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Sport

Fans disconnect behind Mahindra United's demise

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EMPTY THREAT: Despite Mahindra's fearsome ensemble of players - foreign and Indian internationals - there was little going for it by way of local support

Fans can be as seasoned as pickle. Mahindra United perhaps liked their fare bland. Arguably one of the best run football teams in the country, when the I-League team decided to disband the team at the end of this season, it bespoke a strange disconnect between the sport and middle-class Mumbai.

Ostensibly still sticking with the sport, albeit by going back to the grass-root level of school-level football, Mahindra United's story is a strange, short one - from an under-achieving orange-jerseyed team in the '80s to its ambitious, snazzy rebirth in 2000.

Despite the lofty standards it so swiftly set as 'United', few tears will be shed at its demise. That is the unfortunate paradox of this club, which though housed in Mumbai, was at pains to call it 'home'.

This curious aspect raises the crucial question that every serious football follower in India is afraid to raise - does good administration alone ensure long-term success of a club? If so, why did the best run club in India down its shutters in a blink of an eye?

The day Mahindra announced they were shutting the club, voices of dismay swept the web and blogs erupted in anguish, prompting Anand Mahindra, vicechairman of the group, to question the dissenting fans' passion. Where were the fans when the club needed them the most, Mahindra asked. Certainly not at the old as time Cooperage, Mumbai's version of the Maidan.

Today, when clubs nurture their fans, make them feel wanted and even give them a stake in ownership, Mahindra didn't strike much of a chord with Mumbaikars. New entrants like Pune FC and Shillong Lajong, on the other hand, have gone out of their way to win over local supporters.

But Mahindra's case only tells a larger story of the Mumbai fan's growing distance from the city's football. In fact, Air India may be the most popular among the three Mumbai I-League teams, but when Pune FC came to Mumbai to play them at the Cooperage, there were more chants in support of the away team.

Attendances in the local Mumbai League are poor - about 100 to150 per games. Weekday fixtures, a crumbling Cooperage with appalling facilities for spectators go a long way in keeping the football fan away. Despite the recent idea that there is a generation of youngsters having grown up on the Premiership on TV, the truth remains that fewer are coming to watch Mumbai football and that the support base is eroding.

Air-India get supporters only during their I-League games or local league games against Mahindra. Even at Air India games, the numbers for I-League games lie between a paltry 500 and 1,000. In fact, none of the Mumbai clubs enjoys the kind of support that clubs, for instance, in Kolkata evoke.

Mahindra United, in any case, were never really anybody's favourite. Their disconnect with Mumbai's residents was so evident that the hoots and jeers every time they lost came from the locals.

But things were not always like this. Once, Mumbai's football clubs had a strong following in the city. In the late '70s and the early '80s, Mafatlal and Tatas won over their fans with their brand of football and their ability to beat the big boys from Kolkata.

Prakash Shetty, a committee member with Mumbai District Football Association and a former player, feels the loyalty factor has gone out of the window.

"Mafatlal and Tatas had players who stuck with the team for years. We too started to develop a liking for certain players over the years," says Shetty.

Even after the death of popular teams like Mafatlal, Tatas, Century Rayon and Orkay, Mahindra United were looked at with hope. But that hope appears to have been short-lived .

Sydney D'Silva , a former international player, puts Mahindra's lean support to the fact that the club didn't tap and nurture local talent. "They did not have many Mumbai boys in their team. If you have a local in the club, he brings in supporters from his area. That adds to the numbers," says D'Silva .

Shetty agrees. "Where is the Mumbai player in Mahindra? There were players moving in and out of the club every season."

For Taha Kaachwala, 21, a player with Kenkre Football Club, it was always the aura of Mahindra that bowled him over. But he too felt he could have more chances of playing the I-League in Air India colours.

Others feel Mahindra's holier-than-thou attitude did not go well with the Mumbai crowd. Austin Coutinho, president of the MDFA, believes Mahindra's reluctance to participate in local tournaments made them look stand-offish. "They always walked around with an air of 'we are too good for Mumbai'," says Austin.

Teenager Calvin Lobo too directs the blame towards Mahindra. "A fan-base is not something that can be built overnight. It takes a bit from everyone to get it right. To be honest, the concept has a long way to go for any Mumbai club. The least Mahindra could have done was organise more local events where players could have interacted with crowds and become faces to remember."

Connecting with fans is something no club in these times can wish away. Says Chirag Tanna, CEO of Pune FC, "If you build a fan-base, you could do well as a club. They connect with the team, bring in revenue. It is up to us to ensure wholesome entertainment for the family. It should be a day well spent with enough passion, food and entertainment thrown in for the loyal supporters."

Joshua Lewis of Kenkre Football Club, one the city's biggest privately run club, agrees. "I knew Mahindra United would shut down. The time for investing on passion is over and done with. What have clubs in India done to activate fans?"

You cannot, says Lewis, work any longer on the 1970s model where you would watch a game and feel happy. "You have to give the fans a stake in the club, there needs to be some activity for them. None of the Indian clubs have started doing this."

Shailesh Karkera, who runs footballmumbai.com, a website dedicated to the city's football, believes the problem has regional dimensions as well. "Unlike Kolkata and Goa, where clubs enjoy communal and regional ties with their fans, Mumbai clubs are of a very institutional and corporate nature."

With Mahindra, the problem was perhaps compounded by the city's dismal sports infrastructure. Playing on a ground that's almost 70 years old and with merely rudimentary facilities could well have speeded its end. Austin blames his own association of pussyfooting too. "First we have to take the product to the people, only then will somebody start appreciating a football club."

"I don't mind travelling 30 km if the stadium is good. But Cooperage is one of the worst stadium in the world," says Sydney.

"To call Cooperage a stadium is a shame. If a firsttime viewer travels from one end of the city to sit on a wooden plank and is made to use a filthy toilet, what are the chances of him coming back?" asks Lobo.

Karkera joins in with his complaints. "It is devoid of the most basic facilities and watching a game at 3:30 pm on a weekday is a challenge by itself."

What Mumbai football needs, says Austin, is an alternative venue. "The lack of grounds is very difficult for clubs in Mumbai. We are also hampered as our league depends on the availability of Cooperage."

Mumbai's football fears that the popular cricket may further take over its space, literally. A board outside the Air India ground declares, "Cricketers are not allowed into the ground." The terse message is a clear indicator that there are fears that the 22-yard game can eat up more open spaces in Mumbai.

In the Mumbaikar's mindscape, cricket is regarded as the more gentlemanly game. And while fans of international football (the EPL followers) can be found all over the city, followers of the local game have been confined to Malad, Borivili, Bandra and Nagpada.

"There are a lot of these EPL followers who don't know a thing about Indian football," says Austin.

So, will anyone in Mumbai be mourning the exit of Mahindra United?

(With inputs from Kunaal Majgaonkar)

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