One has been left behind by the changing football environment in the country while the other looks forward optimistically. When Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) played Pune FC in the final group IV fixture of the 126th Durand Cup on Friday, the rift created by the All India Football Federation’s decision to introduce the AFC Club Licensing regime was conspicuous.

ONGC won the battle on the Ambedkar Stadium pitch to become the first team to qualify for the semifinals but faces awkward questions regarding its future.

Despite finishing ninth out of 14 teams in the I-League first division last season, the public enterprise is ‘ineligible’ to participate in the competition this season since it is “not a club.”

ONGC’s ability to offer a permanent job has ensured a steady inflow of quality footballers for years.

Though the team will still compete in, among other tournaments, Mumbai League and the IFA Shield, it may struggle to retain its better players for long.

In the past, sides like JCT Phagwara and Mahindra United were forced to wind-up their operations due to financial constraints.

Though ONGC is currently in a comfortable position, it remains to be seen whether it can avoid succumbing to a similar fate in the long run.

Baffling stance

ONGC recently extended its sponsorship to the Indian team for three years, with the deal being reportedly worth Rs. 15 crore.

The enterprise has also sponsored the Nehru Cup in the past. When one considers the denial of licence to 13 clubs and subsequent exemption to compete in the tournament this season, the AIFF’s stance seems rather baffling.

In fact, Mumbai Tigers has pulled out of the I-League first division and the competition is set to go ahead with 13 teams. ONGC is based in Mumbai.

Positively, the only club to match the AFC criteria, Pune FC, continues to flourish.

Blessed with unmatched youth development facilities, the club has won consecutive I-League under-20 titles. Pune’s academy was founded by former Tata Football Academy chief coach Ranjan Chowdhury.

The 55-year-old believes the club is set apart from others by its grassroots development programme.

“We plan to be the best south Asian club by 2018. We assess our programmes every month.

“We focus on different age categories from 10 to 19. We are also trying to bring foreign-based Indian-origin footballers here,” says Chowdhury.

The coach claims that Pune’s academy is not far behind in matching the standards of an unnamed and respected foreign youth centre.

Eight of the academy’s products have joined various I-League clubs this season while Pune itself will feature in the AFC Cup for the first time next year.

With the youngest team in the I-League, Pune will aim to win its first title after finishing second last season.

Despite being knocked out of the Durand Cup, where it fielded a largely academy-sourced side, the Maharashtra team’s prospects look bright.

Pune was joined at the exit door by defending champion Air India, another side rendered ineligible by the AFC club licensing criteria.

The results: ONGC 2 (Henry Ezeh 59 pen, 61) bt Pune FC 1 (Diganta Khaddar 62); Bhawanipur FC 0 drew with Indian Navy 0.

Keywords: Durand Cup

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