Football in the capital is well summed up by the historic Ambedkar stadium near Delhi Gate. An institution in its own right with its fair share of moments, but forever in the shadow of the Feroz Shah Kotla cricket stadium. Much like the ground, football in Delhi has been overshadowed by cricket among other sports. For a city that has shaped the country and its sporting culture in so many ways, Delhi has found itself to be in the lower echelons of Indian football for far too long.
In the upcoming 2020-21 season, Sudeva FC will become the first club from the national capital to play in the I-league after gaining corporate entry through the bidding process along with Sreenidhi FC from Hyderabad. Despite the reduced importance of the league, the move is a welcome one, finally providing players from Delhi a platform to compete against the best across India. It is very unusual to see a nation’s capital have such a subdued role in football. Across Europe, from Madrid to London to Rome, teams from the capitals are regular title challengers and counted among the best thanks to the higher resources and fan following that they are able to generate.
Let’s first take a look at just how dismal the performance of Delhi clubs has been. No club from the capital has won the Durand Cup, Federation Cup, or the IFA Shield - India’s three big tournaments in the 20th century. In fact, no club has even reached the final of any of these tournaments. Clubs from the city have consistently participated in the second division I-league but none has seriously threatened promotion with any consistency. The Delhi league had gained traction in the latter decades of the previous century but since the turn of the millennium it has become an unpredictable and non-prestigious tournament with no fixed timing of the league or any semblance of professionalism in its conduct. As for the state itself, Delhi has won the Santosh trophy only once in just its second iteration in 1944. Thus, the question arises: why has Delhi lagged behind the country in football throughout history?
The reasoning that residents of the city simply prefer other sports does not hold true when one takes a look at the massive crowds that gathered to watch Mohammedan Sporting and Hyderabad City Police play at their peak in the Ambedkar Stadium in the Durand Cup and DCM Trophy. Support for those clubs was in part due to their association with the Muslim community and the stadium’s proximity to the walled city in Old Delhi. Further, the Kolkata giants - East Bengal and Mohun Bagan - too have garnered a lot of support from the newer parts of the city but their withdrawal from the Durand Cup has led to disinterest and dwindling audiences. Fans in the capital appreciate good football but they have not had the opportunity to do so for a team from their own city.
Blame cannot be shifted onto a lack of infrastructure either. Apart from the Ambedkar stadium, the city has several other top level grounds such as JLN, Thyagaraj, and Chhatrasaal. For developmental level, there are a huge number of fields that are used by clubs, colleges and the irregular enthusiasts. Like most metro cities, Delhi has no shortage of good quality facilities although access to all can be improved.
Funding has been one of the major issues that has been encountered by clubs from the capital, as is the case across the country. Traditionally, Delhi clubs have been sustained by one family whether it is Students Club by hotel owner Mohommed Rais or Youngmen FC by the Quereshi family. Yet as Novy Kapadia points out in his book Barefoot to Boots, modern football is too expensive an affair to be backed by a solitary family or business. This has led to several clubs becoming defunct or scaling back operations to an extent that they are not relevant enough. Legacy clubs have not been innovative enough when it comes to financing their operations and have suffered greatly as a result.
The administration too has been lackadaisical in the recent past with a lack of respect towards players and coaches and a severe lack of professionalism in its organisation. There is hope in the form of new president Shaji Prabhakaran who has brought in key changes since taking over in 2017 including the Golden Leagues, India’s biggest grassroots program.
However, the failures of football in Delhi have been encapsulated best by the struggles of Delhi Dynamos who were the city’s representative club in the ISL. They have since shifted to Bhubaneswar and rebranded as Odisha FC due to rising costs of the JLN stadium the prime cause from a multitude of reasons. Yet, that was not the club’s biggest problem. It’s major shortcoming was that it did not connect with Delhi’s people and their culture. There were no key players from North India, the playing style did not appeal to the fans, and the JLN stadium’s infrastructure made it very difficult for any sort of atmosphere to be generated.
And therein lies Delhi football’s failings. The city has simply not found a club, player or personality that it connects with in the sport. Apart from Mohammedan and Hyderabad City Police clear connections, Salgaocar had a robust grassroots program and teams consisting of Goan players, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans all hail from largely similar backgrounds and even in Northern India, BSF and JCT Mills from Punjab have catered to supporters by selecting local players and representing the culture of the region with strong physical football. Football clubs, even in their current capitalistic form, are social institutions whether it is FC Barcelona or Kerala Blasters. Fans in Delhi have not found a cause to get behind and if Sudeva wants to succeed in the long run, then dedicating time and resources to building a connection with the city will serve them well.