Money and Football in India

After the second consecutive success of the Indian football team in the 2009 ONGC Nehru Cup, it’s a good idea to take a look at how we are doing in the game. Our national team is still ranked an abysmal 149th in the FIFA world rankings, but the qualification for the AFC Cup 2011 has raised some hopes. There is one question on everybody’s lips – why are we still doing so poorly on the world scene?

Various reasons have been given for this, right from the cricket blame-game to our inherently inferior physique. One important factor that plays a large role in the fortunes of football, or any sport for that matter is money.

The entry of corporate houses has greatly improved the situation. Vijay Mallya’s UB group owns and sponsors the rival Kolkata clubs Mohun Bagan and East Bengal, and the newly floated Pune FC was formed and pushed into the premier I-League by the Mumbai-based Piramal Group.

Big money comes in, but where does it go? The Indian 1st division league footballers are surprisingly well paid, earning at least 20-30 lakhs per season from their respective clubs. Mohun Bagan defender Nanjangud Manju has a package of 40 lakhs per season, East Bengal’s Syed Rahim Nabi draws 35 lakhs and one can only guess about the star player Bhaichung Bhutia’s income. Sure, it’s not comparable to the European clubs but then neither is our standard. Clubs are allowed to field 4 foreigners in the I-League matches, and thus spend a lot of their budget on purchasing burly players from the African nations. Indian skipper Bhutia himself stated in an interview that this practice is harmful to Indian football, both in terms of money and the development of the sport.

So the performers are benefiting. What about the overall conditions of the sport? It’s a shame that national coach Bob Houghton had to take the team to Barcelona for training this year because India does not have adequate grounds and facilities. Out of the three famous clubs of Kolkata – Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting, not one has its own training ground. And yet the players are dependent on them – they protested against this exile until the All India Football Federation (AIFF) promised to reimburse their club salaries for the season. Typically, Houghton has run into troubles with the administration despite delivering results.

Not only infrastructure, training is another aspect that is neglected. Our clubs need to follow the foreign examples and have second tier and youth teams that undergo the same kind of training as the premier teams. When the National Football League was restructured as the I-League in 2007, one of its new guidelines was that each member club should have an Under-19 development team. What is the problem with hiring experienced coaches like Houghton for the clubs and junior teams? As they say, you have to catch ‘em young. Talent needs to be built and conditioned over the years with methodical training. That is the only way Indians can overcome their physiological and mental barriers. AIFF has almost excused itself from this responsibility, leaving the task to private enterprises. As of now, Mahindra United in Mumbai, Pune FC and Sesa Academy in Goa are three clubs that have a quality youth football programme and a place in the I-League Under-19 – a clear indication that corporate bucks mean growth. It’s another issue that the Under-19 hasn’t kicked off on schedule in September as it was supposed to…

It is difficult to ask for harmonious development and resource allocation when the AIFF is headed by a politician. The minister reportedly asked the BCCI president for a grant of Rs. 10 crore for the overseas training program since they are both members of the same political party. The answer to this request is not yet clear, but one wonders where the money will go even if it is sanctioned. The reins of the top level I-League need to be handed over to professionals and non-bureaucrats such as in the IPL to ensure smart financial management. AIFF recently signed an MOU with Sunil Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises towards establishing a world-class academy and talent development programme. We can only trust that the tycoon is keen on his vision of making India qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

The AIFF has also had a contract with Zee Sports for broadcast of the I-League matches, which is now under review. Zee wants a lesser payout due to lack of sponsors – how about diverting some funds towards advertisements? A sport cannot be popularised if there is no revenue being generated for the channel. We need more big sporting brands pitching forth in a big way and not just by supplying a club’s jerseys. The I-League does not even have a collective kit sponsor. Tournament sponsorship depends on broadcasting, and with ONGC threatening to back out of sponsoring the next I-League, the AIFF needs to rethink its strategies.
Indian Football could take lessons from Japan’s rise as the only Asian nation apart from South Korea to pose serious competition to European teams in the World Cups 2002 and 2006. Japan had similar internal obstacles and it overcame them by implementing the J-Model for the J-League – namely a separate professional management for the league, private sponsors and an intensive junior programme. It is only with this kind of a clear-cut businesslike approach and focus on youth development that the dreams of India winning the AFC Cup and qualifying to the AFC Champions League and the World Cup will become realistic.

Kruttika Nadig

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