If 17 April was a red-letter day in Sikkim’s history – the day when United Sikkim earned promotion to top-flight Indian Football - I-League Division-1, then 25 April was a day that football fans in Kerala will look to forget – the day Chirag got relegated.
Even though Chirag United and United Sikkim share a common word in their names, a lot of differences exist between the two clubs. While Chirag have been relegated, United Sikkim have gained promotion to the I-League Division-1 for the forthcoming season. Once regarded as a powerhouse, Kerala is now facing the anonymity of non-representation in the top flight of Indian Football with diminishing talent and the drastic decline in popularity is compounding their woes. United Sikkim’s promotion, on the other hand is an excellent opportunity for the highly-tipped North-Eastern parts of the country to show what they are capable of achieving.
At a time when the I-League is dominated by teams from Western Maharashtra, Goa and Kolkata; and when we speak about making I-League a pan-India event , TheHardTackle examines the story of two clubs probably at the opposite ends of the spectrum in Indian Football and analyzes what the two events means for I-League.
Chirag United – A Loss for Indian Football
A shrinking fan base, a narrowing talent pool, the advent of cricket and the rise of Sreesanth have meant that nothing is going right for football in Kerala at the moment.
A Season Review
Chirag never looked comfortable right from the start and under coach Packeer Ali were always relegation-threatened. Strikers David Sunday, C.K. Vineeth and Anil Kumar scored goals on a consistent basis but their leaky defense ensured Chirag were always at the receiving end of things. The trouble started when the Kolkata based owners took over the then named Viva Kerala at the start of the season and let go most of the impressive performers of the previous season. The foreigners brought in were new to the Indian conditions and especially the central defense pairing of Charles Dzisah and Isaac Boakye looked out of sorts.
The sacking of Packeer Ali and appointment of Biswajit Bhattacharya after the round 20 of I-League did bring some instant respite as Chirag edged past Shilling 3-2 in Kochi thanks to a brace from Vineeth but poor goal-keeping by captain Sharath against East Bengal saw Chirag lose out vital points. The final nail in the coffin was when Sabeeth scored a hat-trick to give Arrows a 3-0 win over Chirag. After the disappointment of this season, there are fresh rumors that the club may shift base to Kolkata due to insistence of Kolkata-based owners. A rift between players and the management is also being reported.
What it means for Kerala
Once known for clubs like FC Kochi, State Bank of Travancore and Kerela Police, the clubs from Kerela were not only a platform for Keralities but provided opportunities to people from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka to play. Indian Football was ruled by teams from Kerala in early 1990s. Kerala Police won back to back Federation Cup titles in 1989-1990 and 1990-1991 season. The Police team became the first club from Southern India to capture the mantle of Indian champions in two consecutive seasons. Kerala Police contained players who would eventually become superstars in Indian football – Saraf Ali, Pappachan, IM Vijayan and VP Sathyan.
The lack of any big club means that the local talent will have to move out to get sufficient playing time. Golden Threads FC, the state Kerela champions could win only a single match in I-League division 2. Eagles FC, coached by former international Jo-Paul Ancheri could win only 2 matches while fellow club Quartz remained winless. None of the three clubs could make to the next round of divison-2 as Kolkata and North-East clubs dominated the proceedings.
The likes of C.K Vineeth, Anil Kumar and Saba Saleel will now have to move out to play and they will definitely find a lot of takers offering a lot of money but the lack of first-team opportunities to such players will always be debatable. The way NP Pradeep has been treated at Bagan or the lack of first team opportunities for Xavier Vijay Kumar who moved from HAL to Churchill does point towards a fact that local clubs like Chirag are the best bet for such players. NP Pradeep is infact considering a move back to Kochi next season.
United Sikkim – Next Big Thing in Indian Football
United Sikkim founded in 2008 through the efforts of Sikkim Football federation and Indian Legend Baichung Bhutia is perhaps the biggest success story in Indian Football. In only its second attempt the club has qualified for the I-League. A supportive Federation, a wide talent pool and the ever increasing fan-base has meant that the sport is growing in the region at a rate faster than ever.
The State government declared a holiday as United played Mohammedan Sporting in the last match of Divison-2 with a lot at stake and the whole state erupted into joy as the club eked out a draw. Despite all the controversy surrounding its qualification, United Sikkim’s qualification has put the North-East on the map of Indian Football and come next season, there will be two North-East teams in I-League.
What it means for Sikkim and India
United Sikkim emergence has given Sikkim and the North East India two important things. First of them being the development of a world-class stadium in Gangtok. which will provide excellent facilities to the budding talent in the region. Even AIFF General Secretary Mr. Kushal Das acknowledged this fact and an AIFF regional academy is also in the pipeline to be set up in Gangtok. Secondly the likes of Shillong Lajong and United Sikkim will give the local talent an opportunity to rub shoulders with the best players in the country.
The players from the North East are now dreaming beyond tournaments like Assam Premier League and Nagaland Premier League and United as well as Lajong provide them the means to show the big clubs their talent. With Baichung at the helm of affairs a host of important Indian players as well as some talented foreign players are linked with a possible, something that will fasten the rise of sport in the region. The composition of a club anthem by renowned singer Shankar Mahadevan and a host of other promotional events have now made United Sikkim a regular name among the football fans in India.
The Challenges Ahead
The road ahead for United Sikkim is to sustain the momentum and maintain the regional connects which has made it so popular. A host of big name players are already being linked to the club but it is important for Bhutia and Philippe De Ridder to ensure enough players from the region are given chance. The rise of a few local players will incorporate confidence among the youth and these players could become role-models for the youngsters. Chirag in sharp comparison haven’t managed to portray local talents like Sabeeth or Pradeep to the local crowd and this has resulted in a considerable reduction in their fan base and United Sikkim should not tread the same path.
Youth Development Program must also be on Bhutia’s mind to tap the young talent and train them in a scientific manner. This will ensure a pipeline of good quality players unlike the case with Chirag who haven’t managed to produce good players from the youth system.
The Big Picture: Impact on I-League
With ONGC all set to play in Mumbai, I-League will still be miles away from a pan-India image. There will be 4 teams each from Kolkata, Goa and Western Maharashtra and 2 from the North East. The once-powerful regions of Karnataka, Kerala and Hyderabad will not be represented in I-League. While we rejoice at the arrival of United Sikkim, we must be concerned by the manner in which football is going down in Kerala.
The likes of Ancheri and Vijayan are already involved with local clubs but the sport in Kerala would need the moral as well as financial backing of the AIFF and the state government to emulate the success in North-East. It is imperative that football does ot meet the same fate as it did in Hyderabad where the game has completely died out. News about Rediff CEO Mr. taking over a local club Kannur FC in Kerala is doing the rounds and it is also being said that the club will participate in Divison-2 next year, which is indeed a positive news. United Sikkim on the other hand will have to ensure that they don’t fizzle out playing against the big boys and maintain their regional identity intact.
A true I-League with participants from all over the country is not possible if either of the North-East or Kerala is missing and TheHardTackle hope that the clubs in Kerala will bounce back and emulate the success of the North-East clubs and make it to the I-League next season.