The Calcutta Football League (CFL) was once “the tournament” to win for the Kolkata clubs, but with the advent of the National Football League (NFL), which was later rechristened to the I-League, the CFL has lost its glamour somewhat. However, the competition still has not lost its importance totally as the Kolkata giants, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting and United Sports slug it out each year to earn the bragging rights of Kolkata by winning the trophy. But the CFL has proved to be a burden for the big Kolkata clubs over the past few seasons as it often happens to be distraction in winning the bigger prize, the I-League. East Bengal, who won the CFL for the fourth successive season in the 2013/14 campaign, came desperately close to winning the I-League on all four of those occasions. The Red Gold finished runners-up thrice and once in third spot, and maybe some proper planning of the CFL by the organisers, the Indian Football Association (IFA), could have had a different outcome to East Bengal’s I-League aspiration.
The Goan Model
The Goan clubs, who have been hugely successful in the I-League for the last decade, use the local league as a preparatory tournament for the national league and Federation Cup unlike their Kolkata counterparts. In Kolkata, the bigger clubs give much effort in winning the local league which leaves its players drained out while performing in the I-League. It is unfair to say that such an age-old tournament like the CFL, which started in 1898 and is the oldest league in Asia and one of the oldest in the world, is not worth fighting for. But looking at the bigger picture, one cannot help but feel that certain changes need to be implemented.
Goa produces a fair number of talented young individuals every year and the organisers of the Goa Professional League deserve huge credit for it. 2-3 Under-19 players have to be included in every team and it gives the starlets vital first-team action and experience. In addition, it also helps the Goan clubs, who are also challenging for the I-League, to rest their important players and keep them afresh for the “bigger” tournaments. The IFA should seriously consider implementing the same idea for the CFL. This is will surely help in stopping or at least reducing the lamenting that “not enough good players are coming through from Bengal.”
Another vital factor which adds to the CFL being a huge stumbling block for the Kolkata clubs preparing for the I-League is the fixture schedule. For starters, the league sometimes spans for over 6-7 months because of poor planning. And in the fag-end of the campaign, the “smaller” clubs, who have limited resources, have to let go of their main players due to monetary issues and compete without motivation, which does not do any good to the betterment of the league. In addition, the CFL matches are sometimes sandwiched between two I-League fixtures within a week, meaning the “unfortunate” club then have to play three games within seven days. One just cannot expect good football from a team which plays thrice a week, unless of course the Under-19 player quota rule comes into force.
IFA Shield Face a Similar Fate
Apart from the CFL, the IFA Shield, another major Indian tournament which is hosted by IFA, is slowly becoming a farce. It is sad to see that the IFA Shield, which once bore testament to India’s freedom movement when Mohun Bagan defeated East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1 to become the first Indian club to win the crown in 1911, becoming an inconsequential competition. Previously, most Indian clubs looked forward to playing in the IFA Shield, but nowadays the organisers find it tough to even put together eight decent sides for the tournament.
A big reason behind the downfall of the IFA Shield is the scheduling of the tournament. It is held in the middle of the Indian season when the race for the I-League crown is in full swing. As a result, most of the I-League sides prefer not to participate in the century-old competition. They fear their star players might be fatigued or even pick up injuries which may in turn come back to haunt them in the domestic league. But still, IFA refuse to acknowledge the problem. Take for example last season where none of the I-League teams took part in the IFA Shield apart from the Kolkata outfits, and the foreign clubs which were drafted in were below average. It will be best suited if the IFA Shield is held at the start of the season, that way, the I-League clubs can use it as a platform to prepare for the rest of the campaign; and with the players being fresh, the tournament will be evenly competed and will be a big prize to fight for the clubs. And with IFA planning to host the tournament in mid-July this term, it looks like a step in the right direction.
With the Indian Super League (ISL) coming into effect from this year, meaning an additional tournament to play for the Indian players, it remains to be seen how IFA plan the CFL and the IFA Shield tournaments. Be rest assured, more poor planning by the organisers will throw these two historical competitions to greater lows, which we Indian football fans do not wish to witness.