Not known to grab eyeballs, Indian club football has of late produced some inspiring stories. Aizawl FC won the I-League last season. Minerva Punjab FC is a step away from that this time. Manipur’s Neroca FC too has made its presence felt, being near the top till the closing stages. Coming from culturally diverse parts, they have something in common. All have meagre resources and budget just a fraction of established clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC (the latter was part of I-League till last season before joining the Indian Super League). Yet they have overcome obstacles with home-grown talent, hard work and of course the will to succeed.
Instead of using these tales to market the I-League better and encouraging other clubs to follow their example, the establishment appears bent on killing the enterprise. None of these teams are part of plans to merge the I-League with ISL, where only the Kolkata clubs figure in talks. It seems the All India Football Federation (AIFF) and its marketing partners are not thinking beyond big names in the ISL, which without relegation and promotion is a contradiction to the concept of football leagues anyway. Taking into account the history and fan base of Mohun Bagan or East Bengal, officials have chosen to ignore the contribution of these smaller clubs. For years, the Northeast has been supplying a bulk of players to national teams across age groups. And Minerva had three of their products in the Indian team for last year’s U-17 World Cup.
Unfortunately for these clubs, the parent body is unwilling to reward or even recognise their efforts. In their bid to establish a glamour league where film stars and cricketers are needed as crowd-pullers, the AIFF and its partners are overlooking those who have been proactive at the grass-roots with negligible funds and infrastructure. The clubs deserve better; it’s the duty of the powers that be to ensure they are rewarded rather than devising something which sends them back to obscurity.