BY SOHAM MUKHERJEE
During the U-17 World Cup semi-final in Kolkata, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) general secretary Dato Windsor John did not mince words to make it clear that every country should have only one professional league and India is no exception. "AFC is always for one country one league. We just gave a provision (to AIFF) for a transition. One league is sure," said John.
While the Indian Super League (ISL) has gone from strength to strength in consolidating its position as the premier competition of the country, I-League continues to be plagued by inefficient and callous management both by the clubs and All India Football Federation (AIFF).
When the Maroon and Green fans are celebrating the fact that Mohun Bagan will be hosting a top-tier football match in their club premises in Maidan, very few know that AIFF had given a green signal to Bagan right at the start of the season to host matches subject to fulfillment of certain criteria and upgradations of their current infrastructure.
But the club officials were content to play their home matches at the Salt Lake Stadium and three games at the Barasat Stadium. Things turned sour when four players of the starting eleven - Sony Norde, Ansumana Kromah, Arijit Bagui and Japanese mid-fielder Yuta Kinowaki, got injured while playing on the synthetic turf of the Barasat Stadium.
The poor quality of the artificial surface is well known and even in March this year, when East Bengal were playing their home games of the previous edition of I-League at Barasat, nuggets of rubberised silicon used to leak out on the surface after a hard tackle. Only after the string of injuries the Mohunbagan management decided to change venue. They eventually took the call to play their matches at the Maidan ground, as they were reluctant to travel to Kalyani which was offered to them as an alternative to Barasat stadium.
Bagan showed urgency to build a temporary away dressing room at the Calcutta Football Club (CFC) tent which is below one portion of the ground's gallery. They installed new dugouts at the sidelines and is also believed to have refurbished the existing press box as part of their upgrade. The broadcasting production room has not yet been completed but Star network has been given assurances that it will be completed by matchday morning. This only reflects the lethargic approach of the officials and management who just refuse to act until there is an emergency. If the officials had reacted earlier at the beginning of the season then it would have helped Mohun Bagan themselves, as they have dropped crucial points against Shillong Lajong, in the absence of key players.
Things are hardly better when we travel down South. The field of play at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore was the primary talking point when Chennai City FC hosted East Bengal in their first home match. The pitch had only patches of grass, the surface was uneven and there were even holes on the playing surface which were filled just hours before kick-off.
East Bengal did not want to play on a half-baked pitch and had asked for the game to be postponed to a later date. They had filed a written complaint to AIFF but the authorities turned a deaf ear to their concerns. East Bengal official Debabrata Sarkar slammed the apex football body of India when Goal contacted him after the match.
"We had sent a letter to the AIFF before the game but we were forced to play the match by the authorities. We went to the ground on the match day and the Match Commissioner said we will have to play, what can you do then? It is very pitiful that things panned out the way it had. As usual, we are yet to receive any sort of reply to the written complaint we had sent to the AIFF," said an infuriated Sarkar.
The officials of Chennai City FC (CCFC) also must take their share of criticism as they had good three to four months in hand to refabricate the stadium, or at least come up with a decent playing surface. Sources close to Goal can confirm that the club management had requested the fixtures committee to delay their first home match so that they can offer suitable playing conditions. But the match against East Bengal showed that the management has preferred to sleep over the whole matter, even after their request was granted by AIFF.
When Goal contacted Rohit Ramesh, the owner of CCFC, he chose to defend his staff and instead patted his own back for the efforts put in.
"Last time actual grass or football was played in Coimbatore was 17 years back. It will take time. More we play here, better the surface will be. Coimbatore is a tier-II city and procuring the mechanical rollers and all was tough. We did it from scratch. We don't say it is brilliant. But we have played matches at worse conditions," said Ramesh.
The match commissioner had inspected the ground two days prior to the match and Ramesh says that he had given a green signal understanding their 'limitations.' I-league CEO, Sunando Dhar and senior manager Akshay Rohatgi had also given a go-ahead in spite of being aware that the pitch was far from being playable and can lead to career-threatening injuries. "They (East Bengal) were constantly complaining. I heard they wanted us to give them a walkover. They put a lot of pressure on the AIFF but Akshay and Sunando saw our efforts and wanted the game to go on. Thankfully, nobody got injured," confirmed Ramesh to Goal.
It is a sad state of affair that AIFF prefered to ignore player's safety and instead were willing to conduct a match just to appreciate the bare minimum efforts put in by a club management at the eleventh hour.
Back in Delhi, Luis Norton de Matos, head coach of Indian Arrows, also expressed his unhappiness with the playing surface of Dr Ambedkar stadium in New Delhi. "We played (for the) first time on this pitch (Ambedkar Stadium) yesterday (before Arrows faced Gokulam Kerala FC). It is very hard and not that good. It is difficult to play football on this pitch," lamented Matos.
I-League clubs like Shillong Lajong, Aizawl FC and Minerva Punjab continue to play on artificial surfaces, which significantly increases the probability of players getting injured. It is high time that the governing body mandated natural grass surfaces as the only surface where a top-tier match can be hosted.
In spite of repeated claims from AIFF that I-League continues to be the premier competition of the country as the winners get a direct shot at the AFC Champions League spot next year, it is now quite evident that ISL is the blue-eyed boy of AIFF. But the management of the I-League clubs with their sloppy approach even towards the betterment of their own clubs must also bear equal responsibility for the decline in quality and the slow demise of the country's first national league.