Federation Cup 2017: A Misplaced Venue Doing More Harm Than Good

Saturday, 13 May 2017|Chirayato Banerjee
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East Bengal and Aizawl FC locked horns at the Barabati stadium in Cuttack in the group stage match of the 2017 Federation Cup.  The tie ended goalless as a resilient Aizawl side withheld the Red and Golds in in the makeshift football stadium at Cuttack. With East Bengal holding the record for the most number of goals in the recently concluded I-League, it was a sad state of affairs as their players failed to find a breakthrough. Aizawl FC had a steadfast approach but managed to hound the East Bengal goal on occasions.

The major talking point of the match was the ground condition which saw a number of players landing awkwardly and turning their knees and ankles. Arnab Mondal was first to go down as he blocked a fierce volley and fell clutching his right feet as the ground gave away beneath. That was the first sign of the impending disaster as Albert from Aizawl followed suit in the second half. He was replaced by Ashutosh Mehta who was already nursing an injury. As Mehta was tryiing to press in the right flank, his right feet landed on the ground and dug in and he had to be replaced thereafter.

These were a few moments which could have spelled disaster for the East Bengal captain and also forced Aizawl FC to make two changes within minutes of each other. At this juncture, the obvious question arises regarding the choice of venue for one of the oldest football tournaments of the country.

By norm, the top 8 I-League teams vye for the honour in the Federation Cup and the winner gets a shot at the AFC Cup. It is held at a neutral venue and the 2016 final was played at the Indira Gandhi Stadium, Guwahati. This time, Aizawl FC, Bengaluru FC, Chennai City FC, Churchill Brothers DSK Shivajians, East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Shillong Lajong are participating in the same. As a result, finding a neutral venue was a difficult proposition this time.

But the All India Football Federation zeroed in on Barabati Stadium, Cuttack which is an international cricket stadium.

Was it a right decision to host a national level tournament with international significance at a makeshift venue?
Initially it did seem fine as the teams displayed an attacking brand of football. With some slick passing and seamless movements, the Barabati turf was conducive to the short tournament. But, as days progressed and number of matches increased, the surface deteriorated. Aizawl suffered the most with two froced substitutions while Arnab Mondal bore the brunt for poor ground conditions.

The soft turf gave way as the treacherous surface buckled under slight pressure. Players fell awkwardly and had to adopt a cautious approach in order to prevent gruesome injuries. 

What could the AIFF have done in such a case?
Repeat the same venue from previous year- that possibility was not there as Guwahati would be hosting the matches for the FIFA under-17 World Cup to be held in October.
Postpone the tournament for sometime- with the Asian Football Confederation mandating the schduled number of fixtures to be played in order to be elgiible for the Asian tournaments, this option was also not in the offing.

Find another venue with proper football infrastructure- this was the most arduous task and the AIFF faltered at this. With the crucial stages yet to occur, Cuttack might not be the ideal venue to continue the tournament. Instead of Cuttack, the Cooperage stadium at Mumbai could have been used for the same. The home ground of Mumbai FC who got relegated this year, could have provided a better surface instead of Barabati stadium.

A place which has barely got a presence in the top tier of Indian football has failed to attract the crowds to watch the games. Mumbai, on the other hand, could have yielded a better turnout as they had two teams playing in the Indian Super League and the I-League. 

AIFF should have thought about these issues and could have planned in advance instead of a hasty decision. It is the fate of several young players which is at stake in this tournament. As was seen, in case of Aizawl, who are guaranteed a semi final spot, fielded a completely new starting eleven. It was a ripe opportunity for the youngsters to prove their mettle in a match which was a dead rubber. 

Instead, one of their promising young players, Albert aggravated his injury in this poor surface conditions and will probably not be a part of the tournament. His replacement Ashutosh Mehta also suffered a similar fate and it remains to be seen if he can play any further role to steer his side to a season clinching double.

If the knockout stages can be shifted to a different venue, it might prove to be a harmonious decision for both the players and the organising body. A better pitch will ensure the game is played at its highest quality. A place with much more presence in the national football scene will ensure higher footfall than the current meagre openings at the Barabati stadium. A tournament of the stature of the Federation Cup deserves this much glory from the AIFF.