VisCHENNAI :There is an anecdote that E Sugumaran, the current Chennai Football Association secretary remembers about the time he joined Nethaji Sports Club in 1976. The club's players, after they were done with a tiring training session, used to queue up for their daily dose of nutrition — two biscuits and a cup of tea. However on matchdays, the club's dietary budget was a bit more — everyone got a dosa.
Times have changed — the club is no longer called Nethaji nor are their players brought up on tea and biscuits — but there is something lingering on at Chennai City FC from those times, an aura if you will. On Sunday, the All India Football Federation confirmed that Chennai City and Minerva Punjab FC from Chandigarh will be the two new teams in the I-League this season. When they march out to play their inaugural I-League game, Chennai City will be the league's newest members and also one of its oldest. In fact, only the Kolkata giants, Mohun Bagan and East Bengal are older.
Founded in 1946 by five friends — SV Kanagasabai, E Vadivelu, TR Govindarajan, PV Chellappa and K Ekambaram — Nethaji enjoyed a solid, if unspectacular, history. They were forever a presence in Chennai's Senior Division, but were never allowed to break that glass ceiling by rivals who used to swoop in for their stars with job offers and better pay. In many ways, it will be the little guy's day out in the sun, come January.
“Nethaji always used to have a young squad with players usually aged 21-22,” remembers Sugumaran. “When a player developed well, one of the other institutional teams would come in and offer him a job.” Nethaji did come close to national relevance a couple of times, making appearances in the Durand and Federation Cups.
Things have been a bit different though since Rohit Ramesh bought the club from Govindarajan, the only surviving member of the original five in 2013. Nethaji were languishing in the First Division when Ramesh took over. Instant promotion to the Senior Division followed by change in name and colour. In the most recent edition of the CFA League, they were in the running for the title till the very end, eventually finishing third.
TN's club for TN players
A spot on the national stage is finally here. Chennai City are the first side from Tamil Nadu to compete on the national stage since Indian Bank participated in the National Football League in the early noughties. But glory comes with its fair share of challenges. Chennai City have less than a month to assemble a playing squad that will be competitive against the likes of Bengaluru FC and Mohun Bagan.
Ramesh though has his vision clear. “We want to give chances to players from Tamil Nadu. There is no point being a local club if all our players are from elsewhere,” Ramesh told Express. “We have to go step by step, without taking a rash decision. It is a learning process for us and I think we will be competitive for years to come. We are in talks with a few players, but I don't want to take names.”