WHAT A DIFFERENCE a year can make.
On February 15th last year, dozens of trucks descended down South Kolkata's E M Bypass, racing towards the Salt Lake Stadium in unison. They were draped in black and white, packed tight with excited fans wearing jerseys and face paints. The buses were full too, with fans waving black and white flags to passing vehicles. The mood was festive and reminded one of a Kolkata Derby: only this time neither East Bengal nor Mohun Bagan were part of the occasion.
It was the grand finale of the 118th IFA Shield, with Mohammedan Sporting facing off with Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi from Bangladesh. It was a big deal for Mohammedan, nicknamed the 'Black Panthers', because it had been more than four decades since they had last won this coveted, historical trophy. The club was facing, like many others, financial difficulties, and had succumbed to relegation every time they made it to the I-League top division. Coupled with the Durand Cup win in 2012, an IFA Shield victory would be a sign of rejuvenation for the beloved century old football club.
More than 40,000 people showed up at the game. There was considerable media presence. The TV broadcast was high-quality, produced by Grey Mind for Star Jalsha Movies. The match itself was a high voltage affair, where Dhanmondi's dreaded Haitian striker Sony Norde put up a performance that earned him a contract with Mohun Bagan next season. The visiting side took a lead, but Mehrajuddin Wadoo managed to equalize, and the score remained 1-1 at the end of 120 nervy minutes. The penalties took place, one after the other, with the crowd holding their breath. And all that pent up anxiety came out in a deafening roar as Mohammedan prevailed after the final shot. Thousands of spectators lost all inhibition and invaded the pitch, picking up players and staff on their shoulders. Fans danced on the turf and the galleries, setting off fireworks. Unlike the Derby, there was no division among the crowd, as they hugged each other in joy. One elderly could not hold back his tears as he told everyone around him, “We did it for India! We did it for India!”
It seemed India's second oldest football tournament, and the only domestic cup competition that regularly featured foreign clubs, was slowly returning to its glory days.
But fast forward to next year, the IFA Shield was kicking off in a late May afternoon, in front of some two hundred fans in the East Bengal ground, with no telecast and hardly any media present. The tournament was now an Under-19 affair.
How does a tournament go from being a widely popular event to a drab affair largely unnoticed by fans and media all within 15 months? The image of the IFA Shield still retains its prestige among clubs and fans. Shyam Thapa, ex India player and Mohun Bagan legend, was present at the occasion and was being constantly pestered by fans to talk about famous goals he scored in the Shield that have entered the Indian football folklore. It's the very tournament where barefoot Mohun Bagan players conquered British opponents for the first time in 1911, giving rise to a wave of nationalism; an event which is now taught in school textbooks in West Bengal. The last couple of editions of IFA Shield saw higher spectator turnout as Star, the chief sponsors of IFA, led a successful promotional campaign and provided quality telecast. The popularity graph of the tournament, along with the Calcutta Football League, was definitely upwards.
Although the IFA officials wouldn't admit it, the Shield has been cut down in order to make room for the Indian Super League, in the same way AIFF scrapped the Federation Cup. With the local leagues, the I-League, the SAFF Cup and World Cup qualifiers already making for a tight 2015-16 season, there was no way they could have given the exclusive prime window in the season to ISL with all these cup tournaments calling for attention from all directions.
The IFA was eager to put a positive spin on it. The officials spoke of creating a new platform for the youth to exhibit their talents, and bringing in youth teams from big European clubs like Bayern Munich and Barcelona to make it more attractive in future editions. As they spoke, tired youngsters of East Bengal and United SC played out a drab draw under the hot May sun on a heavily humid Kolkata afternoon. Other youth teams like Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting would also play out draws for the next two games, in front of a handful of fans seeking a bit of shade under trees rather than trying to get the best view from the stands. No tickets sold, no broadcast organized. A complete anti-thesis of everything the IFA Shield has stood for for more than a century.
History no longer matters and even promise of popularity is a futile incentive in the increasingly monopolistic Indian football landscape. The ISL is the one lucrative omelette everyone is trying to make and tournaments like Federation Cup and IFA Shield are just some unfortunate eggs that must be cracked.