Shaping Our Football Story

For many years now, football in India has suffered from the apathy of the state and corporates. It is time for community ownership by fans of the game.
Shaping Our Football Story
Shaping Our Football Story

The FIFA World Cup in Brazil has been a carnival of cliff-hanger games, underdog triumphs, spectacular individual performances, maverick coaching decisions and even a condemnable biting incident. It is little surprise that the World Cup is proclaimed as the greatest show on earth. It has a beautiful ability of uniting people in a way nothing else can, inducing uninhibited excitement, suffocating anxiety and furious passion. 

For us in India, the World Cup has been a much bigger affair than ever before with an estimated 100 million viewers in the country this time around, up from around 62 million in 2010.Whether you are a Bengali who professes firm loyalty, flags in tow, only to Brazil and Argentina, or a Goan who claims historical allegiance over chorizo to Portugal or a diehard Premier League fan who cannot but support England, the World Cup brings out strange loyalties but also a familiar lament. 

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As of June 2014, India is ranked 154 on the FIFA/ Coca Cola World rankings and it continues to befuddle as to why we cannot produce a better team when nations like Uruguay with populations the size of some of our smaller cities produce world beaters.

In 2017, India will play host to the Under 17 FIFA World Cup, ensuring that we have an automatic spot in the tournament. This move is part of a larger ambition of the All India Football Federation (AIFF) to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and will undoubtedly be an opportunity to focus on the youth and the grassroots with an emphasis on better infrastructure, better training for players and greater exposure and incentives to continue in the game. 

A major development that took place recently was the establishment of the Indian Super League (ISL), a new football league promoted by IMG -Reliance and the AIFF as part of a 15 year partnership designed to “radically restructure, overhaul, improve, popularize and promote the game of football throughout India, from the grassroots to the professional level”. This league will be played for a period of three months right before the start of the new season of India’s premier league football competition, the I -League.

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The ISL has eight franchises in Bangalore, Delhi, Guwhati, Kochi, Kolkata Mumbai and Pune and has garnered a lot of publicity for managing to interest high profile owners including SachinTendulkar and Sourav Ganguly. It has also been in the news for signing a strategic partnership with the English Premier League which will allow it to leverage expertise in areas including establishing protocols for club governance, strategies for brand management and fan engagement and anti-corruption and anti-doping policies etc. 

There has also been a lot of chatter and excitement about the possibility of legends albeit well past their prime including Luis Garcia formerly from Liverpool playing in the league. While it is indeed positive that football in India is moving towards greater professionalization, corporatization and modernity, the real test would be to evolve a sense of ownership of the game across the country. Football faces a considerable challenge in breaking the hegemony of cricket and it is debatable whether a glitzy three month tournament of also-rans and some local players, given that several clubs who are playing the I- League, have refused to release local players on loan for the tournament, will be able to usher sustainable benefits for the growth of the game.

In this context it becomes important to explore how, through the framework of the Indian Super League, steps can be taken to develop a culture of football.

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Globalized ownership has transformed football, from being family owned and city centric, to a global circus where people like me support clubs in far off Merseyside. For England’s two most popular and successful clubs, Manchester United and Liverpool steeped in history and tradition, club ownership has now become but a symbol of opportunism and profit-making. The persons responsible for the development of football in India, while embarking on the path towards professionalism and corporatization, should be wary in ensuring such development does not become a footnote, in a marketing gimmick. Understanding the need for community involvement for the sustenance of the game is imperative.

Two significant events took place in Europe in 2012 which spoke volumes of football, still beautiful, being able to throw up some incredible community driven tales, those of Real Oviedo and AFC Wimbledon.

The story of Real Oviedo amazes and inspires. Here was a 3rd division Spanish club facing a winding up order if they did not somehow manage to raise 1.93 million Euros. The supporters almost in desperation started a Twitter campaign to save the club and offered shares at 10.75 Euros each for stakes in the club. The response was unprecedented and overwhelming. The club’s old boys including stars like Michu, Juan Mata and Santi Carzola pitched in from their own pockets to buy stakes in the club. Sid Lowe, a major promoter of the campaign stated in The Guardian (29th November 2012) that in two weeks 1.93 million worth of shares were bought by over 20,000 people across nationalities in over 60 countries. Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man apparently impressed by this outpouring of spontaneous support bought a majority stake in the club as the deadline approached.

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In the first week of December 2012 in what would’ve been an otherwise undistinguished second round match in the FA Cup, MK Dons faced AFC Wimbledon. The significance of the game was that these two clubs, albeit through two very different births, rose from the same parent club- the erstwhile Wimbledon FC. In 2002 much to the chagrin and disgust of its fans, Wimbledon FC was relocated to Milton Keynes, a new upcoming town, as a part of a development project which required a stadium to be built and an established football club to justify the project. The fans revolted and after the move the club was christened MK Dons. 

The supporters of the former Wimbledon FC, now bereft of a club, meanwhile established AFC Wimbledon, a supporter led, fan owned and democratically governed club which had to begin from the very lowest echelons of English Football. After nine long years of playing the non-leagues, the club is now only one league below MK Dons. In a twist of fate these two clubs ended up playing out a match amidst fans of both sides trading charges of being the rightful heirs to their parent club’s legacy. 

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The lesson from these two stories is without doubt the importance of the fan to the life of the game. Perhaps a step to tap into the huge interest and potential for football in India is to introduce and establish a structure of community and participatory ownership and involvement where locals are engaged with the development and running of a football club.

In fact, Supporters Direct in the United Kingdom, a community benefit society, has over many years worked to develop supporter engagement and community ownership after recognizing that supporters have a key role to play in developing the relationship between clubs and communities. Swansea City which won the Capital One Cup in 2013 is an outstanding example of an institution saved by its supporter trust and still partly owned by them.

The ISL being spread over eight cities is an avenue for developing a pan-India following for the game. Given that the motivation of the league is to promote football, a key constituency would be to build an engagement with the community around the club. This has been a major failing of the I-League. Despite being around for several years it has not been able to build any fan support with unsuitable match timings, poor marketing and a general lack of engagement by club management with the public. For many years the league has been dominated by teams from Goa and West Bengal and often by teams that have been around for many years like Dempo and Mohan Bagan.

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Things are changing however and Bengaluru FC, the current I-League champions is an example of a club that built up a fan base and a community in little over a year. Immediately after being accepted into the league, the team management worked on an outreach with people from the city. This was done by having a dedicated and interactive social media presence, by making training sessions open to the public, and even by organizing screenings of away matches for fans in association with a local pub. 

But can more be done?

Opening up club ownership to fans and members is the next step in creating an invested fan base. The USP of community ownership is that it would imply that the club belonged to the city and to its people and ensuring its sustenance became a communal activity. In fact, commentators now believe that one of the main reasons for the renaissance in German football has been that the Bundesliga unlike other leagues in the world, has adopted a ‘50 plus one’ rule, which requires that the majority ownership of a club remains with their supporters. As a result members of the clubs control critical decisions essential for the future of the club.

Importantly, this also ensures that clubs are free from the arbitrariness of a few who run and own them. England with its better marketed, more profitable clubs, on the other hand, has seen an influx of foreign buyers, the demands of unbridled capitalism has ensured that immediate success dictate all administrative decisions and fans are relegated to mere spectators without any say in the functioning of the club.

The performances of the winners Germany and England at the World Cup are self-evidentiary of the contrasting approaches to developing the game.

Introducing a degree of community in the ISL would allow for closer supporter engagement and ownership of the future trajectory of the club. This will bring greater transparency and accountability in decision making and a stronger democratic spirit with an emphasis on sustainability in the administration of the club. A community based approach will also ensure development of facilities designed to cater to local needs. Talent will be scouted from local areas, and results will be organically achieved. A community owned club will also be able to use its social capital and value to address societal issues such as sexism and classism in sport. Woman’s football, has received little attention for too long. The India’s woman’s team is ranked number 50 in the FIFA/ Coca Cola World rankings, much higher than their male counterparts. Developing the club as an institution for the community will also ensure the development of the Woman’s game. Even from a business perspective, establishing strong community networks will attract sponsorship and strategic partnership from companies looking to enter a local market. Further because of the democratic decision making processes, checks and balances, will ensure financial prudence.

This community ownership based approach will help bridge the gap between the club and the supporters and to echo the slogan of another community owned club, FC Barcelona, these teams “will become more than a club”.

With the league still young, this is a great opportunity to affect fundamental institutional change.

For many years now, football in India has suffered from the apathy of the state and corporates and perhaps now, it is finally the time for fans to become owners of the country’s football story.

Siddharth Peter de Souza is a Judicial Clerk at the High Court of Delhi

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