THE I-LEAGUE 2015-16 SEASON is still months away from kicking off but it has already suffered a major blow. According to a report published on Goal.com, both I-League clubs from Pune, Pune FC and Bharat FC, are about to shut down their first team. While Pune FC are expected to continue their academy and junior teams but Bharat FC are likely to fully fold after only 1 season of existence. There has been no official words from either club or AIFF about it but chances are the information is accurate.
The Pune FC management, the article goes on to say, are folding because they are frustrated with the lack of an overall vision from AIFF to guide Indian football forward. Financial suffering has been the fate of Indian clubs for years now. AIFF have done little to change this, and despite appeals from all quarters, have not agreed to share the I-League TV and main sponsor revenue with the clubs. When IMG-Reliance partnered up with AIFF people hoped for all this to change, but they went on and started a seperate private tournament with its own franchises, leaving I-League and its clubs high and dry in neglect. With no hope of new modes of monetization being available, a lot of the clubs have been running at perpetual loss. It was only a matter of time before things would come to a head for many of these clubs. A strong reaction has already been seen in Goa, and the tide seems to have reached Pune.
Pune, a city with a rather small football fanbase and a stadium in a relatively remote location, is hardly an ideal place to have 3 professional football teams. Pune FC have been there since 2007 and their club has been an example to others when it comes to professionalism and youth development. They were the first I-League club to set up state of the art training facilities for their academy, Under-17 and Under-19 teams. Their first team remained closely connected to their junior teams and their academy graduates were regularly promoted to the main squad. Theirs was a fully integrated system with a vision of building their own talent, one that produced players like Jeje Lalpekhlua, Thongkhosiem Haokip, Nikhil Kadam and Dhanpal Ganesh. But while their young, robust first team continued to put up a challenge in the I-League and elsewhere, they failed to win any trophy, and the excitement around the team died down. Soon an empty Balewadi stadium during matchdays became a common sight. When the attendance statistics for the 2013-14 I-League season came out, Pune FC had an average attendance of just over 2,500. And it included the school and NGO kids they brought into the stadium for free.
And then Pune City came in, with resources far beyond Pune FC's reach. With a celebrity owner, the full force of the ISL marketing machinery and aggressive promotion, they managed to attract an average of 7,859 people per game; lowest in ISL, but significantly higher than Pune FC. After the conclusion of the inaugural ISL, the franchise also took time to come up with a far-reaching grassroots programme in collaboration with local schools. They also held a series of events to encourage fan participation and expand their fan base, and announced the opening of dedicated merchandise stores. They were sending down roots, and the limited monetary resources of Pune FC did not allow them to match this with a similarly aggressive marketing campaign.
And then there was Bharat FC. The direct-entry corporate I-League club made a logic-defying decision to base themselves in Pune, while there were several other cities in the state that had a lively football culture and needed a football club to represent them. They came in, all flashy and devoid of a long term plan, expecting things to fall into place like they did for Bengaluru FC. Their debut I-League campaign hammered home the reality for them, as their hastily-assembled team finished last, avoiding relegation only due to the immunity granted to direct-entry clubs. And, much to their surprise, people did not line up in thousands to buy tickets from them. They ended the season with one of the worst attendance averages in the league.
But while the startup-like rise and fall of Bharat FC hardly comes as a surprise, the loss of Pune FC is likely to hit the I-League hard. In a league struggling to establish itself in the eyes of the larger Indian public, Pune FC represented composure, professionalism and long-term thinking. If their first team folds it will be the end of one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in Indian football.
For the sake of Indian football, here's hoping it does not turn out to be the case.