Nearly 21 million people play football in India, a figure that puts India third out of FIFA’s 208 member associations. Nevertheless, the figure is somewhat less impressive given the total population of over a billion. The 21 million people who actively play football are part of the All India Football Federation (AIFF), a body with FIFA Goal project-financed headquarters in New Delhi. The AIFF, however has long been beset by problems, mainly because it is pre-dated by various regional associations such as the Indian Football Association (IFA) in the west Bengali city of Kolkata. These regional associations tend to focus on their own particular interests and needs, and that often involves strengthening their own local leagues to the detriment of domestic championships.
Kolkata and Goa are the two hotbeds of Indian football. In Kolkata there are even three famous clubs within just two square kilometers of each other. Kalayan Majumder, the general secretary of East Bengal FC, is sitting in his office, a bare room at the club’s headquarters, which are, to all intents and purposes, nothing more than a wooden shack. He talks about East Bengal’s rivalry with their neighbors, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting Club. East Bengal have won their local league 31 times, but the 14-game race to find the best team in the state starts in July and ends in September, thereby putting the state league in direct competition with its national counterpart.
Football is by far the most popular sport in Kolkata, a fact that is till quite rare in India. Ten daily newspapers report on the goings-on at the local clubs, and the derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan regularly draws crowds of up to 100,000 people. The big matches take place at the Salt Lake stadium, an arena that falls way short of European or North American standards, even though it does have the correct infrastructure. There are toilets, for example, but they are in short supply and for male fans only!
When it comes to national league matches, however, the Kolkata clubs usually play in stadiums with a lower capacity. These arenas are invariably ramshackle, crumbling venues in acute danger of collapse. “We don’t even have our own training ground,” laments Majumder, explaining that his players have to share a pitch with a local hockey club. The situation at Mohun Bagan is no better. “Membership of our club costs the equivalent of four US dollars per year so we only have limited income. We are totally reliant on donations. That does not stretch to improvements to our facilities though,” says Anjan Mitra, the club’s unpaid secretary. The majority of match-day income also goes straight to the IFA or the municipal authorities.
Mohun Bagan is a club with 9,000 members, a thousand more than East Bengal. Both clubs have one thing in common – a history stretching back more than 100 years. In 1911, Mohun Bagan beat an English team in a match that is still celebrated today with a monument outside the club’s stadium to mark victory over India’s colonial rulers. Sultan Ahmed, the secretary of Mohammedan Sporting Club, found as many as five victories over English teams when he went through his club’s records. Founded by Muslims in 1891, today the club is open to all religions. Mohammedan train on land belonging to the army, and they are yet another club with limited financial and human resources. Nevertheless, sponsorship revenue enables the club to run U-17 and UY-19 teams. “Four of our players in our first team made their way up through our ranks,” explains Ahmed.
East Bengal and Mohun Bagan have also recently been paying more attention to bringing players through the system. “There are 55 players in our academy at the moment,” says Mitra proudly. Those youngsters will still have a battle on their hands if they are to make an impression on the first team because India’s major clubs are allowed to have up to 30 players on their books. Most are semi-professional, but the foreigners – predominantly Brazilians or Nigerians – are professional. Top players in India can earn up to 140,000 per year … tax-free.