In the sporting context, Mumbai, or the state of Maharashtra in general isn’t really recognized for football nowadays. It dominates cricket but not football. To compare, Mumbai has won the Ranji Trophy a total of 41 times whereas Maharashtra only has 3 Santosh Trophies. Even in the Indian Premier League, Mumbai Indians is the most successful franchise with 5 titles to their name.
But just recently, its Indian Super League equivalent Mumbai City FC became the first-ever side from the league to enter the AFC Asian Champions League Group Stages for the second time. They almost went invincible in the league before Durand Cup champions Bengaluru FC halted their run. With 14 wins, 54 goals, and 46 points, Des Buckingham’s Islanders shot themselves right into the conversation of being the best ISL side in its less than a decade of memory. A word could be put up that the state could finally have started striding towards footballing success. However, long before City, there was United.
Founded in 1962 (as Mahindra & Mahindra Allied Sports Club), Mahindra United was often referred to as the Manchester United of India. The best time for the club came in the 2000s when they won numerous national titles. The most notable of them was the National Football League victory in 2005-06. That added to their Federation Cup victory earlier on in the season which made Mahindra United the first-ever side to do the NFL-Fed Cup double. They became the first ever Mumbai side to win the national league. The following year, they went on to the quarterfinal of the AFC Cup where they lost 4-5 over aggregate to Lebanon’s Al-Nehjeb. It was the only Indian club to feature in the Top 500 of IFFHS’s Decade Ranking.
The club shut down at the end of the decade.
Now this identity has a lot to do with the emotions of the Indian Football fans. It has long left the scenario and it looks unlikely that the Mahindra Group would look back again. An ardent admirer on Twitter runs a campaign for the revival of Mahindra United. “The campaign which I run for the revival of #MahindraUnited was the best thought that ever struck me,” he says. “When I started following Indian football, I studied its history and found that many clubs that had a deep role in Indian Football History had been shut down due to various reasons.”
Football in India has never been profitable. Alan Durante, the Chairman of the club since 1991, said that if the profit-loss was the reason, they would have shut down way before. Sustainability is the actual problem. It’s hard to live on a planet with no atmosphere. If there is a one-word answer to why clubs shut down in India, it’s the lack of a sustainable environment. “Many factors affected the clubs in India in the last few decades. And the major factor was non-profit along with low sponsorship. Most of the clubs get disbanded due to such factors but a few clubs also got disbanded due to the lack of structured path in the Indian Football system,” says @/FootballerNinja, the Twitter user in question.
Dempo SC came back into action last season and they have won two consecutive Goa Pro League titles. Starting from the bottom, the owners have serious ambitions to make it big again. “As Dempo is climbing the ladders with the vision to return to its past glory, it will automatically connect to everyone in the area and will increase the essence of the game in the country – the thing I want the most.”
A club that old and successful must have had a considerable fanbase. It hasn’t been too long since Dempo left the mainstream. It was in 2016 that they pulled out of the I-League to oppose the restructuring of the domestic pyramid. But in Mahindra’s case, in about one month’s time, it will the 13th anniversary of them quitting the mainstream football. A lot has taken place since then. Things may not have changed at all but the generation gap has happened. It’s a gap that could only be filled by clubs rising from dead. So to win over the ‘new generation’, clubs like Mahindra United will have to go all over again.
But do they intend to? Indian Football might be an ex to the Mahindras but they have always involved themselves in sports. Right after they left I-League, they partnered with NBA for the Mahindra NBA Challenge for Indian teenagers. In fact, they continued to be involved in school football in partnership with Celtic FC. Their biggest existing sporting venture is their electric racing team in FIA Formula E.
“To be honest, my expectation from the campaign is zero,” he concludes. “But his (Anand Mahindra’s) inclusion could again enhance the Indian Football scene. He has ambition in addition to money. So he can make a great environment.”
Not to forecast any future, but the AIFF has announced Institutional League will be in action from next season. Institutional Clubs had a big hand in shaping up Indian Football’s history outside the Kolkata Clubs. Air India, ONGC, JCT, ITI Bangalore for example. There will be a bidding process for the 10-team league.
Follow IFTWC for more on Indian Football.