The lost glory of Chennai's football league

The top tier of the CFA (Chennai Football Association) league has had a glorious past in terms of fan presence and engagement.

Poor spectator turnout for the CFA Senior Division League football match from the 2018 season.   -  K. Pichumani

The top tier of the CFA (Chennai Football Association) league has had a glorious past in terms of fan presence and engagement.

“The ground (Nehru stadium) was different then,” said CFA secretary Sugumaran. To explain, he placed on a table two writing pads (for grounds) horizontally next to each other, and held a time board (for gallery) to one side facing the pads. “Two matches were held simultaneously. One on the ground close to the crowd, and the other on the ground further away. That way, I think, the people had a sense of closeness to the players.”

He said the league was a preferred pastime for the city people then.

Sixty-four-year-old P. Nageswara Rao (Nagesh) said the Vittal trophy, a National-level competition, was the only major football tournament held regularly in Chennai those days.

Nagesh has been an observer in the CFA senior division league for the past four years now. One may see him focussed on the match and taking notes which serves as a valuable input for the Tamil Nadu State squad selection for the Santosh trophy. He played as a striker for more than 15 years in the league (roughly from around 1974), prominently for ICF and CPT.

“People had to buy a one-rupee entry ticket (as opposed to the free entry now) and even then there were long queues,” he said.

“First division was the top-most tier then. ICF and WIMCO were the best teams. Indian Bank wasn’t there initially. Nethaji Sports Club was the only private club,” he added.

He said there were several charismatic players then, who had dedicated fans.

“When Nagesh played, it didn’t feel like he had a mechanism. He was flamboyant. The league doesn’t have that kind of players now,” said Sugumaran.

There had been only one foreign player then, David Williams (Nigeria), who played for Nethaji FC.

Sugumaran said, “The daily-wage labourers from Periamet, and the porters from the nearby Railway stations were the most frequent visitors then.”

“Most of the labourers were fans of WIMCO (a matchbox company). Similarly, most of the porters supported Southern Railway,” said Nagesh.

The league has now become rigidly professional with more private clubs, said the 55-year-old Prince, who has played for Nethaji FC. He is a loyal fan who watches most of the matches in the stadium now. “The institutional teams mostly had their employees playing then, so the other employees and those who were associated with the institutions became frequent visitors. Now, those teams don’t mostly recruit the players playing for them.”

He reckons the CFA is further losing fans due to its poor organisation of the league. He also drew attention to the poor condition of the spectator facilities, especially the restrooms, that receive a facelift for major tournaments like the Indian Super League.