Once home to the country’s best footballing action, Delhi’s soccer clubs, which saw participation from top Asian outfits in the making, appear to be in a morbid state today. Recall the heyday of football in the capital, when local league games were passionately celebrated by a packed Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi, and compare it with the setting of the game as it is played today — in front of empty stands.

In the 1950s, and all through the ’60s and ’70s when the game was at its zenith, the city’s football community was segregated into two halves — the Walled City and New Delhi. Clubs like Young Men, Indian Nationals, City Club, Youngsters, Mughals and Usmania were from the old city while Raisina Sporting, Simla Youngs, New Delhi Heroes, President’s Estate were from the new city.

In those days clubs relied solely on the support of locals and the game was majorly community-based.  There was a huge demand for tickets of DCM tournament and Durand Cup matches but even the games involving clubs at the bottom of the league table managed to attract a decent turnout. Interestingly, back in the days, if you had a ticket for a DCM or a Durand Cup match and you happened to be a government employee, you could avail a half day from work. Such was the craze for football.

N.K. Bhatia, Vice-President of Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) recalls that in early 1960s, the cost of a ticket was a mere 10 paisa which rose to 25 paisa after 1964 and a player was more than willing to accept Rs 4000 to 5000 per year for a transfer. “Some even accepted a television set as a transfer fee,” he adds, “for it was a luxury in those days. DSA managed to earn around Rs 500 from a full house at stadium, which used to happen regularly in those days.” This was the time when Rs 500 was the average monthly earning in the bourgeois world of Delhi — that explains the association was doing fairly well. Today, there is no entry fee for league matches, yet no one seems to be interested in matches anymore. But back then, the involvement and passion of the crowd in the game was intense. Clubs, generally,  were crowd-funded mostly by the local middle classes.

According to Aziz Quraishi, who belongs to the golden generation of City players, which won consecutive league titles in the 1961 and 1962 and again in 1964,   the decline of Delhi’s football is a direct result of media’s ignorance. “Nobody covers the local matches these days. The deterioration started happening between 1972 and 1975. Till 1971, the press enclosure used to be packed with 20-25 journalists and photographers in attendance.”

Part of it, some ex-players and club owners believes, is DSA’s doing  — its inability to professionalise the league structure. There is politics for trivial issues within the administration. Delhi — which won the prestigious Santosh trophy back in 1944-45 — was eliminated in the first round of this year’s tournament last month.

Football was a bourgeous sport — a source of entertainment for the enthusiastic middle class. All one needed, was a ball to run around with, unlike cricket which was for the aristocrats mostly. The emergence of cricket and the decline of football in India were concurrent, and can also be attributed to two major world events — the 1982 Fifa World Cup where Maradona displayed his sheer talent to help Argentina lift the trophy and 1983 Cricket World Cup which India won. In I982, FIFA was telecasted for the first time in India. And there one could see a huge gap between the standard of football being played internationally and of that in India. India’s jubilant win over the mighty West Indies in 1983 resulted in an undisputed dominance of cricket over other sports in the country, which continues till date.

Soon after that, the demographics of Delhi in mid 80’s began to change at a steady pace. The football pitches started dwindling and there came a time when there was hardly any space left to play. The vacant spaces to play from Turkman Gate to the Delhi Gate of the Walled city and grounds like Mughal ground, Cresent ground, Red Fort ground, Press ground, President Estate ground and a pitch opposite Rajghat gave way for the construction of hospitals, parking lots, and roads. Hence, the clubs were left with  very few grounds where they could practice.

Novy Kapadia, commentator and sports writer, who has played football professionally in his younger days, remembers a large turnout at the railway station to welcome East Bengal team every time they came to Delhi. Kapadia also used to go to the station to see his childhood heroes with his father. ” Until 1970’s,” he says,” matches in India’s domestic competition used to be played over 70 minutes instead of 90 minutes. DCM tournament started in 1945; it was for the first time television-deprived masses got international exposure. Even though people knew what was going on in European and international football. They read in papers about the geniuses of Sir Bobby Charlton and others. But DCM tournament introduced them to the modern football of those days. Teams from Iran, North Korea, South Korea, and USSR participated in the tournament. Taj Club from Iran lifted the trophy thrice in a row between 1969 and ’71.”

It’s hard to accept that a once bristling centre of football activities is on an all time low now. In spite of early impetus of the game, steadfast professionalism and lack of sponsorship are some of the things that the sport is struggling to cope with. The inability of most clubs to procure sponsorship, lack of playing spaces and increased exposure to western standards for budding footballers through television only adds to the woes of the game. And there are no gymnasiums in Delhi’s stadiums where players can train.

Part of it, some ex-players and club owners believes, is DSA’s doing  — its inability to professionalise the league structure. There is politics for trivial issues within the administration. Delhi — which won the prestigious Santosh trophy back in 1944-45 — was eliminated in the first round of this year’s tournament last month.

According to Nirmal Singh, who coaches around 80 boys and girls at Jawahar Lal Stadium, the dearth of football academies is the main problem. He cites the example of Brazil, which he visited for a certificate course a few years back. “Every established club in Brazil runs an academy which manages around 400 youngsters but that is sadly missing in India,” he says. There are only a handful of clubs which run academies in Delhi. “The work needs to be done from grass-root level otherwise there is little hope for football in the country. Earlier, until 80s, there was no live coverage of the game, now youngsters are more interested in International football than what is happening on the domestic front. Plus there are no icons in the country to set an example for the young generation to follow,” says Singh.

There are times in a football game when one comes across a team whose play is inspired: they work in miraculous tandem; every player when with the ball seems to know exactly where the others are, without even looking. That inspiration is something which is missing in the country’s game spirit, be it the game or the administration. And it’s not just Delhi which is struggling with the languishing state of the game, it’s the same story elsewhere in India.

Perhaps it is time for the ‘sleeping giant’ to rise from its slumber. What India needs today as a footballing nation is a spark and the rest will fall into place. For who knows, tomorrow one of our own might go on to play for a top club in Europe. But until then, a fain hope for a revival will linger on.                

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