BRAZILIAN FOOTBALL LEGEND, prospective FIFA presidential candidate and FC Goa manager Zico arrived in India a couple of days ago ahead of the upcoming ISL Domestic Players' draft. Facing the press yesterday he talked about ISL and the effects it can potentially have on the football culture of places like Goa. One point he made has since gone on to cause quite a stir among fans and the media.
The idea he pitched was simple but aggressive. Rather than having two oe three clubs in the top tier, why not have just one Goan team like FC Goa that everyone can get behind?
The reactions his comments garnered two extreme opposite reactions on social media. ISL enthusiasts were all for it, and I-League loyalists panned his comments, saying he had no idea what Goa football was all about. But thinking deeper into it reveal his idea to be more complex than it seems at first, and one with significant implications when you take the present Indian football climate into account.
First off, the obvious question. Can it be done? Is it even realistic to imagine the old rivals of Goa to abandon their infividual identities and band together? Well, we are actually dangerously close to having it happen. Two of the biggest rivals of Goa football, Dempo and Salgaocar, already came together to form FC Goa for ISL. That leaves Sporting Clube de Goa as the only independent top tier club from the massive Goan footballing alliance that Zico himself is a part of. One skeptical way to look at his comments, then, would be to read it as the veiled exclamations of an aggressor. FC Goa already has Dempo and Salgaocar in its pocket and now it wants SC Goa to join it or get out of the way.
Such a knee-jerk dissing of Zico's comments, however, fails to take into account the fledging popularity of the I-League clubs. All three of them played their home games at a near-empty Fatorda stadium throughout last season. Promotion was non-existent. The situation was so bad GFA started issuing a common ticket for all matches with no date on them. In contrast, Kanteerava turned into the elicenter of a city-wide festival during the inaugural ISL. Billboards and TV spots aggressively promoted the matches. Stands were full and the supporters were loud. Goa revealed her football-crazy face during the ISL, which when it came to the I-League, was not the case, if you catch my drift.
But then what should we do, scrap SC Goa? A club that has fought hard on a very tight budget to earn its place among the top flight clubs in India? After all, isn't that what sets real leagues apart from private walled-garden tournaments like ISL : that the smaller clubs can find a place there and make a name for themselves on footballing merit alone?
Zico comes from Rio de Janeiro, a state with four top tier football clubs who mostly share two stadiums. How would he react if someone suggested Flamengo, the club he spent the majority of his playing career in, should be merged with local rivals Fluminense? Makes sense doesn't it; they play in the same stadium anyway.
But what sets Goa apart from Rio is the clubs' popularity. There's a reason why this has been suggested in Goa but no one dared to do so in Kolkata. As long as a club draws in the crowds its existence is justified. The moment the coffers run dry the club's purpose is subjected to intense scrutiny. That is what Sporting Clube de Goa are going through right now.
But still, in the grand scheme of things, is it justified? Should Goa lose its footballing diversity for one unified face of their football culture? The reason that Zico cited in favour of this argument is that instead of spending on multiple professional clubs that don't turn a profit, why not have one club and divert the resources to grassroot development and academies. Smart management of funds that sacrifices clubs in order to improve the overall quality of the game by providing better training for upcoming footballers. Sounds fair, right? After all it's all for the sport.
Except, the very nature of ISL causes hindrance on implementing aforementioned development programmes. And that's by Zico's own admission. Here's what he had to say about ISL-led youth development:
"I have thought about it but it is very difficult not just for FC Goa but for the eight teams of the ISL because when we finish the ISL all the teams dismantle and the players go to their own clubs. I think we should think of something to give continuance to this programme so that we can join everything and prepare with the grassroots programme."
So where does that leave us with FC Goa? A top-flight team that represents all of Goa but cannot spearhead its youth and grassroot development programmes? What is the point of merging all the clubs if it cannot bring in the benefits it is purported to facilitate?
And what about Zico's wish for something to "give it continuance"? Something that will allow it to remain active all season rather than dismantling after two months? Something that will help it make long-term commitments to its constructive roles in the football community? Doesn't it kinda-sorta sound very much like a full-fledged club that plays in a season-long league, and has its own academy and junior teams? Just like, I don't know, every single I-League club? Is that what Zico is saying, that FC Goa should become an I-League club?
Now I'm not one for reading too muxh between the lines (unless it's a post-modern poem or something), but just follow this line of thought for a while. If FC Goa went and got themselves an AFC A-License, Dempo and Salgaocar would have to merge with it, since they both own stakes in the franchise. The unified club can then go about fulfilling every role entrusted to it without the problems Zico mentioned. Makes perfect sense does it not? And it doesn't even mandate the culling of Sporting Clube de Goa! That in itself is not such a bad thing is it? After all, they have one sweet number for their theme song. Feel free to google it.
But while we're at it, why not take this thought one step further? According to Zico, all ISL teams have the same problem regarding engagement in developmental programmes. So why not make them all into real football clubs that play in a real football league? You see where I'm going with this? What if I-League and ISL merge to create one strong league that runs all season, with clubs that have their own academies, youth teams and grassroot programmes? Would that solve the problems Zico spoke of? Could merging leagues instead of clubs be the way forward for Indian football? Let's look at what Zico said about that in December last year,
"In India, you already have one league and now there's ISL. In my point of view, it should merge, the I-League and ISL for the benefit of Indian football. There should be just one league. Otherwise ISL will just be another good event... I wish it can happen and I'm here to help the Indian football's development. I'm very happy because all the Indian players are doing their well and I'm ready to help them. But now it's up to authorities to see what's best."
So there you have it. Zico is fully in favour of merging the leagues. And that's coming from a person who has seen football around the world from up close. It makes sense that the difference between ISL franchises and real football clubs around the world would immediately stick out to him. And his advice to address the existing problems seems to be to unify the Goan teams (FC Goa, Dempo and Salgaocar) and merge I-League and ISL.
Will the powers that be in Indian football take seriously the words of the man who may well become the FIFA President in a few months from now? Will IMG-Reliance let go of their walled-garden approach and let ISL become the true national league of India, where all clubs of merit can participate? Will Zico's concerns about developmental efforts in Indian football be addressed? We will have to wait and see won't we. The season is young and there are lots of games to be played; both on and off the football pitch.