I'M AFRAID we have seen this film before.
A club comes up, with big ambitions and a lot of zeal, getting all their background work up and running, paying their dues and then venturing into the top division league of Indian football.
They have all the right intentions but the biggest hurdle in their path to success is where they are from. Due to their and everyone else's misfortune, they are a club out of Pune - a city that has proved time and again that it is not ready to support pure football devoid of Bollywood glamour - and play their matches in the Balewadi Stadium; the arena where I-League clubs come to die.
Pune FC tried for years but paid the ultimate price in the end. Bharat FC, all enthusiasm and no planning, set up shop at the same place and soon realised it wasn't going to work out. Now it's DSK Shivajians' turn to try their luck with the cursed stadium.
To be fair, the Balewadi Stadium isn't on the Shivajians' long term agenda. They are constructing a new stadium, but it will have the same major problem that plagued Balewadi: distance from the main city.
But DSK Shivajians promise that they are here to stay and it's downright admirable. The admiration turns into gratitude when taking into account the circumstances of their emergence. The departure of 3 clubs had brought I-League on the verge of failure as the champions were not going to have enough number of matches to play (18 minimum) to gain entry to the AFC Champions League qualifiers. Because the Shivajians stepped up to be the 9th club in the I-League, AIFF were able to bring in Federation Cup to help make up the number of matches. DSK Shivajians straight up saved India's face in Asian football.
But the club's future and significance in the Indian football landscape aside, their squad for the current season isn't the worst thing out there. But it fails in one, most crucial aspect: while a balanced, healthy mix of youth and experience, the team is not very exciting at all.
The Shivajians have rightly roped in Derrick Pereira to be the head coach. The veteran gaffer has served at Vasco, Mahindra United, Pune FC and Salgaocar before and he knows the I-League and the Pune football scene very well. And it's because of him that players like Subrata Paul, Justin Stephen, Mohammed Rafi, Zakeer Mundampara, Douhou Pierre and Nikhil Kadam have readily joined the team, giving the team some much-needed stability of familiarity and experience.
The club were also able to draw in the likes of Prakash Thorat, Nikhil Kadam, Anas Edathodika, Naorem James Singh, Lalhmangaihsanga Ralte and Zohmingliana Ralte into their roster from the teams who have walked out of the I-League. Added to that, players like Israil Gurung, Ognam Milan Singh, and DSK's own academy graduates like Rohan Adnaik, add a lot of youthful fervour.
THe foreigners, too, are evenly distributed across the spectrum; Cameroonian Aser Pierrick Dipanda up front, Douhou Pierre in the middle and at the back there are Zohib Islam Amiri and Jeremy Labor. Two of these foreigners have been playing in India for a long time and two are fresh faces.
To sum up, this is a well-balanced, well-organized, thoroughly calculated squad; the kind of team we usually get to see from Derrick Pereira. Their effectiveness was on display against Sporting Clube de Goa whose attack line they successfully neutralized. It wasn't easy for a team playing their first competitive game together knowing that helming the SCG attack was Odafa Okolie; and even on bad days the creative striker is capable of finding ways to become lethal.
But their intensity from midfield up was lukewarm at best. Maybe it's the newness of the squad - there's definitely a margin for error when you judge a team by one game - but Dipanda backed up by Rafi hardly makes for a threatening attack when you are going up against the likes of Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC. And it's doesn't help in the quest to win new fans.
The most exciting thing about the DSK Shivajians team, by intention or fate, is the young striker Chhangte Lallianzuala. The 18 year old boy became the centre of attention in Indian football when he debuted for India in the SAFF Championship straight out of the Liverpool-DSK Shivajians academy. There was a huge buzz around the youngster and a number of top division clubs were making enquiries about him. But academy coach (and former footballer) Dave Rogers was quick to assure TFG that "he's going nowhere, mate." Well, last we checked, he literally hasn't gone anywhere; he wasn't the part of the first team in the match against Sporting Clube de Goa; he is yet to be registered as a first team player. Maybe they are being protective and taking their time with the kid; but seeing him play would definitely create a lot of interest around the new club. Who knows, bleeding him into the top division this early might even be good for the boy.
But should the Shivajians be blamed for playing it safe on their first season? They have said time and again that they want to be in the league long term, and building a first team that aims for a stable, mid-table finish to get things off the ground actually makes sense. But taking that approach, in some ways, fails to address the dearth of football fans in Pune, which play-safe football is definitely not going to change. Also, as a direct-entry club, they are immune from relegation, and could have gone for making a first-season splash like Bengaluru FC. Instead, their actions seem to closely resemble that of Pune FC and Bharat FC, and given their present status in Indian football, it may not be the most ideal path to take.