Playing ball again

Capital’s once robust football scene suffered since early 2000s but progress made over the past four years seems to be bringing the sport back on track

Ones for the future: Football Delhi is making investment at the grassroots to build a strong base

Cricket academies may have spawned across Delhi nowadays leaving football in its wake. But a few decades ago, football had held its own.

The Capital would host the Durand Cup, the oldest football tournament in India, as well as the DCM Cup.

Both the tournaments attracted the crème-de-le-crème of Indian football and the public followed to watch their stars.

Till about the 1990s and early 2000s, football fans would throng the Ambedkar Stadium, near Delhi Gate, to witness their favourite teams like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal, JCT among others play in the two iconic tournaments.

Besides these two major events, there were eight to 10 annual football tournaments in Delhi that attracted Capital’s big clubs and crowd.

But the interest nosedived. Over the last 15 years, important football competitions like DCM Cup vanished from the scene, while Durand Cup moved out of Delhi.

“There was a sharp and sudden decline in soccer activity, but efforts are being made to rebuild the legacy in the Capital,” said Aakash Narula, general secretary of Football Delhi, which is the Capital’s state body affiliated to the All India Football Federation (AIFF).

Narula revealed that Football Delhi is re-establishing soccer activities in the Capital with support from the government and sponsors.

“Partnership with various stakeholders, including Sports Authority of India (SAI) has primarily contributed to the overall development of football in Delhi [in recent years],” Narula added.

“All state league matches and practice sessions, including coaching camps are being organised at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, which is under the jurisdiction of SAI. We don’t have to pay any fee to utilise the stadium facilities but have to maintain the play-field.”

According to Narula, renting out Ambedkar Stadium, the traditional hub of Delhi football, is an expensive proposition. It is owned by the MCD and Football Delhi cannot afford to pay for day-to-day activities.

“Ambedkar Stadium is rented for important tournaments like Santosh Trophy football tournament’s intra-north zone matches,” Narula explained.

Over the last four years, structural changes in all the departments of Football Delhi have resulted in steady growth in the number of clubs as well as active players.

There were 80 clubs in 2018 while the number swelled to 95 in 2022, according to a report by Delhi’s football body which was earlier known as Delhi Soccer Association (DSA) but was rebranded as Football Delhi in May, 2018.

There are also five professional clubs that play national second division and I-league tournaments. Change in the system has also attracted corporate and private sponsors. There are as many as 20 sponsors associated with Football Delhi, including ONGC and JSW.

Support from sponsors enabled Football Delhi to conduct India’s first-ever (intra-state) futsal league, in 2020. Futsal is five-a-side football played on hard court. The tournament was spread over a week and eight teams participated in it. But the number of teams swelled to 20 in the 2021-2022 edition.

Delhi also hosted national-level Futsal Club Championships. The inaugural edition was held at Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium from November 5 to 13 in 2021-2022. Delhi FC emerged winners.

Under the structural changes initiated by Football Delhi, each department of the state football body, including women’s football committee and club development committee, has a separate head.

“Coaches education and grassroots/youth development programmes were set up to lay a solid foundation. Hiring full-time general secretary and other members of office staff to run the day-to-day functioning of Football Delhi was also part of the transformation,” said Narula.

The number of Football Delhi followers on social media have reached over one million as per the organisation’s annual report.

Grassroots initiative

Quality coaches at the grassroots level can alone improve the level of the game, says Keshav Dutt, a member of the AIFF coaching education panel.

“Having a specific development programme for the youth is key to success. Kids learning right technique from the beginning makes them good at the senior level. Hence, quality coaches are required to run a successful grassroots plan,” said Dutt.

There has been nearly 300% increase in the number of AIFF certified coaches in Delhi between 2017 and 2022. There are five different coaching courses: A, B, C, D and E levels.

According to Dutt, the number of experts having AIFF coaching license certificates has increased over the past four to five years.

“There were 28 coaches having AIFF ‘C’ certificate in 2017, the number rose to 84 in 2022,” Dutt added.

“Restructuring the coaching system will certainly contribute to a strong base at the grassroots level in Delhi.”

There are also regular seminars to update knowledge of the coaches, said Dutt.

Involving all stakeholders in the development scheme has also increased participation across age groups.

“The number of Golden League matches for kids and under-13 girls’ competitions have increased over the past four years due to restructuring of the Delhi football league,” Narula said.

From three league tournaments in 2018, the senior division now has five league tournaments. Football Delhi has also introduced the Premier League from 2022, which features the top 10 men’s club teams. Institutional league was merged with the ‘C’ Division in 2019.

“It’s good thing that winners and runners-up of league competitions are given cash awards,” said Jyoti, a former international player from Delhi.

To give more opportunities to females, a women’s league was introduced in 2020.

“Ten years ago, young girls from Delhi struggled for opportunities to prove themselves. But things have changed a lot,” added Jyoti.

Three teams competed for the Indian Women’s League (IWL) qualifier in the 2018 edition, while 14 teams competed in 2019 and 2022.

Abha Jain, head of sports department of Delhi’s Janki Devi Memorial College is also a member of the women’s committee of Football Delhi.

According to Abha, there has been a big change as women in the Capital are getting opportunities on the football ground.

“In the last three years, there has been a steady progress in performance,” Abha said.

“The focus is mainly on school-going students. We have U-17 and U-13 age group competitions to build a good foundation.”

Thirty-two schools competed in the U-13 Delhi girls’ school football league in the 2018-19 edition. Sanskriti School emerged winners in the inaugural edition.

To focus on schools, a centre of excellence for girls was started in 2018 and the results showed immediately as Aveka Singh was selected to represent India at the U-13 level.

Challenges

There are challenges too, admitted Abha.

Parents should come forward to support young girls taking up soccer but many of them are reluctant, she explained.

“That is the only way to build a solid foundation. However, fewer parents are sending their daughters to the ground. That is a worrying factor,” Abha said.

“There is a sports scholarship for girls at the college level, but it is the schools that should come forward and participate.”

Also, Delhi lacks a team in country’s top flight.

Delhi Dynamos, Capital’s sole I-league team, had to shift base to Odisha in 2019 due to lack of support here.

The club has been rechristened as Odisha Football Club and practises in Bhubaneswar. Its departure has left Delhi with no football club.

Looking forward

Delhi will play host to the 2022 edition of [inter-state] Santosh Trophy football tournament’s north zone league starting on December 21 at the Ambedkar Stadium.

It will be a good platform for the Delhi state team to showcase talent, felt Narula.

“Scouting for the Santosh Trophy was done during the local football league matches. We are expecting good performance,” he added.

In the previous edition of the north zone competition, Delhi narrowly failed to qualify for the Santosh Trophy tournament’s main round.

Will the soccer fans return to the field to witness the Santosh Trophy football tournament’s north zone league?

“There has to be some good reason for soccer fans to come to Ambedkar Stadium and watch the game,” said Rajender Sajwan, a former Delhi player.

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Navneet Singh
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