Last Post for the Fed Cup

The final hurrah? Bengaluru FC players celebrate their 2015 Federation Cup triumph at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda, Goa.-K. MURALI KUMAR The final hurrah? Bengaluru FC players celebrate their 2015 Federation Cup triumph at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda, Goa.

The AIFF’s failure to find a fixed slot for the tournament in the seasonal football calendar, and give a proper shape to the event had left it in the lurch over the past few years. It had undergone a series of transmutations, eventually losing all significance, and was left stuck somewhere between league and knock-out formats. By Amitabha Das Sharma.

The All India Football Federation, after a flurry of boardroom deliberations on April 23, virtually ended the run of the 38-year-old Federation Cup. Though the Indian football administrators have decided to put the once high-profile tournament in the cold storage for the time being, any chances of its revival looks bleak.

The country’s new-found obsession with the Indian Super League spelled trouble for the Cup-format tournament, with officials stating that the Federation Cup has outlived its utility.

Launched in 1977, the Federation Cup has been a symbol of club supremacy at the national level, giving supporters’ country-wide something to follow other than the inter-state football tournament, the Santosh Trophy (before the advent of the National League in 1996). The tournament, conducted at various corners of the country, regularly attracted big crowds, acting as an incentive for the top players to play better. Baichung Bhutia’s hat-trick for East Bengal in a 4-1 win over archrival Mohun Bagan in a Federation Cup semifinal at the Salt Lake Stadium in 1997 is part of Indian football’s folklore.

However, the AIFF’s failure to find a fixed slot for the Federation Cup in the seasonal calendar and give a proper shape to the event had left tournament in the lurch over the past few years. It had undergone a series of transmutations, eventually losing all significance, and was left stuck somewhere between league and knock-out formats.

“It is better to stop a tournament if the AIFF cannot conduct it properly. There is no reason in dragging it indefinitely without any sense of purpose,” says Subhash Bhowmick, a former international and a celebrated coach. “We have a cluttered calendar now, where tournaments are jostling for space. There is no point in squeezing the Federation Cup arbitrarily somewhere and wasting funds. The 15-day format yields little benefit.”

Supporting the AIFF’s decision to invest Rs. 3 crore, saved by scrapping the Fed Cup, on youth development and I-League Division II, Bhowmick says: “This is a good move, but only as long as the AIFF is able to implement what it is trying to preach.”

The AIFF vice-president Subrata Dutta, a seasoned football administrator from Bengal, speaks of the Federation’s need to weed out and clean the national football calendar. “The Federation Cup was not serving any purpose. It lasted only 15 days, putting the teams through a grind and exposing the players to more chances of injury. The executive committee, the technical committee and the national coaching staff agreed unanimously to this decision,” he says.

“We are aiming at broad-basing the under-19 I-League and the I-League. The I-League needs to be expanded to have more cross-country participation and for development more money needs to be pooled in. Indian football has become richer by Rs. 600 crore with the arrival of ISL. We need to apply the rationale in developing the sport rather than continuing with the old pattern.”

The AIFF has already restructured the inter-state Santosh Trophy, making it mandatory for teams to include five under-21 players.

Still very many are flummoxed by this sudden decision of the AIFF to scrap the Fed Cup. Defending Federation Cup champion, Bengaluru FC’s COO Mustafa Ghouse says: “Clubs in the country are now left with only one tournament — the I-League. The decision to scrap the Fed Cup brings a sense of disappointment and loss. The AIFF had consulted us earlier about turning it into a home-and-away format. But, now, suddenly they have pulled the plug. This will not help in keeping the balance of matches in the calendar right.”

Bengaluru, now left with only one national-level tournament to participate in, will sit idle for a majority of the season.

Torn between the old recognised club structure and the glitz and money of the franchisee setup of the ISL, the AIFF has failed to find a proper solution. The Federation Cup and the I-League still are the only two tournaments in India recognised and mandated by the world and continental bodies — FIFA and AFC.

Brazilian footballer Roberto ‘Beto’ Mendes Silva, who has made India his second home, says: “I would like to believe that there is a Plan-B for Indian clubs, in case they have finally decided to end the Fed Cup. It is going to make no sense to financially sustain a professional club just to play the I-League for five months.”

Beto, who has played for clubs like Mohun Bagan and Dempo SC, adds: “The solution might lie in merging the I-League and the ISL to make the calendar workable. The ISL has raised the bar and now any other tournament, be it the Fed Cup or the I-League, need to be restructured to make sense for clubs and investors.”

Utpal Ganguly, the general secretary of the oldest football federation in the country (Indian Football Association, the governing body of the sport in Bengal), sees merit in the AIFF’s decision, but still wants to find a way to salvage the Federation Cup. “They have to restructure the Fed Cup to ensure its survival. If you cannot accommodate it in the calendar as a senior club event, then turn it into an under-19 tournament to enhance your talent pool and encourage clubs to have broader youth development programmes,” Ganguly says. “I would convert it into an under-age (youth) tournament. We do not have them in sufficient numbers in this country.”