The Struggles of Football in Mumbai

Mumbai, the city of dreams. Home to India’s rich, poor and everyone in between, has been one of the worst affected places due to the Covid-19 pandemic. With the city’s population density, this isn’t a surprise or a revelation, but it has been cause for heartbreak for Mumbai’s football clubs, who have trouble functioning even when things are good.

The Mumbai Division Football League is the city’s premier organization when it comes to the beautiful game. From organizing the official leagues – ranging from the third division to the elite – to being in charge of certain one-off tournaments, football in the city comes under the aegis of the MDFA.

However, clubs are their own entities, and though they are a part of the MDFA, they do not receive any funds from them – except for prize money if they win the league. That means a lot of clubs are led by people for whom football is only a passion. People who are office-goers, teachers, gig workers, who double up as managers, team-owners and even players on match-days. Most of these have been hurt by the pandemic. From some being outright fired, to others being furloughed, to still others having their income reduced, it hasn’t been a pretty sight. Now they’re supposed to run a football club at the same time – and though some players are willing to play without any salary, playing only for the love of the game – there still exist expenses such as renting out grounds to practice, having professional kits, and of course, paying the yearly membership fee to the division. And though these don’t seem like a lot on their own, together, they can go in the high thousands and low lakhs, money which isn’t easily available to the average Mumbaikar, who often struggles to make ends meet.

Ajay Menon of CCFI Forza – and Founder of Forza India Academy – says, “Most businesses and startups have had their cashflow drop down during the pandemic but for our business, there was no downward curve because it directly became zero. We lost out on the summer vacation months which significantly inject cash as well as a surge in admissions. We tried to pay our coaches till April but beyond that with no revenue, it didn’t make financial sense. Most of the coaches have gone back to their hometowns. We had to give up our rental office space to consolidate costs. Luckily, our business model is asset light and hence being completely frozen is a mode of survival for the time being.”

When asked about how he plans to manage finances due to the pandemic, when the chips are down, his response is telling. “Sadly, there is no acknowledgement from the governing bodies or even the govt. We should be part of some start-up/SME scheme since the company is a Pvt Ltd and has complied with all the laws and regulations. We’re hoping assistance in terms of a cash impetus/boost so that we can cover up our debt. Moreover, once things restart, we need more infrastructure for training and hopefully, we can get access to existing infrastructure at discounted rates. Sponsors and brands will come if the ecosystem is attractive for investment. We are doing our part by creating wealth and assets plus we were self-sustaining till the pandemic hit us.”

Atlanta in the MDFA

We spoke to Allen Contractor, manager of Atlanta Football Club and one of the top performers of the Super Division who are in running for promotion to the Elite Division for the coming season. For a club, this should be a happy occasion, but Allen is worried. “The entry fee for the division is around 60,000 rupees. Renting a ground for practice games costs around 5000 per session. For a club run out of our own salary, it’s a lot. Finding sponsorship in the middle of a pandemic with people worried about a recession isn’t going to be easy, and if we are unable to get it done – and done in time – we’re not sure how we’ll manage.”

Forza and Atlanta’s position and sentiments aren’t unique ones. If you don’t have willing sponsors or deep pockets, promotion can often be as bad as relegation. Yours truly had created and entered a team in the division many years ago, when the cost of entry into the 6th division, the then lowest division had been a mere INR 2000. Only after collecting it out of scraps of pocket money and officially getting registered did the other expenses come to the fore. Jerseys for a squad of 22. Boots and other essentials for those who couldn’t afford buying them. Running a team at the grassroots level is usually an act of passion, not one for profit. With 180 teams in the division at that time, winning was a distant dream, but even running the club was a daunting affair for a group of broke teenagers. It needed a lot of sponsorship pitching, quick pivoting and tying up with competing brands to get over the minimal monetary threshold. But then, there wasn’t a pandemic in the picture.

Today, a number of small clubs have folded. Shut shop, doors shutting close with the echo of broken dreams. If Mumbai, nay, India is to develop a football culture, then those trying to actively aid the sport need to be given some form of support. Some hope, that this is not the end of the road. It could be monetary support, it could be certain perks to associating with or creating a club, help to develop the sport at the grassroots and bring in more people into the ecosystem. Businesses and governments need to come into the system, not with the aim of short-term profit, but with a view to play the long-game, since that is the only way where success lies. A macro view of the football sphere needs to be taken, but its micro constituents need to be kept functioning, breathing, lest the grounds slowly become barren.

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