A few points to ponder

Even as the dust settles down on the seventh edition of the National football league, the clubs in Goa and Bengal have begun planning their prized recruits for the next season in November.

This is not surprising, considering the monetary stakes involved. Currently, the most attractive proposition in football in the country, the NFL, has made the clubs to work overtime to strike the best bargain. The hunt is mostly for the foreigners, who invariably walk away with all the honours.

Over 350 goals were scored, interestingly most of them had come from overseas strikers, in the latest near five-month programme, involving 132 matches. How does this help in elevating Indian soccer is a pertinent question. For, after all the NFL is designed to reflect the country's quantity and quality.

One way to counter this `foreign influence' is by restricting the number of overseas players to three or even two per team from the present figure of four.

There can even be a clause limiting each foreign player to a specific number of matches in a season.

How acceptable these measures are, is a moot point. Clubs world over are no charitable organisations, but virtually industries, that believe in successful business. And clubs here are no exception.

However, where the clubs, as an integral part of any football development programme, can make an impact is by giving a thrust to youth programmes.

The Under-19 competition for NFL teams, which was launched a year ago, should go a long way in achieving this objective, provided the competition is viewed with all seriousness and not as a ritual, as of now.

Aside from the question of NFL's value in the current scenario, what should make All India Football Federation officials sit up and think seriously is the emerging trend of clubs from two States — Goa and Bengal — dominating the league. With nine teams from these two States, five from Goa itself, and just three outside the purview of these two power centres, the NFL format looks lop sided.

In the next season, for instance, there will be just one team from the south — Indian Bank — in the National league with no representation from football-interested States like Kerala and Karnataka.

It is nobody's case that the clubs in these States have been discriminated against. The simple truth is that, Goa and Bengal clubs have been able to absorb the gains of the NFL better over the years to strengthen their base. Goa, in fact, has its own professional league that is proving the conduit for teams aspiring to make a mark at the national level.

Bengal's success lay in its local league, considered one of the toughest in India. For long we have heard of the performances of the giants of Bengal in various national tournaments and their continuance as glamour outfits in the NFL is not a surprise.

The success of the Goan and Bengal clubs is one bright aspect of the NFL, but on the flip side is the failure of the others.

There is no escaping the fact that to sustain all round interest, a basic necessity, if the sport has to develop on sound lines, is to make the competition widespread.

What the AIFF can think of, for a start, to widen the horizon by spreading the matches around. For instance, both Margao and Kolkata in the coming season will witness several repetitive matches involving teams of the same State, because of the `home' and `away' encounters. A few of these matches can be played at `neutral' venues.

Or better still the parent body can think of modifying the present format to incorporate a zonal league system by which 10 or 12 best teams can be chosen for an elite two-legged league thereafter.

This will mean more matches, but it will also involve more teams, perk up enthusiasm in every zone and what is more, broad base the league to give it a true National look. There are of course several technical aspects to be considered.

The success of the J-league in Japan lay in this element of involvement in addition to innovation.

A country where the national league had helped to revolutionise quality, culminating in that image-building performance in the last World Cup, Japan presents a scenario where each J-league team not only represents a sponsor's product, but also identifies itself with a locality.

Some such success story is what the Asian Football Confederation expects of India from the National league.