No visibility, no profits and limited interest — the reasons why JCT disbanded JCT Phagwara are clear.
About 35 years ago, Harjinder Singh was one of the biggest names in Indian football. Considered one of the best left-sided players in the country, he had participated in the Asian Games in 1978 and 1982 as well. Earlier this year when Singh heard the news about JCT Mills disbanding JCT Phagwara, he was heartbroken. Singh had played for JCT Phagwara in the late 1970s and believed that his former employers were the flagbearers of football in north India. “It did come as a shock as JCT Phagwara was one of the biggest names in Indian football,” says Singh who is now head coach of the Chandigarh Football Academy.
But not everyone is surprised at the demise of JCT Phagwara, given how poorly Indian football is run, how much it lacks professional management and how far it is from becoming a force to reckon with. After all, Mumbai-based football club Mahindra United, which had the backing of a large corporation like Mahindra & Mahindra, folded up in 2010 as well. Unlike JCT Phagwara, Mahindra United was doing well nationally. It had enjoyed a period of success in the last decade, winning the I-League once as well as the Durand Cup, Federation Cup and the IFA Shield.
JCT Phagwara has had a successful run and won the inaugural I-league in 1996 in addition to five Durand Cups and two Federation Cups. Players like Baichung Bhutia, I M Vijayan, Sukhwinder Singh and Sunil Chhetri have all at one time donned the JCT Phagwara jersey. Most of these players went on to represent India internationally.
The official — and an extremely valid — reason given for both these clubs folding up is that running football clubs in the country did not bring enough visibility or viability. Both the companies continue to run academies in Phagwara and Mumbai as they want to support the sport at the “grassroots level”. Indeed, Mahindra & Mahindra continues to organise a youth challenge competition at the all-India school level. It does the same also for basketball in association with the US’s NBA.
People familiar with the functioning of Indian football say they completely understand why these two powerhouses of Indian football have packed up. “What is the return on investment for them,” asks Nirvan Shah who runs the Premier Indian Football Academy in Mumbai and believes that club football in India is not well managed. “There needs to be a total overhaul at all levels if Indian football clubs want a better future,” he adds.
The players at JCT had no inclination that their club was about to shut down, leaving their future in jeopardy. “We weren’t informed before- hand and it was a bolt from the blue,” says a former player who now plays for a Kolkata-based club. On its part, the company believes that it was a tough but timely decision to take. “JCT, being a corporate entity, needs to justify to its stakeholders the effort vs. visibility of the football team,” says a company executive who worked closely with the football team. “Today football teams worldwide have become self-sustaining enterprises for which high exposure is needed to build viewership and spectators in the stadium.” None of this is applicable to Indian football. The result — officially now, the I-League does not have any club from north India.
JCT Phagwara was known for producing players who had both flair and grit. Most of their defenders were known for their touch tackling; in the 1970s the team had the reputation of being one of the hardest to beat. Its owner Samir Thapar used to be president of the Punjab Football Federation as well as execytive vice president of the Asian Body Building Federation. Thapar, a sports enthusiast and a bodybuilder, is reportedly unhappy with the path Indian football is taking and took the decision only to run an academy.
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There have often been complaints that companies prefer to pump in money in sports such as cricket, tennis and even motorsports. But it’s not as if business houses haven’t invested in football. United Breweries has invested heavily in the two giants of Indian football — East Bengal and Mohun Bagan. The Essel Group promotes Mumbai FC, while the Ashok Piramal Group owns Pune FC. Bharti had planned to invest a significant sum in football but put the project “on hold”. Earlier this year, the All India Football Federation signed a 15-year deal with Reliance-IMG to promote football in the country.
Running a football club is an expensive proposition. It is estimated that clubs spend about Rs 8-10 crore annually on salaries of players, coaches, administrative expenses and other costs as well. And what do they get in return? A club that is supported only by locals and television audiences who do not even know when the I-league has started and prefer watching Manchester United and Barcelona. There’s little money to make in merchandising or from broadcast. Sponsorship deals don’t cover much of the expenses either —just enough to take care of shoes and kits. Even winning the I-league will get you just Rs 50 lakh. The other competitions have prize money in the range of Rs 5-10 lakh. Gate receipts are another source of revenue but don’t amount to much since most games see very thin crowds.
Where does the blame for all this lie? The clubs, on their part, invest a significant amount to keep themselves afloat but get little in return. Most fingers point to the AIFF as experts see lack of professionalism in the sport at all levels. “At times, you do feel that thing won’t improve in Indian football,” says Baichung Bhutia. Bhutia, who recently started his own club in Sikkim, is now seeing things from the other side of the pitch. “It is a mammoth task to run a professional club,” he says.
The biggest blow however was to the fans of JCT Phagwara. “Seeing players from Punjab and the north play for India was a matter of pride. They were largely products of JCT Phagwara,” says Singh from Chandigarh. A lot of his pupils from the Chandigarh academy have appeared in trials at JCT Phagwara and some have even made it to the first team.
Singh’s advice to the authorities is to safeguard the interest of football across the country. “If they don’t clean up their act, become more professional at a time when interest in sports is high, it will be a grave mistake,” he adds. As for JCT Phagwara, he still hopes that the club will be revived one day and that football in this side of the country will get back its glory.