For nearly two decades, through injuries and rare loss of form, Bhaichung Bhutia always gave you the impression that he was the man in charge, on the football pitch, and quite often, off it. So it is surprising to hear Indian football’s biggest icon talk of things that are “totally not in my control”.
Bhutia is talking finances. Not his own, but of the club he set up in his home state, Sikkim, in 2008 before helping it gain promotion to the country’s top league earlier this year. United Sikkim FC is currently one spot above the I-League relegation zone, 12th among 14 teams, and the battle for survival is on.
“Getting into the I-League was a big achievement (and Sikkim United did it by winning the I-League second division in just its second attempt). To reach a little higher, to do well in the I-League, money will play a major role. But the money part is totally not in my control,” says the former India captain, who has scored more goals, 43 in 107 appearances, for the country than anyone else.
Fidelis World, a Dubai-based company with business interests in sports, entertainment, media and arts, is the majority stakeholder in United Sikkim, which was launched as a professional club in 2011. Musician Shankar Mahadevan is a co-owner and the club enjoys the backing of the Sikkim government. Bhutia is happy with the support he has got, but adds that raising funds is “the biggest challenge in Indian football”.
He had said earlier that football clubs in India need between Rs.4 crore and Rs.15 crore a season. Most top clubs in India operate close to the upper limit of that range. “We are nowhere near that,” says Bhutia. “Our budget is around 20% of what big clubs spend.”
A club insider says United Sikkim’s budget for the 2012-13 season is around Rs.3.5 crore, including wages of players, support staff and officials, and training expenses. The All India Football Federation (Aiff) gives each club Rs.70,000 for every match it hosts (13 in a season) and pays for transportation and accommodation when the team plays away.
While looking for funds, Bhutia is also doubling in numerous other roles at United Sikkim. He is the club’s CEO and is still registered as a player, though he has had little game time so far this season. He took over as interim coach after United Sikkim was thrashed 1-10 by Kolkata club United SC in early November.
“I also head the committee that organizes our home matches,” says Bhutia. He laughs when asked how he manages all this. “At times, I act as the doctor also, and the physio. I enjoy taking all the responsibility. I don’t think there is any player in the world who can boast of this: of being a player and at the same time having a club in the biggest league in his country.”
Area of influence
Bhutia, the administrator, has his critics. United SC director, Siddhartha “Nabab” Bhattacharya, for example, is not convinced by the arguments about paucity of funds. “As recently as 2004-05, we had to build a team with just Rs.22 lakh. We invested in promising players and Eveready, as the team was then known, played the IFA Shield final,” says Bhattacharya. United SC made it to the I-League in 2008 and has managed to survive in the competition ever since, one of the rare success stories among new entrants.
Bhattacharya thinks United Sikkim may have reached the top level too quickly. “It took us no less than 15 years to climb up from the fifth division of the local football league. It is only this year that we have got the kind of budget we always wanted (reportedly between Rs.16-20 crore). Bhaichung has been a player for a long time, but as an administrator he has a lot to learn.”
However, United Sikkim is not just about Bhutia’s battles on and off the field. It is also about the people of a small state—tucked away in the Himalayas and sharing international boundaries with three different countries—getting an opportunity to stamp their presence on the national consciousness. Sikkim is often clubbed with the North-Eastern states, though there are parts of West Bengal that are further east.
Sikkim became an Indian state only in 1975, just over a year before Bhutia was born. Coming from such a place, United Sikkim will enjoy one thing that few football clubs in India do,
a loyal support base.
a loyal support base.
“In football, worldwide, loyalty is an important factor,” says Shaji Prabhakaran, a regional development officer at Fifa, football’s world-governing body. “In India, football clubs have rarely made any conscious effort to nurture their fan base. That is why Goa clubs, despite their recent success (seven national league titles in the past 10 years), have seen little increase in spectatorship. In Kolkata, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting have historically enjoyed a large following, but their fan base has been steadily eroding.”
This is the breach where United Sikkim can step in, following in the footsteps of Shillong Lajong FC, an I-League club from the North-Eastern state of Meghalaya. Since its arrival at the top level in 2009-10, and despite a year spent in the second division, the club’s home matches at the 25,000-capacity Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Shillong have been some of the best attended matches in the I-League. “The club has managed to get new fans and, more importantly, retain them,” says Prabhakaran.
Larsing Ming Sawyan, the general secretary of Lajong FC, confirms that the club’s revenue from gate receipt is on the increase. “We are the first team from the North-East to be playing in the I-League and we have, on our side, footballers from most North-Eastern states, so we have fans from across the region,” says Sawyan. Working on the principle that “connect comes when there is participation”, Lajong FC organizes training camps and exhibition matches involving its first and junior teams in different parts of the North-East.
United Sikkim has made a good start in this regard. “We’ve had 7,000-8,000 people watching our home matches in Gangtok. In fact, our second match, against East Bengal, had nearly 11,000 spectators,” says club manager Arjun Rai. Tickets at the 20,000-seater Paljor Stadium are priced at Rs.80, Rs.200 and Rs.300. “Plus we have four corporate boxes, which have already been booked for the entire season comprising 13 home matches for Rs.40,000 each.”
The club has also started a membership programme in three categories. Membership charges range from Rs.5,000 to Rs.15,000 and include tickets to all home matches. “We already have around 150 members,” Rai says.
There are other direct benefits of having a football club in the I-League. “It is important for footballers like us. It gives us a chance to play in the top league in the country,” says Gangtok boy Ashish Chettri, who signed for United Sikkim before the start of this season. The defender is a product of the Sikkim Sports Academy and has come through junior India ranks. After a spell with Royal Wahingdoh FC in Shillong, the defender is happy to be back playing in his hometown. And he is not alone. United Sikkim have around 10-11 home-based players, including Bhutia, in its pool and four-five of them have found a place in the final squad.
It is because of Bhutia and players such as Chettri that United Sikkim can hope to build a connect with fans whose loyalties are otherwise tied to the big leagues in Europe. “It is our own playing against the best in the country. That is why United Sikkim will always find support at home, even if we are used to watching, on television, the best footballers in the world play in English, Spanish and Italian leagues,” says Gangtok’s Prashant Pakhrin. The die-hard Manchester City fan made it to Paljor Stadium when United Sikkim played East Bengal and found the atmosphere “electric”.
Pakhrin thinks the club is in the hands of the right man and the man himself is thinking long-term. “I will be coaching the side only until we get a coach with an A-licence (a requirement for I-League clubs) and even as a player I cannot look beyond two to three seasons, but I want to be involved with the club for a long time,” says Bhutia. By then, he may have proved his worth as an administrator too.
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