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Posted at: Jan 11, 2017, 1:49 AM; last updated: Jan 11, 2017, 1:38 PM (IST)

Punjab not having a ball anymore

Lack of jobs, government support and fall in coaching level have led to decline of Punjab football

Deepankar Sharda

Tribune News Service

Mahilpur, January 10

Ever since 2011 when JCT decided to shut their football club, the sport has seen a steep decline in Punjab.

The shutdown of the region’s only club shattered the hopes of state’s footballers, especially from the Doaba region, which has a rich legacy on producing many legends, including Jarnail Singh Dhillon, GS Parmar, Gurdev Singh, Tejinder Kumar and Sukhdev Singh.

The club, based in Doaba’s Hoshiarpur, was a big motivator and provider for the region’s footballers since it was founded in the 1970s. 

Former coaches and international players say that football at the junior level is doing well, but factors such as the absence of a club, the lack of jobs and money have dissuaded many youngsters to carry on with playing the sport at the senior level. 

“Closing of JCT Club was a setback but what hurt the most was that we did not have a Plan B. The state is doing fine at the junior level but there is no job security for players now. In the past, our players used to get jobs in good teams like Punjab Electricity Board, BSF, Punjab Police, JCT Club, Rail Coach Factory soon after they completed their higher secondary education; but since 2011, there is hardly any recruitment,” said veteran coach Ali Hasan, who has guided Punjab to many national titles.

Lack of opportunities

The lack of opportunities has led to many players opting to move abroad or play for small clubs to earn money after completing their college education. Some don’t even wait to complete their education, while some shift to other states to find opportunities in football, but many return disappointed.

“If there will be no encouragement for the players, they will obviously move out. Everyone needs financial security,” added Hasan. 

Even Mahilpur, one of the main hubs of football in the state, is facing a crisis. “I am proud to say that Mahilpur has produced so many top India players. But we cannot boast of such achievements in the recent past,” added Hasan.

Mahilpur hasn’t been free from the trend of players moving out or quitting the sport after college. SGGS Khalsa College, Mahilpur, have been the winners of the inter-college championship for the last three years, but they have been losing two-three players, who opt to move abroad, every year.

“As a coach, I face a lot of problems. I have nothing to offer to my players, except the help from my college,” said Harinder Sunny, who has been the coach at the college since 2008.

“We provide the best grounds, we offer scholarships; but when our players ask us about job security or financial help, we go speechless. We have to convince everyone to play in the inter-college championships,” added Sunny, a former JCT Club and Churchill Brothers player.

“This year, we retained the inter-college championship title and five of our players were called for the inter-university camp. But they were more interested in playing in rural tournaments in order to win some money and make contacts to play for different clubs. Last year, Panjab University won the All-India Inter-university Championship and four of our players were in the team. Currently, they are not playing but either planning to start a business or move abroad,” added Sunny.

Manjinder, a former JCT Club player and coach of the Mahilpur Academy since 2009, said: “Football runs in the blood of every Punjabi. During my time at JCT Club, players from other states used to try hard to play here. But things have changed.” 

Manjinder said that it would take at least 10 years to revive the sport in the state. “The government has done nothing so far to improve the sorry state of football. They are only interested in organising the Kabaadi World Cup,” said Manjinder. 

The Punjab Sports Department offers diet money of Rs 50 per player per day under the day-scholar sports wing scheme. The money is doubled only for one month before the inter-college or inter-district championships. 

No support for coaches

Meanwhile, Hasan also blamed the declining coaching standards in the state for players losing interest in the sport. “A coach is responsible for zeroing in on the talent and nurturing it. Nowadays, no coach prefers to work on raw talent,” added Hasan.

Parminder Singh, the first person from the region to pass the national referee course, said that there was a lack of financial assistance for the coaches too. “The All India Football Federation (AIFF) has issued over 20 B-category coach licences in Punjab. But due to a lack of financial help from the government, many opt to change their profession,” said Parminder, who is also an assistant professor, physical education, at the Mahilpur college.

Parminder added that lack of sponsorship has led to the number of tournaments shrinking. “Just three years ago, there used to be over 14 prize-money all-India football tournaments here, but now there are only a handful. The sponsors have lost interest; also, the former players who used to give money for organising tournaments are not interested anymore. This has not only affected the players but also officials like us. The coaches are not paid well and the same is the situation with the referees,” he added.

Fighting against odds

Every year, the Mahilpur United Club organises Principal Harbhajan Singh Memorial Football Tournament. The tournament, which started in 1966, is organised in February in three categories — club, college and school. There is another popular annual championship organised in Ludhiana district. Both the events attract teams from all over India and offer high prize money. However, only two championships will not revive the sport in the state.


A new hope

Five years after JCT Club shut, a team from the state will again be participating in the country’s top league.

Minerva Punjab Football Club are making their debut in the I-League. 

Former India player Harjinder Singh, coach at the Chandigarh Football Academy, recently said that Minerva qualifying for the I-League raised hope of a revival.

Minerva finished runners-up in the second division last year, but qualified after winners Dempo Sports Club pulled out of the top division. Minerva have hired UEFA prolicence coach Juan Carlos and roped in Colm Toal as technical director. Toal has worked as the technical director with the Indian team. 

However, it hasn’t been smooth for the club as they have not been able to find a sponsor yet. “It is tough without any sponsor. But we wanted to put north India, especially Punjab, back on the national football scene,” Ranjeet Bajaj, CEO and owner of the club, recently said.

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