The surprise move to India.

The most surprising story of the summer is signing of our former striker by Indian club Salgaocar. India is not known for its footballing prowess. In fact it is best known for the false story that they qualified for the 1950 World Cup, and then withdrew over a dispute as to whether or not they could play barefoot. That story originates in the 1948 Olympic games in London, when a predominantly barefooted Indian team lost 2-1 to France, but claimed plaudits for the sporting style. Various regional disputes meant that India were unopposed in qualifying for 1950. They would have not been allowed to play barefoot in the finals, but the main reasons for not going were cost, internal disputes over team make up, and the local feeling that the Olympics were still the Premier competition. They still had some barefoot players at the 1952 Olympics, where they reached the semi-finals, but after that the AIFF (All India Football Federation) imposed a rule insisting that boots were worn. The current India National team is always an earlier casualty in World Cup qualification, and prefers to play in the Asian second ranked cup competition, rather than the Asian Cup itself. As the winners of this competition then play in the Asian Cup itself, India made it to the last finals in Qatar, where they lost all three games, (I saw the first of these, a 4-0 defeat by Australia – the tournament that India won was played in India). They have missed out in qualification for the second ranked AFC Challenge Cup in 2014, so they already know they will not be at the Asian Cup itself in 2015. Hence their international hopes will lie again in the more localised SAFF (South Asian Football Federation) tournaments, where most of the games are played against other nations where Cricket is a more prominent sport than Football.

The history of club football in India is mainly of localised competitions, with a number of state leagues of differing prominence. Traditionally the biggest competitions were those played around Calcutta, where the derby match between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal has historically filled the Salt Lake Stadium to its 130,000 capacity. (A good report of a visit to the derby can be found at http://www.thefootballramble.com/blog/entry/chaos-in-the-city-of-joy-the-kolkata-derby ).

Picture stolen from facebook

The next biggest footballing area was around the former Portuguese colony in Goa. In 1977, a national competition, the Federation Cup became the first true national cup, but this was still played as a series of mini-tournaments at single venues. Typically four teams would be drawn together and would play each other once each at a single, often neutral city. A national professional league was not started until 2007. This is not without a degree of chaos, the 2013-14 league should start during September, but it is not clear whether it is going to have 14 or 16 teams (Wikipedia compromises on 15, which is unlikely to be correct). If it has 16 teams, then four will be from Goa, playing games either at the 27,000 capacity Fatorda stadium, or the 6,000 capacity Duler. Five of the clubs will be from Calcutta, two from Mumbai, one from Pune, (although the Mumbai clubs may actually play in Pune), two from the far eastern city of Shilong, and one each from Sikkim (in the far north, near to the Nepalese and Bhutan borders), and Bangalore. The Bangalore team have been franchised in, rather than winning promotion in an attempt to spread the regional spread of the league, while United Sikkim finished bottom last season and should be relegated. All five of the Calcutta teams will use the Salt Lake Stadium, except when other events mean it is unavailable. The I-League is close to unique in that the capital city is not included in the national league!

This seasons draw for the Federation Cup, as shown on Soccerway adds to the confusion, showing a knock out draw over two legs for 16 teams, but only naming 14 of the 16. Salgaocar is one of those that does not know their opponents in October. United Sikkim and Palian Arrows (a Bombay club who finished just above the relegation zone last season are the missing clubs, if a 16 team league format is accurate). The All Indian Football Federation is known for its lack of organisation, changes of decisions and general lack of direction. In 2009, the move of their only iconic footballer, Baichung Bhutia (well, he has played for Bury), was mired in controversy, as the two big Calcutta clubs both claimed his registration. The AIFF looked helpless, as they first banned the player, then quickly rescinded this. Last season, Mohun Bagan was suspended from all football for a two year period, only to return to the I-League within a month.

Now a lack of clarity is plaguing the start up of a new and rather radical enterprise. A group known as IMG-R, (which is clearly a marketing organisation) is proposing a new competition “on the lines of the IPL”. The clubs are up in arms, as their shoestring professional league is clearly compromised by another competition in the same arena. The AIFF say everything is OK, but refuse to say what the actual plans are. To quote one Indian sports web (www.Firstpost.com) site on recent statements from the AIFF, “The proposal contained everything — from the tournament’s objectives, structure and implementation to franchise auction guidelines, obligations and building process. An update on the players signed, venue booking and stadium refurbishment were also given. However, none of this was made available to the media in detail. We’re just aware that the AIFF are completely satisfied with the progress.”

The IPL is a platform for most of the world’s best cricket players to go over to India, play a competition over a short period of time, in front of packed stadium, and with massive TV coverage, pocket the money and then go back to play for their clubs and countries for the rest of the season. There is no way that an equivalent can be had for football. Major international players are not going to be offered enough money to join in. The TV companies are not falling over themselves to pay large amounts of money to cover the I-League, so why should they support this new venture. It is not as if the best footballers in the world cannot be seen on Indian TV on a weekly basis. The English Premier League, Spanish, Italian and German Leagues are all shown there. So the international players will just be a few trying to pick up a little cash for their retirement funds. If the I-League is to play 30 matches over an 8 or 9 month season, there is little space in the calendar for alternative tournaments.

That the AIFF holds the trump cards was proved last Friday. All clubs playing in the I-League must be licensed by the AIFF or be granted exceptional permission to play without a license. On Friday, the AIFF refused a license to 14 clubs. The report appears to say these 14 clubs are the entire make up of the I-League for 2013-14, but it misses out the two clubs parachuted into the league by the AIFF, and is in fact the only source I have seen which suggests that United Sikkim are still members. Still, while the AIFF is refusing licenses, the I-League cannot start. One can only surmise that this is a ruse, and part of the political process to ensure that the AIFF gets its way over the new competition.

Indian clubs are allowed to sign four foreigners each, although one out of four must be from an Asian country (which includes Australia since they joined the Asian confederation). The majority of the imports are African, with Nigerians being the biggest single contingent. Duffy is the only Scotsman I know to be signed up, but there are two Englishmen and one Irishman on the lists. The English are John Johnson, the right back for Northampton on both their visits to Whaddon Road last season, who has joined Bangalore, and Calum Angus (born Greenwich!), who was a youth player at Portsmouth who then went off to the USA, playing in St Louis and Wilimington, before playing in the second division in Sweden for a few years. Angus is reported to have signed for Pune. David Mehmet was born in Peckham, but has been capped for the Irish at under-21 level. In Britain, he played mainly in Scotland, after being on the books of West Ham as a youngster. He played for Dunfermline and St Mirren, before having a season in Turkey, and then one with Australian club Perth Glory. Earlier this season he played a few games for Bangkok Glass before heading to India. Mehmet is with another Goan club, Dempo. Bangalore have an English coach. Ashley Westwood’s only previous managerial experience is a short term as player manager at Kettering, so most of his experience has been following Michael Appleton and coaching at Portsmouth, Blackpool and Blackburn. Westwood has played for Crewe, Bradford City, Sheffield Wednesday, Northampton Town, Chester City, Swindon Town, Port Vale, Stevenage Borough, Wrexham, Kettering, Crewe (again), Northampton (again), Kettering (player manager), and Portsmouth (one appearance).

I have never been to India, so this entire article of based on internet research. Colleagues of mine that have visited Mubai and Bangalore on business come back with tales of the poverty that can be seen within yards of their plush hotels, although it cannot be all bad. Another colleague who is actually from Bangalore and is on a short term contract here intends to return when his contract expires. When I suggested he should be searching out further contracts in the UK, he said his wife found it difficult to settle and he would return next year as planned. India remains high on my list of countries I want to visit, and I would want to see football there. Still I recall the stories of other footballers who have been badly advised to travel out to Asia for a bigger bundle of cash than can possibly be on offer to Duffy, (Gascoigne in China, anyone?), and of players who have been promised payments that were never made. With even the playing season being thrown into turmoil by the licensing issue, I fear our former striker may well have been ill advised over the move. At least Goa, with its tourist industry base should be more comfortable than some areas of the country.