Indians love football. Then why are local clubs struggling?

Local football clubs, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Goa, Kerala, Foreign players, Coach
On an average, a football club requires ₹12-15 lakh to keep the club running after paying the footballers and coaches, spending on sports gear and arranging tournaments. Photo: Prabhu Mallikarjunan

At Indira’s Nagar’s Doff pub, a group of four young men are conspicuous by their presence. Dressed in co-ordinated outfits — stonewashed denims and bright red Manchester United jerseys — they are among the regular customers frequenting the popular sports bar in Bengaluru every time there is an English Premier League (EPL) match on TV.

One of them is Andy, originally from Delhi. When 35-year-old Anand left home for Bengaluru in 2014, he first got himself a job in the IT sector and then became a ManU fan. Coming from a cricket-crazy Delhi, it was Bengaluru which introduced him to the adrenaline rush from football and beer. His new city and friends he met over football games in front of huge LCD screens also gave him a new name — Andy. “I realised football fun is big here. All that I knew of football was that some chaps from Bengal, Northeast or Goa play and worship it more than cricket,” he says.

“My friends here told me there are so many homegrown football clubs in Bengaluru which many like me never knew before.”

Listening to Andy’s eulogy to the beautiful game, one would imagine that all is not unwell with football in India and fans are still rooting for homegrown teams. However, the truth is far from that.

Ask him about his favourite Indian football club and Andy fumbles, “I don’t have any favourites.” After a while, he goes on to add, “Bangalore FC… captain Sunil Chhetri.”

Any other favourites? “No, not really. Actually I’m more into international football clubs.”

That’s true for most Indian football fans — and one of the reasons why local clubs are struggling to keep afloat.

Beschi Amalarasu, assistant secretary of Student Union Football Club (SUFC), is at the receiving end of football fans like Andy. The SUFC, founded way back in mid-1950s, at the city’s eastern region in Cox Town, counted on ace players and coaches like Carlton Chapman and Xavier Vijay Kumar among many to train young players. Over the years, the club attracted players not only from the state, but across India and some neighbouring countries as well. In 2015, one of its young members (under-18) Ishan Pandita, who played for A and C divisions of state football leagues, went on to become the first Indian to sign a contract with a Spanish football club. While his feat added to the club’s glory, the SUFC is now battling a financial crisis, with sponsors showing no interest in the club of late.

“Last year, we were on the verge of shooting a letter to the Karnataka State Football Association (KSFA), saying that we will not be able to participate in the super league due to lack of funds. But at the last minute, our chairperson and two other individuals pumped in their personal money to keep the club afloat,” says Amalarasu.

On an average, it requires ₹12-15 lakh to keep the club running after paying the footballers and coaches, spending on sports gear and arranging tournaments. Until recently, the SUFC banked on the credibility that it enjoys as a club with a history of bringing national and international players to coach the team. But in the past five years, the club has been struggling to raise funds.

Between 2014 and 2017, club members pooled in money to start a grocery store in the area hoping to plough back profits into the club. However, due to lack of resources to run the shop, the store finally pulled down the shutters recently.

The club, Amalarasu says, used to spend anywhere between ₹2.5-3 lakh on coaches alone who spend time with the club for four months. At present, SUFC is struggling to find a coach. “No one wants to come. Where is the money?” asks Amalarasu.

With prime properties such as government school and municipal grounds turning into real estate hubs, there came a time when the club members had to fight for space to conduct their training camps.

But SUFC is not alone in its struggle. Others like Bangalore Eagles FC and Bangalore United FC, too, are struggling for funds.

Where have all the sponsors gone?

According to Amalarasu, corporate sponsors ask for visibility — “How many people will turn up at the stadium? Are there any media partners?”

This, he says, has become a major problem, as fewer people are showing interest in watching the sport, or at least for the one played at local level.

Take, for instance, the Ashok Nagar football stadium in Bengaluru, where the interstate junior level football tournament was being played on Sunday, September 8. With a capacity of 15,000, the stadium wore a haunted look with a crowd of barely 50 people — some of them were friends and relatives of players from different teams that had come to play.

“Most clubs in the city are cautious about spending and don’t dole out fat pay cheques to players. We simply can’t afford,” says Sathiya Raj, manager of Bangalore Eagles, which was established in 2011.

Bangalore Eagles has the backing of Fenvick and Ravi, a machine tools company in the city — a reason why the club is still running with an annual budget of ₹20 lakh. “We pay the players anywhere between ₹40,000 and ₹70,000 during a tournament period of four months. We will be more than happy to get sponsorship, but who’s coming forward to sponsor?” asks Raj.

Netherland-based footballer Boudewijn Renes, who owns Renes Sports Management that runs the Bangalore City Football Club, says sponsors won’t come unless these clubs have something good to offer. “And that needs solid marketing of the brand.”

Bangalore City FC got its first sponsor last month. It undertakes private training and coaching at schools and colleges with ‘Eurpoean teaching methods’, besides organising foreign tours for players.

“We built our brand first and then slowly progressed with the team. We capitalised on social media and targeted nearby apartment complexes with kids to attract crowds,” Renes explains.

Sponsors, Renes tells The Federal, do not look for the number of matches that a club can play in a year, but the number of people and sportspersons that it can attract.

The bygone days

Football as a sport enjoyed its best years in Bengaluru until the 2000s with public sector undertakings like Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL), Indian Telephone Industries (ITI), Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT), New Government Electrical Factory (NGEF) and Binny Mills pumping their might behind soccer in the city.

These government establishments not only set up their own football clubs in the state by allocating funds and hosting inter-company matches, but also offered job opportunities to players who excelled in their respective clubs. The ITI and HAL football clubs, in particular, produced state- and national-level players and trained budding footballers across the country.

After Kolkata, which attracted football talent from the eastern region and beyond, Bengaluru emerged as the hub for many footballers and enthusiasts in the southern states. The ITI club, which represented national club championships in the 1970s and 1980s, shut its sports (football) club in 2005. It was a major blow to the football community in Karnataka and many were upset with the move, leaving them with only memories of the glorious days.

With many PSUs that led the football revolution in the city shutting shop and patrons gone, these clubs are staring at closure.

In recent years, even though private clubs have been showing more interest in nurturing young talent, their success depends on their financial strength. Clubs likes Ozone FC, Bangalore Dream United FC, Aeronautics Development Establishment (ADE) have somehow survived with limited sponsorship over the years.

KSFA secretary M Sathyanarayana admits it’s an uneven playing field. “Firstly, there are no jobs guaranteed now. So there is some resistance on the part of players who join the clubs. Besides, the KSFA cannot help much as we don’t get any funds from the All India Football Federation,” says Sathyanarayana.

It’s a reflection of what’s happening across the country. Even the iconic Mahindra United shut down in 2010 while the JCT team ended its tryst with Indian football in 2011. Viva Kerala, rechristened as Chirag United Club Kerala, which was touted to fill FC Cochin’s shoes, shut down in 2014 after surviving for almost a decade.

Also, ace players are not finding the right opportunities to further their sporting careers. This is exemplified by the plight of top defender Mohan Kumar, who once played for ITI and represented India at international platforms in Korea, Malaysia and Middle-Eastern countries. Kumar was forced to work as a security guard to make a living after retirement.

Sathyanarayana laments that the state has been losing out to Kerala as there are more private clubs that have come up and people are showing more interest in football with many regional firms sponsoring the clubs.

Chapman, who once coached SUFC, has now set up his own club in Kerala. It is now run by his family members as he shuttles between cities coaching different clubs.

“For Chapman, training good footballers was important. But with less crowd comes less money and thus it affects the quality of coaches and footballers getting hired and trained. And hence, he decided to set up a club in Kerala after moving out of Bengaluru,” says Denver Martin, a relative of Chapman who manages the club.

Xavier Vijay Kumar, who played for HAL for 12 years and for the SUFC for two years, says the closing of PSUs is a real setback and lack of funds among private clubs discourages the talent pool available in the market.

“Thankfully, we had public sector enterprises offering contract job those days. It helped a lot of players. Today, players have to scout for funds to buy sportswear or look for job when not playing,” he says.

Back in the beer-drenched sports bars with fans screaming in front of giant LCD screens, the picture looks completely different. But can one really grudge them for not going to the stadiums to cheer for struggling clubs, instead?

“The craze for international clubs is natural. These teams need no introduction, the club names are etched in our minds with so much advertising. Even custom-made club merchandise are made available locally. Besides, match videos are also accessible online which the Indian clubs lack,” says Aloysius D’Souza, another ManU fan in Bengaluru.

Here, D’Souza says, one doesn’t even get to know who are the players associated with a particular club. Nor is there is any information available about the players.

There is merit in what D’Souza says. Local football heroes have been saying the same — it’s impossible to attract crowds without a publicity blitz and good matches.

“It takes a lot of publicity to make something trend both online and offline. Until the media gives more space to local sports and heroes, how would people know about them? How do we know a game is happening and where? So, I guess media, especially sports channel, also has a big role to play and should share the blame for the current plight of local clubs,” says Andy.

According to another football fan, Vijay Kumar, Indian fans need sustained exposure to these clubs and players. “Those playing for the foreign clubs play for long term while in India many do not stick with the same clubs. No one really knows who is playing for whom and which team is even playing.”

Until there is enough noise about local clubs, says Andy, ‘football fun’ in India will mostly remain confined to pubs and drawing rooms.