The recent chit fund scandal and its subsequent fall-out has placed illustrious names like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting and even the likes of United SC in a dire predicament. For decades the Bengal clubs have enjoyed financial clout in the Indian transfer market which combined with their reputation, has brought the best players from different parts of the country to Kolkata grounds. With the fall of chit fund companies these clubs have lost a significant source of income as a result of which their transfer activities were considerably muted this summer. It has also brought forth a fully known but rarely acknowledged fallacy of the Kolkata clubs, their lack of activity in developing players from scratch.
Too Much Pressure?
The crowd pressure of the Kolkata fans is a highly powerful factor in reluctance of clubs to give more chances to youngsters. Fans demand for quick success and their lack of patience has seeped into the club officials who invariably go for quick fixes. Take Lalrozama Fanai for example. The former Pailan Arrows player was one of the best full-backs in the country in his age group when he moved to Mohun Bagan two years back. His lack of experience was highly exposed when he came up against one of India’s best foreign players, Beto, in the Federation Cup. Mohun Bagan may have escaped with a goal less draw in that match but Fanai was once again poor in the second match against Air India as his team lost 2-0 and was sent packing out. After his wobbly start Fanai’s Mohun Bagan career never really took off and he was released after a season without getting much game time.
In a lot of ways this is a vicious cycle. Officials of Kolkata clubs have never managed to educate fans or present them with a long term model of how a club wants to go forward. As a result of this even the fans have started to demand short term success, further fuelling the clubs’ reluctance to invest in younger players while risking trophies for a season or two. Coaches at Kolkata clubs often have to field foreigners instead of young players just to ensure the big clubs don’t drop points, even in less important tournaments like IFA League. Most of these clubs invariably pick up half a dozen young prospects at the start of every season, most of whom end the season without playing half a dozen matches. It is all but natural that young players will make mistakes. But the incessant crowd pressure and expectation level in Kolkata football means these youngsters are not allotted enough time to bounce back from mistakes and show their true talent.
Look at Cristiano Ronaldo. Quite possibly the best player in the world right now, Ronaldo was at best a fancy dribbler when he joined Manchester United. He was selfish and it often appeared that the Portuguese youngster was more interested in showing his nifty skills rather than pass to a team-mate. But Manchester United management stuck with him patiently and groomed him slowly, turning him into one of the most complete footballers you’ll ever see. Closer to home and further back in time, Gostha Pal or Jarnail Singh struggled initially in Mohun Bagan but they had a helping hand from a coach or official to help them out from difficult situations. Bhuti Sukul perfected Gostha Pal as a player while Arun Sinha molded Jarnail into the legendary player he later became. Youngsters these days no longer have such paternal figures to guide them.
Mentality of Coaches
The psychology of fans and officials has obviously percolated into the coaches. Most of the successful coaches hailing from Bengal have shown a preference towards established players to get success, rather than persist with younger players. Subrata Bhattacharya and Subhash Bhowmik are both fantastic coaches, tactically brilliant and highly successful. Yet, neither of them have a great record in developing youngsters. PK Banerjee, unarguably the most successful coach coming out of Bengal, was famous for his ability to mold a golden team out of super-stars but often was reluctant to use unknown names. There have been exceptions, namely Amal Dutta and Arun Ghosh. Dutta was arguably the greatest manager when it came to developing unknown players while Arun Ghosh lent his expertise for both Indian Junior team as well as TFA. Dutta was reasonably successful but he never managed to match PK’s trophy haul and the latter got longer tenures in big clubs. Ghosh’s ability to spot talent was also never fully appreciated.
Interestingly, none of the big clubs have a glittering past of developing players yet Bengal as a region continuously produced classy players till 1990s. The main reason for this was clubs like Aryan SC, Wari, Khidderpore Club or the smaller clubs scattered in the suburbs. The likes of Achyut Banerjee, Bagha Shome usually picked out talented youngsters, groomed their talent before they moved to bigger clubs as more mature players. In last two decades clubs like these and even worse, brilliant but low profile coaches have slowly ceased to exist. IFA has become more and more Mohun Bagan-East Bengal centric while the smaller clubs have died out due to lack of financial and mass support. With the bigger clubs never really focusing on player development a major gap has been created as a result of this. Only glaring exception is the massively talented but criminally underappreciated Raghu Nandi. Nandi, who has now become an institution in Kolkata Maidan has brought up a number of players during his time at George Telegraph or Aryan. Sadly, none of the bigger clubs have tried to use Nandi’s gifts as Pune FC have done with Ranjan Chowdhury.
Dire Situation of Academies
None of the Kolkata clubs except Mohun Bagan have a proper residential academy to begin with. East Bengal has set up several football schools and camps across West Bengal. United SC also don’t have a proper academy of their own but their junior team Patha Chakra participates in tournaments throughout the year and even won the prestigious Trades Cup in 2013. Mohun Bagan-SAIL academy was started with a lot of fan-fare in early 2000s but over a decade has passed and the Academy hasn’t contributed much to the success of senior team. Financial problems for the Academy are perennial, despite the club spending millions after foreign players in the past half decade. Mohun Bagan or East Bengal often take players on loan from other clubs to compete in Junior I-League and their recent performances in the same tournament have been extremely poor. IFA runs an academy of their own but players from their academy are rarely pursued by other clubs. Academies like G-Group academies often mushroom up and stop functioning once finances dry up.
But do these academies or junior teams don’t produce talented players at all? Wrong. Take the current Mohun Bagan team for example. It has young prospects like Ram Malik, Pankaj Moula or Rajeev Ghorui. The interesting thing about each of these players is that at some point of their careers each of these players were part of Mohun Bagan youth teams. They are still very young and are back in the club after a few years of leaving. This brings us to the point about lack of talent spotting in the club. How is it that the same players were allowed to leave easily only to be brought back later? They obviously have talent to play in the club, so with better co-ordination between academy and the senior management these players could have been directly integrated in the senior team, rather than allowing them to wander off elsewhere. Nabin Hela, who dazzled the junior I-League three years back for East Bengal is now seen playing “khep” matches in maidan. Sonu Kumar, a 16 year old winger was awarded with Mohun Bagan Player of the Year award in 2011 but has fallen off the radar since then.
Youth Development is the general direction in which world football is looking right now. Real Madrid and Barcelona both spend significantly on players but also have two of the best academies in the world. Roman Abrahamovic invested a fortune to improve Chelsea’s academy. Football in Uzbekistan has improved with leaps and bounds over last decade and a major reason behind that has been the government setting up football schools and academies. Why go that far? Closer to home Pune FC’s focus on youth development seems to be bearing fruit with Nikhil Kadam, Amrinder Singh or Thongkhosiem Haokip graduating to play for senior teams. Amrinder at the tender age of 20 has kept clean-sheets for over 450 minutes in I-League for Pune FC.
The chit fund scam has placed Kolkata clubs at a threshold of new opportunity. They can use this positively by knuckling down and building a long term project with young players. Academies may take some time to develop players but clubs can still scout talented youngsters and groom them with patience. The fans need to be convinced about the long term project as well, that attempt has never been made. It is imperative that this is seen as an opportunity to break the age old pattern than a step backwards.