An Indian footballing institution recently ceased to exist. Varadharajan Ramesh has the story.
Unlike many clubs that have folded, the story of Mahindra United is different. With the US$ 12.5b Mahindra & Mahindra group, who are into automobile manufacturing, Information Technology and Hospitality amongst others, owning the club, finances were never an issue.
In 1945, the brothers JC and KC Mahindra started a trading company, along with the man who would eventually go on to become the first finance minister of the then yet-to-be-formed Pakistan, Gulam Mohammad, to trade steel. Post-Indian independence in 1947, Gulam Mohammad resigned from the company and moved to Pakistan. In 1948 the company’s name was changed to Mahindra & Mahindra and the company was involved in assembling Willys jeeps in India. In 1950, a small sports club was set up by the company to provide some leisure time activities for their employees. The first shift towards a football club happened in 1956, when the club took in few youngsters from the local community to play football. The team competed in the Bombay Football League and gave very good account of itself consistently and in 1962 the club was re-named as Mahindra & Mahindra Allied Company Sports Club. The club was admitted into the Bombay Harwood League in 1964, which was the highest level the club could play in as India as a country did not have a national level football league. The football clubs in those days used to compete for their local leagues in addition to various Cup tournaments that were held in different parts of the country.
The Club got its first taste of success when they won the Mumbai Elite Division in 1971 and went on to win the Championship a record 12 times. A year earlier, Mahindra & Mahindra had made it to the finals of the prestigious Rovers Cup, only to lose with an aggregate score of 1-0 over a two-legged final to one of the power houses of Indian football – the Kolkata based Mohun Bagan. The club’s next participation in the finals would be in 1990, only to end up on the losing side again – this time to the other Kolkata giant East Bengal. M&M would win the Rovers Cup for the first time in 1993 when they defeated Bank of India with an aggregate score of 3-0 over a two-legged final. Mahindra & Mahindra also won the prestigious Durand Cup, the second oldest football competition in the world, on three occasions and were two time winners of the IFA Shield and the Federation Cup. The club would go on to win other important Cup tournaments in India like the Bandodkar Gold Cup in 1980 (joint winners with Sesa SC), the Chief Minister’s Cup in 1998 and Mammen Mapillai Trophy in 1999.
With the All India Football Federation (AIFF) being consistently criticized for not having a professional football league in India, the National Football League (NFL) was set up in the 1996/97 season and M&M finished at the bottom but were not relegated due to the absence of a second tier league. In 2000, the club underwent an image makeover as the Mahindra Group renamed the club from Mahindra & Mahindra Football Club to Mahindra United Football Club (MUFC), named after the English Premier League club Manchester United Football Club. The club’s uniform color was changed from Orange to Red, again to reflect those of United. The team was fondly referred as India’s Manchester United.
The makeover was not just cosmetic but the club invested in a good training facility and also branched out into having its own under-19 and under-15 squad, so as to groom youngsters. After years of trying, Mahindra United finally were crowned champions of India in the 2005/06 season when they won by five points over Kingfisher East Bengal. As reigning champions, Mahindra United gained entry into the 2007 AFC Cup and were placed along with Singapore Armed Forces FC, Happy Valley of Hong Kong and New Radiant of Maldives in Group E and finished second in the group. Mahindra United qualified for the Quarter-finals after besting fellow Indian club Mohun Bagan and Negiri Sembilan of Malaysia in a best runners up round-robin phase.
In the quarter-finals, Mahindra United lost with a narrow 4-5 aggregate score to Lebanese Premier League runners Al-Nejmeh. United’s Ghanian striker Yusuf Yakubu was in the top-10 goal scorers of the AFC Cup with 3 goals. Until Dempo reached the Semi-finals stage in 2007/08, this was the best ever performance by an Indian club in a continental level competition. The NFL was discarded and replaced with the I-League from 2006. Mahindra United were consistent performers and finished 3rd in 2006/07, 5th in 2007/08 and 5th again in 2008/09. In 2009/10, the team was topping the table at one point only to stumble in the final few weeks and finish 4th, a good 13 points behind eventual winners Dempo.
It was at this stage that initial rumors of players’ contracts not being taken for renewal started to surface. On April 30 2010, the bombshell was launched as the Mahindra Group intimated that Mahindra United would be disbanded after the 2009/10 season. This came in as a shock to many in the Indian football world as Mahindra United were one of the successfully run clubs in the country and debated that its disbanding would have serious ramifications on the football setup in India.
Alan Durante, Chairman of Mahindra United noted,”It was a very big and difficult decision but we discussed this over a period of time. We felt the need to reach out to talent at the school level after noticing a stagnancy in talent at the top level. It’s the same players moving around all clubs. New talent hasn’t come out” and further added “Money isn’t the criteria as the new venture would also require us to channel funds there. We are doing this in the best interest of football rather than sticking to legacy. We’ve won everything and it’s now time to create a bigger connect. Again, soccer has never been a commercial venture in India. “
The decision to disband the club proved to be unpopular amongst the general public and there was a lot of rumbling through social media. Mahindra Group Chairman and Managing Director, Anand Mahindra, later took to twitter blaming the public for the decision to pull the plug. He tweeted, “So many Mumbai voices lamenting our pullback from professional soccer. Never heard them when we needed their attendance & support at our matches.”
In India football has always been the ugly sister to its much more glamorous sibling, cricket. Outside strongholds like Kolkata, Goa and Kerala, interest in domestic football is minuscule . The average Indian knows more about his English Premier League, La Liga and Serie A clubs than the I-League clubs. Attendances have been borderline pathetic and so is the infrastructure. The Cooperage Stadium where Mahindra United played their home games was in state of such shambles that they played the 2005/06 season home games elsewhere. The average attendance for I-League games in 2010/11 was a paltry 3913. Even Zee Sports which signed a 10 year deal with the AIFF to telecast the I-League games terminated the contract after just 3 years. Anand Mahindra was right – if the public didn’t care much about the team, why should the corporation who owned the club?
At the time of disbanding, Mahindra United had six players who were in the senior Indian football team. Mahindra United played their last ever match, ironically against JCT who themselves disbanded the following season, and won 2-1. The players have moved on to other clubs as free agents.
As for Mahindra, they have launched the Mahindra Youth Football Challenge (MYFC) in partnership with Scottish powerhouses Celtic to unearth young football talents from the country. In the first edition of MYFC, Sukantha Nagar Vidhya Nikethan School of Kolkata defeated Government Sports School of Bangalore 3-1 in the finals. Bishal Harijan and Jayanta Mondal of the Kolkata team along with Mani Maran of Bangalore were selected as the most promising players of the tournament and the three won themselves a week-long trip to Glasgow to visit Celtic and their training facilities.
Mahindra United might be a club of the past now, but at least the corporation has remained actively involved in the game we love. They, and others like them, will be vital to any continued develoment of football in India.