For nearly a decade, Mumbai footballers struggled to break into the Indian national team. In 2011, Steven Dias and Abhishek Yadav were both part of the national team set-up but since then only Borivali-born Keegan Pereira played for the country between 2015-’16, making just four appearances in all.
Fast forward to now, things seem to be shaping up better for Mumbai footballers in the new era under India coach Igor Stimac.
Rahul Bheke, Farukh Choudhary, Raynier Fernandes have been in the mix for a while and veteran centre-back Pratik Chaudhari has also received a first-call up after being named in the probables list for India’s World Cup qualifier against Qatar at home (which remains postponed).
The growing influx of Indian players in the national set-up may hint that Mumbai football is on the rise again but is that really what’s happening?
At one point, Mumbai had multiple clubs competing in India’s top-tier National Football League and I-League. Mahindra United was the last club from Mumbai to win the national league (2005-’06) but since they got disbanded in 2010, few others have followed suit. Air India and ONGC, two regulars in the I-League were disallowed to compete in the competition since 2013 as they were owned by public sector units. And since Mumbai FC shut shop in 2017, no other club from Mumbai has featured in the I-League.
At present, Indian Super League franchise Mumbai City FC is the only active professional club in the city. Mumbai City FC Reserves are part of the second division I-League which features 17 sides but other cities have multiple teams – Kolkata (three), Bangalore (two), Kerala (two).
The scarcity of local clubs in the first and second division has meant a lack of opportunities and even less inspiration for players taking up the game. Earlier last year, U-Mumba FC had made their aspirations clear to take part in the I-League and had conducted trials until the All India Football Federation requested them to keep their plans on hold.
“Lack of opportunities is the only reason why Mumbai football is not coming up,” said former India star Steven Dias.
Dias, who is now the Jamshedpur FC assistant coach added: “It’s a pity. There’s only one league [Mumbai District Football Association] but after that, there’s no option to make a career. If you see the North East, they have so many teams in different belts. That’s how their players get spotted and make it to the I-League and ISL.”
While the ISL has its own share of fan following since being launched in 2014, Mumbai City FC has failed to attract supporters at their home base in Andheri Sports Complex. Barring that, only two local players in Fernandes and Chaudhari were part of the first-team squad.
The shortage of clubs in one drawback in the bigger picture. The MDFA has the responsibility of running the local leagues in the city but despite the wealth of talent and number of available teams, players don’t have a good platform to showcase their talent and struggle to receive enough game time since enough tournaments aren’t being held.
Mumbai at present has over 300 MDFA league teams and over 250 youth teams ranging from age of Under-8 to Under-16.
MDFA’s top-tier, the Elite Division, features a total of 28 teams split into two groups – public sector and private sector – but the league is wrapped up within a couple of months with each side playing their opponents only once. The Nadkarni Cup and Independence Cup are the only other tournaments that take place, leaving players with just 20 games to compete in a season on average. The Republic Cup is the only tournament held for MDFA’s second-tier, the Super Division. Meanwhile, only three teams from the second division are allowed to participate in the Nadkarni Cup.
“There is not sufficient football happening in Mumbai, so where are you going to hunt for talent?” said Godfrey Pereira, former India player who is now coaching Air India.
“The MDFA’s leagues (Elite, Super division) is not sufficient for players to show their talent. Teams play very few matches per season and is that even enough to make it to the ISL or I-League? When I was a footballer, teams would easily get around 50-60 matches at a minimum. Many players would get chances.”
It’s not that the lack of games and opportunities have been the only root cause for the downfall of Mumbai football. Over the years, the MDFA has struggled to cope with operational issues that continue to exist – from poor infrastructure to disorganisation while scheduling fixtures.
Henry Menezes, Deputy Chairman of the AIFF and former CEO of Maharashtra’s Western India Football Association highlights the need for a proper structure.
“You need to have matches at prime time and give it enough importance,” explained the former India custodian.
“You need to create a competition, not just for the namesake. What is important is to restructure the league to a qualitative program. Anyone can bring quantity. We have so many clubs and so many youth teams but are we giving them enough matches? That should be our objective and if we can’t do that then it’s pointless.”
Mumbai boasts of two turf grounds at the Andheri Sports Complex and the Cooperage stadium but most of the MDFA league games never get completed as per schedule since the two stadiums are used for multiple purposes. The Neville D’souza Turf (Bandra) is the other turf ground where a majority of MDFA matches are conducted but conditions aren’t satisfactory, to say the least. Most of these MDFA league teams are left with no option but to train on alternate days.
“The standard of MDFA has certainly dropped and football has taken a backseat,” said Pereira.
“The MDFA don’t have their own ground to finish the [league] matches. The Cooperage before was only reserved for Mumbai players but now we have various youth I-League matches, the AIFF D coaching license courses conducted there. We require one proper ground for MDFA. That is the biggest need of the hour,” he added.
Although the grassroots football programs have been implemented before and more professional academies are coming up in Mumbai, the lack of competitive matches continue to remain a problem. The pattern remains the same as these players work their way up to the MDFA leagues.
“We still have a lot of work to do in grassroots,” said Dias.
“There are good coaches now and children know the basics but after U-15 or U-18, what next? Youngsters are left with no specific goal. So if we get two-three teams in I-League or second division, it is possible for them to work their way up. That way there is a clear pathway to reach ISL and Indian team.”
Dwindling sports jobs and lack of investment
As Dias points out, during his playing days, there existed plenty of opportunities for Mumbai players to get picked by teams and earn a good source of living. The lure of job opportunities through football also kept them rooted in the game but times have changed.
“Players were aware that some club will pick them if they would perform well,” said the former India midfielder. “They were focused because they knew they could get jobs. Railways, Air India, Mumbai Customs, Mumbai Police were among the teams that provided job opportunities but now very few teams are doing that. So footballers switch to other careers like call-centers as they aren’t left with any options.”
Amid all these problems, not enough investors have come forward to pump money into the game in city. Talented players continue to be scattered all over the league while the quality of competition between clubs isn’t great on offer. They have also failed to produce local icons that can have a connect with the masses and attract big crowds for matches.
“During the 80s, we didn’t have enough money but the stadiums would be full because of the quality that teams had,” recalled Menezes. “Central Railways, Tata’s and many others were so competitive that they would fight for the top players. We need to recreate that. If we can have a few teams featuring the best players, that’s what will bring quality, attract eyeballs and help players get to the top. We have talent, we just need to nurture them with a good structure.”
It might be hard to predict how many years more before Mumbai finds its feet again in Indian football (with the City Football Group’s investment in MCFC certainly a potential boost) but creating competitiveness and incorporating professionalism at a base level might just provide a huge fillip to the sport in the city.