hosting the tournament successfully, India is also looking to make a mark on the playing field in front of a global audience. To realise that dream, East Bengal, one of the leading Indian football clubs, have decided to start talent development programmes in three places (Tejpur in Assam, Jalpaiguri in West Bengal and Kannur in Kerala) , with the co-operation of the Tea – Board. As part of this program, the club will provide technical support to groom the players under the age of 13 who will potentially don national colours in the 2017 tournament.

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Recently, AIFF General Secretary Kushal Das said in an interview that the Coca-Cola Cup (formerly the Mir Iqbal Hossain Trophy), an under-15 tournament, will be one of the primary auditioning grounds for the Under-17 World Cup Team for 2017. More than 40,000 players participated in the last edition of the tournament held across 75 cities. This tournament is yet to launch any major players, but keeping the 2017 U-17 World Cup in mind, AIFF, in partnership with Coca Cola, will rejuvenate the tournament, to hunt young talents for the future. Once promising players are identified, AIFF plans to groom them for 2017 through international exposure, guidance and training facilities. AIFF has already selected five young players (Jitendra Singh, Amit Tudu, Subrata Das Prasenjit Chakraborty and Abhijit Sarkar) to participate in “Coke Coaching and Conditioning Camp” in Brazil in next May, and such exercises are set to continue in the coming years.

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In the recently held World Cup trophy tour in India, Selecao’s World Cup winning captain of 1970, Carlos Alberto, emphasized on the importance of hard work and training. During the event in Kolkata, he called up two U-16 National Camp trainees and said,

Practise, practise and practise. You will have to work hard every day with the junior players if you want them to become stars of future. The stars of today like (Lionel) Messi and Neymar have put endless hours of practice in the academies of the clubs like Barcelona and Santos to become what they are today”.

Effect on the Women’s game

In the senior level, India’s women’s team has shown some strong performances in AFC Asian Championship and World Cup qualifiers. The FIFA ranking of the women’s team (49) is also much higher than the men’s team. If India can host the men’s event successfully, they can also try to bid for the rights to host U-17 Women’s World Cup in future which can help in further development of women’s football in the country. AIFF is already looking to build a good women’s squad at U-17 level as well. If they can get hosting rights to the U-17 women’s World Cup it can help boost their plans to improve the women’s game in the country, and the U-17 men’s World Cup can be a stepping stone in that direction.

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Conclusion

FIFA has seen the potential among Indian players and the passion of fans for the game; that’s why they provided India with this golden opportunity. In the past, India enjoyed success at the Asian level but the graph has gone downward ever since. This is India’s biggest chance to turn the tide and they should make full use of it. If they succeed, we might see India take the first steps towards becoming a football powerhouse in future. Spain and Brazil are two teams who have reaped the benefits of getting a good team from U-17 level to progress through to the senior level. Given time, there is no reason why India cannot replicate such success if they work hard from the grassroots level.

I-League 2013-14 : Mid-Season Review

The I-league for the season has reached an interesting juncture where around five out of 13 teams are now in contention to win the league. Leading the pack is a debutant. Kaushik Saha takes a look at the teams, where they stand, and their prospects of winning the league

A wind of change is blowing through Indian football. I am not talking about India getting the rights to host the 2017 U-17 World Cup, or maybe the Club World Cup in 2015 /16. I am not even talking of the much-hyped IMG-Reliance football league where big names who retired recently from football will play for city-based Indian franchises. I am talking of a much humbler tournament, in existence for nearly 15 years now, the I-League – India’s top division football league.

Let us take a look at the league table for 2013-14 season at the halfway stage

Table
I-League Table

 

At this point, when almost all the teams have played each other at least once and some have even locked horns with each other twice, the leader is not a team from traditional Indian football powerhouses like Goa or Kolkata, but Bengaluru FC. This team was formed only in 2013 after Air India and ONGC expressed their inability to field teams in 2013-14 I-League and the All India Football Federation called for bids for new teams based on cash payment.

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Sunil Chhetri joined Bengaluru FC

The Jindal group came forward and put together a team under the astute guidance of former EPL player Ashley Westwood. He assembled some good players from other teams. At the top of the pack was the Indian captain and footballer of the year Sunil Chhetri, followed by former East Bengal striker Robin Singh and Australian footballer Sean Rooney who scored Bengaluru’s first ever I-League goal against Mohun Bagan. The young team repaid the faith with some solid performances, managing a draw with former champions Mohun Bagan in their first match, followed by a victory over Rangdajied United of Shillong, their fellow debutants this year. Whether they will go on to win the league or not is a tricky question at this stage given their lack of experience at the highest level. Let’s see how other teams have fared so far :

Sporting Clube de Goa

This team was in the middle of the table till their seventh match. Then they finally pulled up their socks and went on a winning spree. They have won their last four matches, including an away one against fellow title contenders Salgaocar FC and a 5-1 win over Shillong Lajong at home. It is important to note that SCG have a predominantly Indian squad, and mostly from Goa – the players have practiced together for a long time and have a good understanding amongst each other. This helped them in crucial moments, such as the away victory against Mohun Bagan when their midfield (manned mostly by local players) combined to set up a goal. Yes, they had their share of setbacks, such as a soul-crushing loss to Mohammedan at home, but they seem to be on an upward trend again.

Shillong Lajong FC

Shillong and other parts of northeast India have supplied quality footballers to other clubs in India – Bhaichung Bhutia, Naoba Singh, Shlo Malsawmtluanga, Reisangmei Vashum and several others for long. Since the late 2000s, they had their first “indigenous” team – Shillong Lajong FC, competing in the top flight of Indian domestic football. Shillong had a tough time in the past seasons, even got demoted to the second division in the 2010-11 season. But they came back with a team full of local talent including J-Legaue player Taisuke Matsuage, to add some teeth.

Despite being on the wrong end of two of the heaviest defeats this season, which reflects in their negative goal difference (0-4 to East Bengal at home and 1-5 to SCG away), they have done well to record away wins over Mumbai and Dempo, and home wins over difficult Goanese teams Dempo and Salgaocar. However, they might find it difficult to maintain the momentum given that they will play mostly away matches from now on, and against title contenders like East Bengal and Pune FC. Their lack of experience might not serve them well. But it would be fantastic to see them finish well and qualify for the continental championships.

Pune FC

Pune FC is highly regarded as a very professionally managed team. Owned by the Ashok Piramal group, they focus a lot on selling merchandise through their fan clubs. Besides, they have the most well-maintained stadium in the country – the football ground of Balewadi Sports Complex at Pune. This year, they played in the qualifying stages of AFC Champions League, Asia’s top-tier club competition – by virtue of finishing second in the I-League last season and for their consistent performances elsewhere. This year, they have an interesting mix of players – a former MLS player, Calum Angus, who has been a defensive mainstay and Shamnugam Venkatesh, one of the senior most and well known Indian footballers who has won the National Football League with three different clubs in the past.

However, in the I-league, they have blown hot and cold – they started off well, slumped towards the end of the first half which saw them slide from firstto fourthrank. The loss at home to Mumbai FC in the Maharashtra Derby proved crucial and though they won away at United SC, they don’t look like title contenders anymore, especially after a 1-3 loss against Mohun Bagan away where Odafa Okolie toyed with them. They have been poor travellers, losing to SCG and even Rangdajied away while drawing with Salgaocar Lajong and Dempo, and though they have beaten Bengaluru FC at home – in the second leg they will have to play both East Bengal and Bengaluru away. Overall, they might finish mid-table this season.

Salgaocar S.C.

One of the earliest winners of the National Football League, Salgaocar is a consistent performer in the Indian football scene and is a contender for the I-Legaue every year. This year they have a young but good squad – with the likes of former JCT and India goalkeeper Karanjit Singh. They started off well, leading at a point of time after winning away matches against Churchill Brothers, Mumbai FC, East Bengal and United SC – yet a series of losses towards the end of the first half (home defeat to SCG and home and away defeats to Bengaluru FC and Lajong) now sees them languishing at fifth, barely a point ahead of East Bengal, who has played three matches less. However, in the second half, they have easier matches to play against Mohun Bagan, Mumbai FC and last-placed two teams Rangdajied and Churchill Brothers at home. They are expected to storm back, and can even finish in the top three, given that they no longer have to play fellow title contenders.

Kingfisher East Bengal

East Bengal has a habit of throwing away good starts. This season, due to their continental commitments, they started late but with a thumping 4-0 away victory at Shillong Lajong. Their African recruits James Moga and Edeh Chidi were said to be in good touch and Indians – especially Dika, Lobo and Arnab Mondal more than made up for the loss of their inspirational captain Mehtab to an injury early in the season. They have won home and away matches versus table-toppers Bengaluru FC, yet lost crucial matches against Salgaocar and Dempo at home and Mumbai FC away. They brought cheer to their fans by winning the oldest and most fiercely competed derby in India – the Kolkata Derby (beat Mohun Bagan 1-0), but then had an uninspiring draw vs. United SC, a match in which they should have won by a couple of goals.

East Bengal celebrate a goal
East Bengal celebrate a goal

East Bengal have a few easy matches in their second half – they play most of their fellow title contenders at home. They have a team which is on the rise, and now in Armando Colaco they have a coach who knows what it takes to win the League. Armando Colaco, as coach of Dempo has won the I-League an unprecedented five times and is perhaps the most successful Indian coach in the past quarter of a century. But it remains to be seen if he can replicate similar success with another club, away from the state where he achieved miracles. And he has taken over the coaching duties of East Bengal at a time when they were passing through a rough phase under their former coach, Brazilian Marcos Falopa. Hopefully this time they can bring the league to Kolkata, which was last achieved nearly a decade back.

McDowell Mohun Bagan

Mohun Bagan have gone through its share of problems this season, but the management has kept their faith in the coach and a young team. Coach Karim Bencharifa hasn’t yet achieved a high level of consistency with the team, but they have a cohesiveness running through the squad led by veteran striker Okolie Odafa. They have a four-time National League champion Sandip Nandy under the bar and young local talent Souvik Chakrabarty manning their defense. They are on a par with East Bengal on the points table, although they have played four more matches than their local rivals. They started off the season without Odafa who was out with an injury and yet did well to snatch two away draws at Bengaluru and Churchill Brothers.

Mohun Bagan celebrate a goal
Mohun Bagan celebrate a goal

Then began a roller-coaster ride – with an away defeat to Pune, a home defeat to SCG, a home win vs. Salgaocar FC and an away win at Mumbai, thanks to a fit and in-form Odafa. However, home defeats to East Bengal, Rangdajied (their first victory in this season) and Dempo saw them slide to the lower half of the league. Finally, a thumping home victory over Pune FC helped them end the year on a high. Given their inconsistency, not much is expected of them in the second half as well, a win here and there followed by defeats and draws from unexpected quarters means their supporters would be looking forward to the return leg of the Kolkata Derby for some solace. However, now that they are focussing on young local talent, they might be expected to perform better over the next few years and maybe even add a trophy or more to their illustrious cabinet.

United Sports Club

United SC has had a nightmarish start to the season. They lost their title sponsor, and couldn’t afford to pay their players. But the loyalists stayed put, including their best player over the past few seasons, Ranti Martins and their captain – veteran Indian footballer Deepak Mondal. Ranti had attractive offers from almost all big clubs in India, but he decided to play at a much lower annual salary at United SC. United SC have played the same number of matches, is tied with Mohun Bagan on the points tally and is ranked lower only on goal difference. But they have slid towards the close of the first half with a few losses – a home defeat to Pune and an away defeat to SCG. Their inconsistency has been evident when in the middle of a good run they drew Dempo at home and Pune away and lost 0-4 to Mohun Bagan. In the second half, they have an even mix of easy and tough matches, but they are not seen as anything more than spoilers at this stage and are likely to finish in the middle of the table.

Mumbai FC

They looked a very strong team on paper at the beginning of the season, with their Afghan trio and Yusif Yakubu, one of the best ever strikers to have played in Indian football in the last decade. They also have a good mix of Indian stars, Climax Lawrence and NP Pradeep l who add  a good blend of experience and youth. Given the team, Mumbai has underperformed, losing at home to Mohun Bagan, Salgaocar and Lajong FC. They recorded a series of draws in matches they should have won comfortably against SCG, Dempo and lowly ranked Rangdajied at home. They have beaten East Bengal at home and Pune away, but in their second leg, they have tough matches coming, and are unlikely to move up the table further.

Dempo Sports Club

On paper, they have a very good team – a good mix of youth — Holicharan Narzary of the erstwhile Pailan Arrows which was disbanded after the last season and experience — Mahesh Gawli, Jewel Raja– who have been there, done that (winning the league). However, the change of their talismanic coach Armando Colaco seems to have affected them so much that barring away victories at Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, they don’t have any good performance to speak about. They have endured humiliating home losses to Lajong and Prayag. Another league winning mastermind, Subhash Bhowmick (who has won the league with East Bengal and Churchill Brothers in the past), has now been given the charge to turn their fortunes. Can he can pull them up to the top half of the league? Time will tell.

A scene from Dempo- Bengaluru FC
A scene from Dempo- Bengaluru FC match

Mohammedan Sporting Club

Mohammedan Sporting was not expected to trouble anybody at the start of the season, and the script has gone on expected lines. They are languishing at eleventh spot on the table and relegation seems a distinct possibility. It’s not that they don’t have a good team. They had a fitter and goal hungrier Tolgay Ozebe, Pen Orji and Brazilian Josimar to start with. They had the experience of Rakesh Masih, Nirmal Chhetri and Mehrajuddin Wadoo. They started the season on a positive note with hope of a reversal in fortunes after winning the Durand Cup in 2013 and few matches in the Calcutta League. But, barring a historic away victory against SCG, they don’t have much to show in the I-League. They have away matches against most of the title contenders in the second leg. Now with terribly out of form Tolgay released, it will be a miracle if they save the drop.

Rangdajied vs. Mohammedan Sporting
Rangdajied vs. Mohammedan Sporting

Rangdajied United FC

They qualified for the top division of the I-League this year by winning the I-League second division last year. Sponsored by Italian athletic footwear and apparel manufacturer Diadora, they have a very young team with only goalkeeper Subrata Pal lending a bit of experience. Not only were they not expected to cause any major upset, they were in fact one of the teams marked out for relegation at the beginning of the season. They certainly did not disappoint the bookmakers. It’s not that they didn’t try – they beat Mohun Bagan away and earned a hard fought win over Pune at home. In the historic Shillong Derby, they had Lajong on the mat, and the match ended in a 1-1 draw. Rangdajied has a mixed set of matches in the second leg, but is not expected to do much from now on.

Churchill Brothers SC

The author himself is surprised to mention Churchill Brothers at the bottom of the table. The champions of last season are having a very bad year. Letting go of technical director Subhash Bhowmick (who masterminded their l-league victory last season) was not a very good sign, but then they have a history of letting go of coaches after short periods of time. As if losing in the opening round of the AFC Cup 2012-13 was not enough, they have performed abysmally this season, despite having a good and balanced team. They have a difficult second leg as well, but the fact that they have a history of winning means they have a chance to avoid relegation. They also have their continental engagements, but they won’t hesitate to sacrifice that to avoid the drop there.

Overall, there’s an exciting second leg of the I-league awaiting us. There will be the classic derbies at Goa, Kolkata and Shillong. There are about five teams who are title contenders, but Bengaluru FC looks a clear leader at this stage. Given their form and consistency, they look all set to seal it unless SCG or East Bengal can stop their juggernaut. So brace yourselves for some exciting football, one that will (hopefully) take Indian domestic football a step forward.

East Bengal’s Golden Continental Run

Kingfisher East Bengal FC has recently been the second Indian team to make it to the last-four stage of a continental championship as the only unbeaten club in this year’s competition. Kaushik Saha traces their incredible journey with a brief history of the tournament and a way ahead for the Red and Gold brigade

One may wonder why I am following up on East Bengal’s record against foreign opponents so soon with a similar piece – but the club’s latest achievement merits another article.
 
East Bengal became the second team, and first outside the current Indian football powerhouse of Goa (Dempo also reached the semi-finals in 2008, but the tournament was played in a different format then) to make it to the semi-finals of a continental championship – the AFC Cup. What makes their achievement more special is that they have not lost a single match so far – the only club in this year’s competition with the above feat. East Bengal has played 9, won six and drawn 3 this season.
 
There is another reason to feel proud as an Indian football fan and East Bengal’s. After some unimpressive performances by the national team which includes a loss to Afghanistan in the recently concluded SAFF Cup, East Bengal has joined two teams from Kuwait and one team from Jordan in the last 4 matches.

The AFC Cup

The Asian Football Confederation developed a “Vision Asia” document in the early 2000s in which they looked at the club and national football structure in its entirety. The report identified 14 nations that fell outside the top 14 ranked countries from Asia as “emerging nations”. A decision was taken that domestic clubs from top 14 “developed nations” would play in the Asian Champions League, while 32 clubs from the emerging nations would play in the AFC Cup. There is also an AFC President’s Cup, meant for the 12 teams which do not fall in either category.

The multiple-tier structure is similar to that of Europe’s UEFA Champions League and the Europa League. This is to provide the clubs from emerging nations an opportunity to compete at the continental level. The first edition was held in 2004. Initially, ACL and AFC Cup were unrelated, but 2009 onwards, the winner of the AFC Cup is allowed to take part in the AFC Champions League qualifiers. A single-match Round of 16 was introduced the same year. Kuwait Sports Club and Al-Faisaly club of Jordan are the two clubs with 2 titles each, with Kuwait SC being the defending champions.
 
India is one of the 14 original countries (the list has kept on changing according to FIFA rankings and clubs’ performances and now increased to 16) and has remained in the list – two clubs are allowed to participate from India. The two clubs that represent India are the champions of the Federation Cup and the I-league.
 
 

Indian Clubs’ Performance in AFC Cup

India has been historically represented by only six teams – East Bengal, Mahindra United (now disbanded), Mohun Bagan, Dempo, Salgaocar and Churchill Brothers (Churchill Brothers and Dempo have also played in the AFC Champions League playoffs). Besides Dempo, who lost in the 2008 semi-finals to Al-Safa of Lebanon, East Bengal reached the quarter-finals in 2004 where they lost to Al-Jaish of Syria and Mahindra United reached the same stage in 2007 where they lost to Al-Nejmeh of Lebanon.

East Bengal’s Performance in the Current Season

East Bengal qualified for the tournament as winners of the 2012 Federation Cup, with I-League winners Churchill Brothers being the other participant from India. East Bengal went through a lot of changes during the course of the tournament. First and most importantly, their talismanic coach – who led them in the Round of 32 to the top of the group and then a comfortable win in the Round of 16 -Trevor James Morgan left the team after three years in charge at the end of the Indian football season in June, but before East Bengal played their crucial quarter-final match.
 
Some changes took place in the team as well. Robin Singh was let go to get in Joaquim Abranches. Penn Orji of Nigeria was replaced by James Moga of South Sudan and Ryuji Sueoka of Japan came in place of Australian Andrew Barisić. However, Mehtab Hussain, the skipper for this season and the engine of the team, defender Arnab Mondal and Nigerian centre-back Uga Okpara have been retained.
 
East Bengal’s preparation for the quarter-final was far from ideal. Their new coach – Brazilian Marcos Falopa is yet to fully settle in and soak in the local culture. East Bengal played just two competitive matches this season in the Calcutta Football League, one of which could not be completed due to poor light conditions. The opposition was Semen Padang, the Indonesian champions who had played pre-season friendlies against teams from West Asia and topped the group which included Churchill Brothers.

East Bengal vs. Semen Padang
 
However, two things went in East Bengal’s favour –one, by virtue of earlier round results, they faced a comparatively weaker team from South East Asia rather than a West or Central Asian team. Secondly, they played their first match at home, in front of a vociferous 40,000 strong crowd, which helped them get the initial momentum. They won 1-0 at home (Yuva Bharati Krirangan) via a goal from substitute Ryuji Sueoka. More importantly, they didn’t allow Semen Padang to score an away goal. In the return leg at Indonesia, East Bengal fell behind, but managed an equalizer via South Sudanese international James Moga. The 1-1 draw was enough to send them into the semi-finals on a 2-1 aggregate.

The Way Ahead

In the round of semi-final, both advantages East Bengal had in the Round of 8 will be negated. They will play the defending champions and Kuwaiti Premier League champions Kuwait SC away first on October 1 at their home ground Al Kuwait Sports Club Stadium, followed by the home match on October 22. The first leg will be played just seven days after the second leg of the quarter-final, which means East Bengal won’t have the time to rest their injured players or play a competitive match in Indian tournaments. The I-League has begun, and East Bengal haven’t been able to start so far because of their Asian engagements. That, and the festival season in India means they will virtually have no time for mental and physical preparation for the second leg.
 

Kuwait SC
 
Kuwait SC is ranked 141 in the World Football Club ranking, in touching distance with eminent European Clubs like AS Roma. To put in a perspective, East Bengal is ranked last among the eligible clubs at 447, the only Indian club to feature in the rankings.
 
After losing to Bahrain based Al-Riffa and Safa in the group stage, Kuwait SC have not looked back. They topped their group despite the setbacks. In the Round of 16, they beat Iraqi Premier League club Dohuk SC on penalties. In the quarter-finals, they beat New Radiant of Maldives 12-2 over two legs. They have in their ranks the Tunisian striker Issam Jemâa, (who has the record of scoring the most goals for the Tunisian national team, and is also the top scorer in the current AFC Cup with 13 goals, including 7 vs. New Radiant), Bahrain defender Hussain Ali Baba (who has 71 international caps for Bahrain) and Brazilian striker Rogerinho in their ranks, besides one of the most celebrated players in Kuwait, midfielder Jarah Al Ateeqi as their captain.
 
East Bengal was embroiled in a slight visa issue, which means some of the key first team players, including captain Mehtab, will reach Kuwait less than 36 hours before the start of the match. Nigerian Chidi Edeh is their top scorer in the tournament and a dependable forward. Coach Falopa has repeatedly stressed that he won’t mind conceding two or three as long as they score at least one vital away goal. The coach hinted at a 4-4-1-1 or 4-4-2 formation, but has kept cards close to his chest as far as the starting 11 is concerned for the first leg.
 
A victory will be historic, because not only will they be the first Indian team to reach the finals, but will improve India’s AFC quotient. If they do so, they will have to contend with the winners of Al-Faisaly and Qadsia Sporting Club of Syria. And that would be a single leg match on a neutral territory. Let’s wish East Bengal the best and hope they make the nation proud!

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.
 
 

Pailan Arrows – A brave experiment in Indian football

Football academies, in joint venture with corporate houses, have come and gone. Through them, talents have bloomed and died a natural death over the years. Yet we don’t give up. Kaushik Saha profiles AIFF’s new baby and hands out a few tips on how the greenhorn can ensure a sustainable model to nurture talent.

Some time back, there was a post in Goalden Times about Corporate and their role in Indian football (Read it here and here).  Corporate honchos with their deep pockets, have significant money to invest  and take the sport forward by developing infrastructure. A case in point is the way Indian cricket has been shaped and made into a global mega money sport.

Several articles have been written on the slow and steady demise of Indian football and I myself have spoken and written about lack of big money and sponsors  and the apathy they have shown to the Beautiful Game. A recent case in point is that of a big Industry house inIndiashutting down its football team. Their MD tweeted that he will make sure the money is used for “promotion of sports”, which then turned out to be sponsoring a cricket league in a neighbouring country.

It is in the backdrop of this that I will write about the experimental baby of Indian football – the AIFF XI which was renamed Indian Arrows, and finally, under the aegis of the Pailan Group called Pailan Arrows. The word “sports talent hunt” can mean many things inIndia, though in the past 30 years it has been associated with cricket mostly, thanks to effort of a few individuals. It has been extended to Olympic sports like boxing, wrestling and badminton, with good results. But in football – it has been sporadic –TataFootballAcademytook more steps backward than it took forward, as most of the “future talent” seemed interested in securing themselves a job with the Tatas than taking up football as profession.

Milan Singh (l) and Holicharan Narzary

In 2010, the then Indian football coach Bob Houghton noticed that most of Under-19 and Under 22 footballers of the national squad were warming the benches in the clubs, while foreigners (mostly big bodied Africans) dominated the scene. The clubs did not have a sense of duty towards their country, in some cases (as shown by recent incidents), not even to their spectators. Their aim was to win tournaments, not develop talent. The few development academies some of these clubs run (one, run by a certain “National Club” in my hometown is a sham of the highest order, where mostly those who can afford the high fees make it), were found to be inadequate. With this in mind, AIFF XI was founded on recommendations of Bob Houghton, the then manager of Indian football team, and AIFF President Praful Patel, with the intention of qualifying for the football world cups in Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022).

They were supposed to have debuted in Tier2 of the Indian National League, but as the aforementioned “Corporate Club” was disbanded, they made it to the top tier. They finished in the bottom 2, but were not relegated as the entire purpose of their existence was to make them keep playing with the top teams.  Sukhwinder Singh, the former (and moderately successful) coach of the national team was the coach initially, but he was sacked after the team’s dismal performance. Finally, after a few experiments, Australian Arthur Papas was made the coach.

Considering they play in the national colours and are sponsored by the Pailan Group fromBengal, the team changed their name and shifted base to Kolkata. This shifting has done a world of good to the team. First, they can play their home matches at theSaltLakestadium, which is one of the better football stadiums in the country. Secondly, they have developed a significant supporter base from the Kolkata crowd who are one of the most passionate followers of the sport in the country.

Will the experiment work?

Let’s analyse it from three perspectives:

(1)    Football Clubs owned by Corporate houses – They fall into three categories themselves – first the Salgaocar-Churchill Brothers- Dempo  type of football clubs – owned by business houses or families which cannot be termed as Corporate houses in the strictest meaning of the term. These organizations are largely family-owned, and it percolates down to the football team as well, whose management, team and coach selection etc depend to an extent upon the whims and fancies of the “families”. But this also has an advantage. Most of the players who play here know they won’t land up jobs with the “families”, hence the set up is more game-oriented where the primary focus is football.

The second type of clubs owned by Corporate houses are Mahindra United – JCT as part of their CSR drive (both not in existence incidentally) – here sports is much more organized, there are teams within the organization which ensure the sports ventures go on unhindered, selection of players and coaches are taken in board meetings and the set up is more professional. But there is also the risk that the Corporate house may feel they no longer want to invest in football, might want to move into Olympic sports or shut the sports division altogether to manage top-lines. Also, the risk remains that footballers may view these as means to land up a job in the organization, and once they get in, lose interest and the hunger to do well in the sport.

The third type of corporate house-fotball club tie-up is in organizations like ONGC and HAL who have sports teams, just like another division in the company. Here, there are a few outsiders, but the core group of players and officials come from inside the organization. Unlike in the first two types, here there are no insecurities as as players already have a job and management of the sports teams is separate. But here youngsters with potential do not find a place unless they are capable enough to be employees of the organization in some capacity, and that leaves out a significant portion of football talent.

Pailan Arrows falls in the second category as far as this classification is concerned, but they are slightly different in the sense that they are backed by AIFF and hence do not face risk of being dissolved. Not falling in category one means they are more professionally managed and not falling in category three means they do not leave out talented but unemployable youngsters. But it is also to be noted that the first category of teams has historically done well – the reason is not difficult to fathom – by keeping interference from the “organization” separate, and having quick decision-makers means there is no red tape as far as taking strong and quick decisions are concerned. Here the AIFF will have to be careful. They should ensure minimum red tape, be professional, streamline management, and bring in the funds.

(2)    Developmental academies owned by Corporates: The Tata Group owned a football academy called Tata Football Academy (TFA) which turned out to be a not-so-successful experiment. They had the right talent spotters who got in good players from across the country and trained them well, and earned the sobriquet of being the “Nursery of Indian football”. However, once the players impressed here, they were netted by the big clubs with the lure of decent money and in the club vs. country debate, the country lost out.

Here AIFF will have to be careful. They have to have a good mentorship team besides the regular coaching team who would counsel the players, keep their focus in tact and instill in them the pride of playing for the country. There will still be a few defections, but the core group of talent can be preserved.

(3)    Developmental academies run professionally: This does not necessarily mean football. Olympic Gold Quest is an organization run by former stars from different sports who identify talent in Olympic sports from a very early age and enroll them, taking care of their education, coaching and other mental and physical well being. This has started to show results with players from Badminton and athletics who have been doing well in various national and international events. The team here is extremely professional, have degrees in sports management, sports medicine etc, and this, besides the good results have ensured good sponsorships as well. Besides OGQ, boxing, wrestling and hockey also have small pockets of good trainers – some former Olympians themselves. They have helped to develop talent in these sports.

AIFF, presided by a former cabinet minister, is not short of sponsor-pulling power. They just have to get the right people in the mix and ensure similar talent spotting and development happens here in football as well. As of now, AIFF is not the most well-managed body. Charges of nepotism, red-tapism and corruption are rampant, and this is indeed a cause for worry.

It has to be kept in mind Pailan Arrows cannot produce overnight results. There will be lucrative offers from bigger clubs or the players might not come from well-to-do families. In their initial years, they will win few, lose a lot more. But the key will be to keep a wise on the young shoulders and create an impact.

Indian National League (I-League) 2011-12 Season Review

With the Indian domestic football season having come to a close in May, Debojyoti Chakraborty summarizes the nation’s top-tier football league

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The top-tier football league in India, known as the I-League, came to a close in May and Dempo Sports Club won the 16th edition leaving behind 13 others vying for the honour. The tournament started in 1996-97 as the National Football League to bring in professionalism in an age-old and dying Indian football system. It may seem contrasting but the national team was at its highest ever FIFA ranking of 94 at the start of 1996 but has seen an all-time low of 165[1] in April, 2012. However, football remains a hugely popular sport in India, more so in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal, where it is treated as a religion. Let us start our journey showcasing a recap of the season that just got over.