For the love of the club

United sports club's coach Eelco Schattorie with his players during practice. The Dutchman has helped forge unity among the players.-

Players, officials and the coach strive to keep United SC afloat in the I-League. Amitabha Das Sharma on the club’s revival.

The ingenious footballing ideology of a Dutchman and the undying dedication of a few officials are helping revive United Sports Club that had lapsed into a coma following the sudden withdrawal of its financers just before the start of the current season. The Dutchman here is the coach, Eelco Schattori, who has ushered in a kind of unity unheard of in the recent history of professional football in the country.

Just when things appeared bleak for the club, a group of 25 players pledged its allegiance to United Sports Club even without taking the customary advance money as part of the season’s contract. The unique initiative saw the team start its I-League campaign with a victory against debutant Rangdajied United (Shillong), which signalled the club’s revival.

“I can say that the team did not disintegrate in the face of a severe financial crisis because of Eelco and the efforts of people like Nawab and Alo,” says Dipak Mondal, the captain and former international.

Nawab (Siddhartha Bhattacharya) is one of the directors of the club, while Alo (Alokesh Kundu) is the general secretary. They have pooled in their personal savings to prop up United SC this season.

United SC finished a creditable fourth in the I-League last season and the players attribute this “success” to Schattorie’s coaching and the congenial atmosphere created by a “responsive” management.

“I have to depend on earnings from football as a professional player, but it is mainly the ‘fellow’ feeling and the dedication of our coach and the management that inspired me and my colleagues to stay back. We are like a big family and somehow we did not wish to move out when the team was in trouble,” says Mondal, echoing the sentiments of the other United SC players.

The early days of football in Kolkata saw this kind of “selflessness”, as a majority of the old-timers would say. There were cases during the early part of the post-Independence period when a lot of big names from clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting played for the ‘honour’ without taking any remuneration.

However, many of those players were professionally involved with different institutions to make a living.

“I do not have a job anywhere else, so playing without money drains me out financially. We are hopeful the team management will be able to get the funds and pay our dues. Till then, we will focus on football and get the best results for the side,” says Mondal.

The club licensing criteria, put in place by the AIFF (All India Football Federation), mandate the clubs to have only professional footballers. So, it is the duty of the club to ensure that the contractual obligations with the players are honoured.

“It is right that in a professional setup players play for money. For a club here, and everywhere in the world, the biggest challenge is to arrange the funds at the beginning of the season,” says Schattorie, who returned to coach United SC after the club made an appeal to him. “I came back as all the players were eager to train under me. The team is more like a family and we are working to get it back in shape,” says Schattorie, who has already established himself as a “different kind of coach”, both in temperament and style, when compared with so many other foreign coaches.

“The biggest challenge is to get the team match-fit as we missed at least three-four weeks of vital pre-season training. We started the I-League on a winning note and that gives evidence about the team’s level of motivation,” Schattorie says. “We are in the survival mode now and it will be crucial how we perform in the first three or four rounds in the tournament,” the Dutchman added.

The three other foreigners in the side, Ranti Martins, the highest scorer in I-League, his Nigerian compatriot Bello Rasaq and the Liberian, Eric Brown, share Schattorie’s sentiment and have pledged their commitment to the club. “The biggest challenge we face as a team is when the sponsors look for an unrealistic ‘return of investment’ whenever we approach them for funding,” says Nawab Bhattacharya. “Our team is based in the suburbs and we have a big following in the Barrackpore sub-division. But the sponsors are attracted by the glitz and glare of the city,” he says.

“Ranti is the most successful striker in the country and had offers from a lot of clubs, but he decided to stay with us out of love and respect for the club,” says Bhattacharya about his most prized asset.

“I get more motivated when I see my players and the coach making a bid on their own to arrange for funds. Senior players like Dipak, Lalkamal (Bhowmik), Sangram (Mukherjee) have all gone out of their way, asking their friends and contacts to arrange for sponsorship. The efforts will definitely yield result and I am hopeful of getting the funding for the side,” says Bhattacharya.

United had the support of Prayag Group in the previous two seasons. However, the sponsor pulled out as the West Bengal government began to crack down on companies promoting Ponzi schemes. This even hit the big clubs such as East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, who however managed to raise good amounts from associate sponsors.

“Football in the country has to grow with a modern approach, where clubs need to connect with their fans more effectively and the matches should be shown regularly on television. Big international leagues like the EPL and La Liga owe their success to proper marketing where the biggest revenue comes from television rights,” says Bhattacharya.

“We had to save the club as it was like a family to me. Money will come if we stick to our commitment as footballers. We have a coach who can do wonders,” says Lalkamal, another player involved in raising funds for the survival of United Sports Club.