x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Indian football withering away from within

The decision by the JCT Mills to close the doors on their club football team is another example of how the beautiful game is an ugly spectacle in India.

India's national team has turned its back on Bob Houghton, above, who led India to the AFC Challenge Cup title in 2008.
India's national team has turned its back on Bob Houghton, above, who led India to the AFC Challenge Cup title in 2008.

When Indian football, administered by those time had passed by, decided to go "professional" in the 1990s with the National Football League, the inaugural champions were Jagatjit Cotton and Textile Mills from Phagwara in Punjab.

Like so many of the northern English clubs who helped grow such strong roots for the game in the 19th century, JCT, too, were from a mill town. They were even nicknamed the Millmen.

Less than two decades after that triumph, they were relegated from the I-League, finishing 14th and last.

Wretched away form, with just four draws in 13 games, and the inability of the forwards to score - 17 goals in 26 matches - meant that one of India's most famous clubs had to confront life in the national league's second tier.

Only, they won't.

Four decades after the club was established, and in a decision that had uncomfortable echoes of Mahindra United's withdrawal from Indian football last year, the team owners pulled the plug.

A news release spoke of a "strategic decision" to withdraw until a time when the game could generate "value for corporates and their brands".

The management-speak was unfortunate, bringing back memories of the suits that endorsed Wimbledon's move to Milton Keynes.

But in the case of JCT, the team really had been a labour of love, with the Thapar family spending millions of rupees to create a side that carried the standard for football in northern India.

Once upon a time, when the game wasn't just cricket's impoverished and distant cousin, there were teams like Jalandhar's Leader Club, established by Lala Dwarka Das Sehgal.

In the 1950s and '60s, when Indian football meant mainly region-based competitions and invitational tournaments, they were famous for the Punjabi brand of football that relied on strength and speed just as much as it did on ball control and skill.

Inder Singh was the talisman of that side, and perhaps the last great Indian footballer. The Chuni Goswami-PK Banerjee-Peter Thangaraj generation won gold at the Asian Games in 1962, when Inder was 19, but the years that followed saw unabated decline. Inder was one of the bright spots in a dark landscape, finishing as leading scorer at the Asian Cup in 1964.

By the time he moved over to the newly-formed JCT, he was in his 30s, but such was his reputation among local football aficionados that they would travel from other towns and even states to watch him play. By the time Inder quit, the new boys were making a mark on the national stage, and within 20 years, they were kings of an admittedly diminished castle.

"JCT Limited, being a corporate, needs to justify to its stakeholders the effort versus visibility of the football team," said the news release. "Today, football teams worldwide have become self-sustaining enterprises for which high exposure is needed to build viewership and spectators in the stadium."

Anyone could read between the lines - Indian football continues to be run on amateur lines, with decisions left in the hands of those who wouldn't know a Tic Tac from Tiki Taka.

Stephen Constantine and Bob Houghton, two wandering Englishmen who did much to raise the national side's profile over the past decade, often spoke of their difficulties in dealing with these dated mandarins. His clashes with authority ultimately cost Houghton his job as the national coach.

The incumbent is Armando Colaco, who has won four titles with Dempo, the Goan side that he represented for 14 years. JCT's exit has left him shocked, but far from surprised. "It had to happen," he said. "Unless we control the maddening payments to players, more teams will follow JCT and Mahindra."

JCT's exit was also tinged with irony. A few days after the senior team ceased to exist, the Under-19s held off East Bengal, one of India's traditional big two, to win their league. All those talented youngsters will now need to look at another club to play for.

You can only blame poor administration for so long, though. As the recent Fifa fiascos have shown, it is not as though a few good men run football elsewhere. Ultimately, clubs needs benefactors with deep pockets and a long-term vision. India in the 21st century has plenty of billionaires, but few with the inclination to invest in the beautiful game.

But instead of planting seeds in their own backyard, India's rich are busy cherry-picking elsewhere. Those of Indian origin now own Blackburn Rovers and Racing Santander. Lakshmi Mittal has links to Queens Park Rangers. If only they read Voltaire's Candide: "We must cultivate our garden."