Can local teams survive the odds that are causing the sport to lose its sheen and hope for brighter days?

Any comprehensive history of sports in Chennai will be incomplete without detailed research on local football. The sport has shared an undying alliance with a significant number of locals and many a story can still be heard from fans or ex-players on the thrills at the Corporation stadium, which in the nineties gave way to the modern Nehru stadium.

One such former player is Nagesh, a fan favourite in his playing days, who achieved considerable success with Chennai Port Trust. Nowadays you can find him watching every senior division league game with childlike interest and an unwavering devotion to the game. It is a moot point whether he derives as much enjoyment now as he used to in his playing days.

“I used to play in front of crowds of 10,000 to 15,000 people. There were more matches too. The top six teams in the senior division would also play in a ‘super division’. Now, instability pervades most teams. Moreover, they recruit only a few players. Hence, there are lesser employment opportunities available,” laments Nagesh.

In recent times, the standards in the league have dipped, much like public interest in it. This season, the Chennai Football Association’s senior division league touched a new low and the reasons are not hard to find. The 66-match competition, which began on October 15, had completed only 29 matches till December 9 when they should have been over by November 12. The delay had reasons, some unavoidable like the rain.

The wet climate and poor turf conditions meant the matches had to be rescheduled. Unexpectedly, football was also forced to give way to several athletic meets. Ironically, the sport was supposed to be the major beneficiary of the Nehru Stadium when it was constructed. The stadium, built on FIFA specifications, has hosted several international football matches and was considered one of the popular venues by the AIFF because of its facilities. But then, the renovated multi-purpose floodlit stadium had to serve track and field competitions too.

This has resulted in the CFA’s inability to book the ground on a long-term basis, let alone for the league’s duration. Consequently, constant rescheduling of matches has dented the tempo and the credibility of this competition. Southern Railway’s current troubles are a case in point. The railwaymen began the season with four consecutive wins but have since faltered due to unusual gaps between matches. ICF suffered too, as it played only three matches in seven weeks.

The CFA responded to this problem by scheduling two matches in a day, in order to meet the month-end deadline for finishing the league as the Nehru Stadium is up for reconstruction for the Asian Athletics Championships next year. However, this solution has left many coaches unhappy. “Due to the current schedule, we have to play a match every second day. This will lead to fitness problems. Our players aren’t machines,” said ICF coach P. Tulasi. His Arrows’ FC counterpart, K. Thiyagarajan, concurred. “Due to the extension of the league, we also have to pay more to our foreign players. Moreover, it’s very difficult to get the momentum going due to the stop-start scheduling.”

Can there be better days for local football?