EVEN A FEW MONTHS AGO, no one would have thought Chennai City FC could ascend to India's top division league so quickly.
The club has been eyeing a dramatic entrance into the national scene ever since Rohit Ramesh, a young enterpreneur belonging to a family that runs a media empire including The Hindu newspaper, took over the club back in 2013.
Established in 1946 as Nethaji Sports Club, the football team underwent rapid transformation in the last couple of years. New owner Rohit, other than changing the name of the club, established a new professional setup to make the team more competitive. The team regained its place in the top tier of the local league and even went on to win it. They even released a celeb-studded theme song.
That the club was making big strides became clear when it became a part of Premier Futsal; an association they readily abandoned when it became clear that AIFF and IMG-Reliance were frowning upon that tournament. Instead, they chose to seize the opportunity to make their top division debut when AIFF called for direct entry tenders.
Now that it's official, Rohit Ramesh, speaking to TFG, said he knew the enormity of the challenge of fielding a team at that level on such short notice and the club personnel were already hard at work to make that happen,
"We need to add a few [players] and it's going to be tough! We will see what can be done to put a competitive team and also reach out to our fan base! The good thing is, people who follow Tamil Nadu football know Us very well.. we will do our best with realistic targets in a short span of time but the ultimate aim is to chart a good blue print for the long term future."
Chennai, once a footballing stronghold with the state of Tamil Nadu contributing multiple players to the national scene, saw its presecne from the national circuit fade away when the former top division club Indian Bank Recreational Club quit competing at that level. The void was finally filled by the ISL franchise Chennaiyin FC which started playing in 2014.
Now that Chennai City, too, have entered the spotlight (albeit under completely different circumstances), Ramesh acknowledged that there would be comparisions drawn between those two teams. But he promptly points out exactly where Chennai City differ from Chennaiyin,
"85% of our players are local. We belong to the soil of Tamil Nadu and proud of our identity, and our squad shows it. That's why we closely want to work with both the Chennai and Tamil Nadu Football Associations. We're also looking to tie up with them and help chennai FA to conduct the local league."
The desire to stay connected to the local footballing scne, he explained, is contrasting to the attitude Chennaiyin FC have shown towards the local clubs; the franchise's unwillingness to share the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium which they rent for ISL for even the shortest amount of time (that did not clash with their matches or practice sessions) caused a lot of trouble for the local clubs. Chennai City will book the JLN Stadium too, he said, but won't shut everyone else out of it during their season.
Rohit also elaborated on the grassroot efforts his club will engage with in the near future,
"There are 33 districts in Tamil Nadu and we are looking to invest in all these districts for the development of the sport. The main agenda is for CCFC to take over all the local leagues across the 33 districts. We will invest on camps, youth development and grassroots. I'm sure if we do it the right way, we will gain a huge amount of fan following from all over Tamil Nadu, and also create a large pool of promising local talent."
The fact that their stint in the top division in I-League may be short lived does not faze the Chennai City owner. When asked about the re-structuring of leagues, he said he was okay with the prospect of playing in League One as long as there is opportunity to get to the top again in the future via promotion-relegation,
"Yes, our long term vision is essential immaterial of both leagues joining. But at the of the day, locally we want to do justice to the sport in Tamil Nadu. I-League or League one, we have a platform for our boys and that's more than enough of for us. Hopefully in the long term it materialises well but let's enjoy the ride as of now and develop the sport. For instance, CCFC have sponsored the Tamil Nadu Santosh Trophy team for three years and we will continue to do so. We will still play in the Senior division under the chennai football association. This is or was our bread and butter and we can't forget it."
And there may be international partners that join their efforts. Rumours are about of a possibly tie-up between CCFC and Bury FC, the English club where Bhaichung Bhutia played for a while. Rohit clarified the situation to TFG,
"Our talks are still ongoing. We are also in talks with other clubs as well in the UK. Some development should happen soon hopefully!"
But the nearest future for the club involves the monumental task of quickly signing players, starting pre-season and getting ready for I-League. Rohit said,
"From Chennai Senior Division to the I-League... it's indeed a big, sudden jump. Experience is key and it's a learning process for the players and myself. This season we want to show we are competitive and put up a good show as time is limited. We'll try to field a team with good balance and we hope we put in a good performance."
Rohit said he drew relief from the fact that the first step towards putting on a strong show in the I-League has already been taken, with the appointment of head coach Robin Charles Raja, a veteran who has had success coaching at multiple levels of Indian football,
"He has done his Pro license and also has some experience coaching the Tamil Nadu team against Punjab, Kerala and Goa in Santosh trophy. As first team coach, he will be very influential in the club and our long term plans."
For now, the CCFC owner wants to concentrate on the behind-the-scene efforts to get the club's maiden top division stint underway. The fans, he assured, have much to look forward to; including a squad reveal and jersey launch coming their way soon as the Tamil Nadu capital makes itself home at the biggest competition in Indian football once again.