Indian football is perhaps having its best time. On Tuesday, the Blue Tigers won the SAFF championships again. Prior to that, they had won Tri-Nation Cup and the Intercontinental Cup.
This week the team regained a place in the FIFA Top 100 rankings after five years. It perhaps couldn’t have asked for more, considering how the team was struggling even until a few months ago.
Against this backdrop, in Goa came the not-so-savoury news of Salgaocar Football Club, which gave Goa both its Arjuna awardees in football, withdrawing its senior team from the field of play.
To football aficionados in the state, this was a piece of unexpected news that shocked the Goan soccer fraternity. The hundreds of players who donned the Salgaocar FC jersey over the decades may have even shed a tear.
Salgaocar FC was an iconic soccer team in Goa. Its history can be traced back to the pre-liberation period with a trophy cabinet that boasts of victories in almost every major football tournament in the country.
When a team of such mettle hangs up its boots, there is a nostalgic moment of what once was, with searching questions of why this has happened.
After a couple of days of silence, the club owners spoke up or rather released a statement. What was said is pertinent to this discussion.
From the lengthy release, there are two issues that will be dealt with, particularly in this column. One of them is that after the introduction of the ISL, Salgaocar saw “no future for the I-League and non-ISL clubs” in India.
The release says, “Over the years, the football scene in India underwent several changes, which forced us to re-examine the original vision of Salgaocar FC. With the I-League becoming a tier-2 tournament, and the introduction of the ISL, most of the historical national tournaments died a natural death and forced a number of clubs like Mahindras, Tatas, JCT, Pune FC, etc to close down. Even the Federation Cup, winners of which were declared the Champion Club of India, has not been held since 2017.”
The other revelation in the Salgaocar FC releases was that “the reputation of Goan football has been sullied by various allegations of match-fixing and betting. This has destroyed the very charm of competitive matches and the thrill of winning since one never knows whether the opponent has thrown away the match or conceded more goals than merited due to external pressures.”
The betting allegations are a serious issue that has to be tackled by the Goa Football Association rather than it being merely swept under the carpet. The association has to take a very proactive stance in ridding the game of this malpractice.
From what one gathers, Salgaocar FC places the reasons leading to the withdrawal of the senior team on external factors, which left them with no option other than to sit out.
But, can Salgaocar FC only point to such outside circumstances as having led to their decision? That has been much debated.
Leave aside the betting allegations, if the other changes that are happening in Indian football are leading to a revival of the game and giving the national team a competitive edge, the kind that was listed at the beginning of this piece, shouldn’t they be welcomed by clubs, players, officials and fans?
Change will happen, and the club should have adapted to the transformation in football. It should have been tackled like playing a game, where the coach changes strategy depending on the opposition.
The changes in India’s football did not happen overnight. They may have come a little more rapidly than expected, but they also gave clubs ample time to adapt and grow with it.
Ironically also, just days after Salgaocar FC withdrew its senior team, the All India Football Federation decided to revive the Federation Cup, a tournament whose pause the club had cited in its release.
Losing a team like Salgaocar FC on the Goan football field will definitely sadden fans. It shouldn’t, however, act as a precedent for other clubs to take similar decisions.
Managing football teams at the top level is an expensive proposition today, and the earnings from the team in no way meet the budget. The finances have to come from elsewhere, which is an additional burden for club management.
But unless the clubs are there to nurture the talent at the local level, how will Indian football develop? That’s a question the AIFF and the football associations must deliberate on before other clubs begin to think of withdrawing their teams.