THE SIGNS HAVE BEEN THERE for a while. The smoothly running system was showing minuscule cracks, the stoic professionalism losing composure, leading to occurences that would raise eyebrows even if they came from the less modern, less consistent clubs. But in a way it might have been inevitalbe; a time bomb that has kept ticking all this time.
The word is that Pune FC are about to shut down their first team. Their junior teams and academy will carry on as usual, we are assured, but the club that has set so many examples in professionalism and effective all-round development of players, will disappear from the I-League.
So will Bharat FC. But we are not talking about them. Football is a long-term business, and one can't just butt in with a startup-like approach and expect to gain immediate returns.
But Pune FC have done everything right in the footballing sense. They have employed scouts to spot talents in various parts of India. They have brought those players in to train at the state-of- the art facilities they have built, and made sure they got their shot at the Under-19 and then the first team. In the I-League they have traditionally fielded teams that relied on young Indian players rather than big names from abroad. And they have delivered stable results. For a few seasons they were regularly in the top 3-4 of the league table.
But stablefailed to catch the fans' fancy. After an initial euphoria following their successful promotion to the top-tier I-League, the numbers in Balewadi dwindled. Soon they had one of the lowest attendance rates in the league. Then came Pune City and within a short few months did what Pune FC could not. They spent a lot of money, bought big names, got a celebrity owner, carried out aggressive marketing campaigns and built up what resembled a loyal fanbase. As the I-League season approached, none of that popularity trickled down to Pune FC. The Red Lizards remained largely ignored by the local fans.
By now the ISL had taken over the limelight and I-League, while more popular than before, remained a marginalised product in Indian football. IMG-Reliance, in charge of the scheduling, marketing, broadcasting and financing of I-League refused to spend money on its marketing. Refusing to fight for the clubs, AIFF asked the clubs to cough up their own money to market the league. The demands to turn I-League into a separate legal entity, and possibly changing its revenue sharing system to allow clubs to take home a slice of the TV revenue, fell to deaf ears once again. The clubs were left with one option: depend on ticket & merchandise sales and shirt sponsorship to try and break even. After years of trying and failing to make money off tickets and sponsors, and now with Pune City taking things over, this was akin to a death-knell for Pune FC.
The club was not created as a charity. Few clubs are. It had a commercial goal from the start. The facilities Pune FC built cost money. Running a team costs money. Operating an academy costs money. And come matchday the coffers hardly ring. Denied any extra paths of generating revenue, the Pune FC management were left with a business that was guaranteed to not make any money.
And it all goes back to AIFF's all-encompassing deal with IMG-Reliance. In a 2012 interview with Goal.com, Pune FC co-owner Rajeev Piramal expressed the fear that this was going to be the case,
"The AIFF has taken a decision on behalf of all the I-League clubs which basically has resulted in the clubs being in a position, as per the agreement that the AIFF has agreed with IMG-Reliance, where they see no money for the next 10-to-15 years."
But they kept on going, trying to make something change; perhaps IMG-Reliance would help the clubs by changing the rules. Perhaps the fans would finally take to liking the club. Season after season they kept investing 10+ crores of rupees into the system, playing in a league with a prize money of less than one crore. Why?
“You just do it if you love it.”
But while love is infinite, money isn't. There was only so much Piramal Group could pour into Pune FC without getting any returns. And over the last two seasons they seemed to be approaching the bottom. The team's performance graph seemed to drop. Their academy teams were no longer dominating the junior circuits. The better players were leaving the club for more money. And towards the end of the 2014-15 season, coach Karim Bencherifa abruptly left the team without a word.
A club that prided itself for professional, smooth operation was faltering in its steps. Throughout the summer the throes built up behind the scenes and culminated in today's bad news. While it came as a shock to most, those closest to the footballing circle perhaps were not so surprised.
So now that we are faced with the prospect of losing the club that introduced the country to the modern way of running a footballing institution, how do we make sense of it? It can either be seen as a continued failure of Indian football as a whole, the same perpetual process that sunk our FIFA rankings below 150 and caused the closures of once-stellar clubs like Mahindra United, JCT and Viva Kerala. It can be seen as another side-effect of the ISL phenomenon, that has shrunk the I-League, taken away supporters from its clubs, and basically made the top-flight league of the country look like a second-rate investment opportunity for potential sponsors. Or one can take it to be further sign that the Indian football ecosystem is moving towards a unification of I-League and ISL.
The last point is a speculative one, but one that best addresses the concept of space for football clubs. The possibility of creating one strong season-long top flight league for the country has been discussed by many ever since the system was split into two at the birth of ISL. The list of people who support the One-League Theory includes names like FC Goa manager Zico, Indian national team coach Stephen Constantine, AIFF President Praful Patel and Vice President Subrata Dutta, FIFA Regional Development Officer Dr Shaji Prabhakaran, General Secretary Kushal Das and I-League CEO Sunanda Dhar. Recent comments from highly placed officials indicate that a merger can happen within the next 3 to 5 years.
But the discussion reaches a deadlock when discussing multiple clubs in a particular city. Zico recently proposed the idea that other top clubs from Goa should merge with FC Goa to create one team that everyone can support. Now that was not very far from practicality seeing that Dempo and Salgaocar owned stakes in FC Goa, and a merger was a real possibility.
Meanwhile in Kolkata, there is already a robust culture of multiplicity when it comes to football. East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting already enjoy large loyal fanbases, and still large part of the population, especially middle class and up, remain untapped. Atletico de Kolkata can, with their marketing and Sourav Ganguly's star persona, capture enough of that demographic to generate a supporter base to call their own.
In Pune, however, things are not like that. The numbers of fans are too few to go around between 3 teams, and in the struggle to assert dominance over the soil, Pune City are winning out. A rather heartless, Darwinian interpretation of Pune FC's folding can be that the system is ironing out anomalies and preparing itself for the eventual merger.
But maybe all this is baseless speculation. Perhaps something will happen that will turn it all around. We have seen that before. Days after Mohammedan Sporting announced that they were folding their football team, they were flocked by support from the fans and sponsors who wanted to contribute to save the club, and they lived. Maybe something will happen to Pune FC too. I certainly hope, nay pray, that something like that happens.
Because, unlike Bharat FC, Pune FC have made invaluable contribution to Indian football. Even though they were easy targets for trolling and ridicule due to their empty stands and trophy cabinet, behind their academy doors trained some of the best talents in the country. And even though they fully intend to keep the academy open, the existence of the first team was of immense significance. It ensured that the brightest students got a direct avenue from academy all the way into top-flight football. It's what allowed them to show to the rest of the country that you can pick up a bunch of young ambitious Indian players, train them properly and then go toe to toe with a big club with large pockets and multiple star players.
Their existence in I-League symbolized the fruition of a new philosophy, an alternative to the old, outdated ways most Indian clubs continue to cling to, a path which, if followed by all, could greatly help the standard of home-grown players in the I-League, boosting, in turn, the overall quality of the national team.
Bengaluru FC are doing the same, but with a much larger budget. That is what has allowed them to drive out ISL from their turf, and gain a loyal following for themselves. But Pune FC have not managed to do either of that. Hence they have lost ground to Pune City. And now, when their first team's final moments may well be nigh, they are being mourned not by fans who wear their colours with pride, but mostly by supporters of other clubs who have quietly appreciated them for who they were, the intangible diversity they brought to the league, and the little lessons they taught other clubs that have made them better.
Maybe some fans will remember those contributions. Maybe in the coming years, in social media, internet chatrooms, pub tables and gallery conversations they will fondly remember the team that called themselves the Red Lizards. They will talk about how, in spite of the walls closing in, they never moved away from their central philosophy; how in a football landscape littered with plastic they kept their flesh and blood till the very end. And through that, in some ways, maybe, just maybe, Pune FC will live on.