As the ball hit the back of the net for the second time on July 17 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi, the celebrations carried over from the touchline all the way to Pune. Nikhil Mali had just made it 2-0 for Delhi FC against Rangers SC in their opening I-League 2nd Division qualifier group game which the former went on to win 7-0. The headlines went to former India U-17 World Cup centre-back Anwar Ali, who scored a hat-trick, but Mali’s goal and his involvement alone in a game at this level, brought back to life Pune’s complicated relationship with top level football.
“The city (Pune) lacks an organised football culture when it comes to tournaments and giving local players a pathway to making it as a professional,” said Mali. “When I tell people that I’m from Pune, they usually club it together with Mumbai or just some place close to it. I want to change that by making it to the top.”
In 2009, Pune Football Club became the first professional team from the city to compete in the country’s then top tier – the I-League. Over the course of their 9-year existence, Pune FC finished second and third in the league, played an AFC Champions League qualifier, took part in the AFC Cup group stage and became the embodiment of professionalism in Indian football at the time. The club was also the making of players like Arata Izumi, Anas Edathodika and Subrata Pal while also giving first-team opportunities to local players like Paresh Shivalkar and Prakash Thorat.
The club’s youth setup also exceeded the national standards at the time and academy players were regularly promoted to the first team. This setup was taken over by the Indian Super League side FC Pune City after Pune FC closed down their operations due to the financial difficulties. Though the academy was churning out quality players regularly, it lacked a local flavour. Youngsters from North East India would take up most of the slots albeit with good reason considering the fact that they had a better footballing education. Budding players from Pune were present in the lower age-groups like U-10, U-12 and U-14, but beyond that, the numbers dropped drastically. This could have been due to a number of reasons – lack of parental support, lack of funds or maybe there were just not as good as the boys from other states.
FC Pune City also failed to connect with the community and despite aggressive marketing online, the appalling stadium attendances spoke volumes. The Shree Shiv Chhatrapati Sports Complex is located on the outskirts of Pune with a stadium capacity of around 12,000. Although official figures claim average attendance of 8,000 to 9,000 per game, this writer has never seen even half of those numbers during his time covering FC Pune City games. In comparison, the MCA cricket stadium is even further away from the city yet it is packed to the brim when the Indian cricket team is playing.
The club’s on-field performances also left much to be desired, resulting in a footballing void which the erstwhile Pune-based I-League sides Bharat FC and DSK Shivajians also could not fill. FC Pune City’s dissolution in 2019 left the city without a national-level club for the first time in a decade.
Even during this 10-year period, homegrown talent has rarely shone on the biggest stage. Since Shivalkar and Thorat, and later Shrikanth Molangiri (DSK Shivajians), no local player has graced the top flight of Indian football, be it the I-League or the ISL. If you look beyond players, the city has exported some quality coaching and managerial talent, none more so than Bengaluru FC CEO Mandar Tamhane. Add to that former Chennaiyin FC assistant coaches Vivek Nagul and Salim Pathan, I-League winning assistant coach Sachin Badadhe (ex-Minerva Punjab, current Bengaluru FC youth team), and I-League winning goalkeeping coach Mihir Sawant (ex-Gokulam Kerala, now with Mohammedan SC).
Enter, Mali. The scrawny 24-year-old wide forward honed his skills in small-sided games on many of Pune’s 100+ football turfs. It can be seen in his style of play which incorporates dribbling ability with a penchant for audacious tricks and flicks. One of his videos was picked up and shared by 433, an Instagram account with almost 40 million followers.
“Five-a-side games did help me improve in 1v1 situations but the full game is a completely different prospect,” believes Mali. “The fitness regime is the most important part and once you get a hang of that, it becomes easier to develop.”
Born in Nigeria where his father worked as an engineer, Mali, despite his undeniable talent, was initially not allowed to join his school football team because of the distance from his house. Towards the end of his school days, he caught the eye playing in small-sided game tournaments and got signed by local club Parshuramians SC. After turning out for their ‘B’ team in the city’s second division for a season, Mali joined their rivals Greenbox Chetak SC whose ‘A’ team played in Pune’s top tier.
During his graduation years, a team named “Panna Boys” (Panna being the term for a ‘nutmeg’ where a player rolls the ball through his opponent’s legs) was formed by Mali and his friends to compete in 5-a-side tournaments and they have earned cult status in the local football circuit over the years, winning more than 100 trophies.
“My parents wanted me to get a college degree in case things didn’t work out but after they started seeing the number of trophies that I was bringing home, they believed in my dream to make it as a professional and encouraged me to take it up full time,” grinned Mali.
That dream began to take shape when Mali had a successful trial with DSK Shivajians who signed him to play for their team in the U-18 I-League. Soon after, the club ran into financial difficulties and ceased operations.
Guided by Shivalkar and Badadhe, Mali had a trial in Chandigarh with Minerva Punjab where he impressed owner Ranjit Bajaj. Along with Minerva, Bajaj also owns Techtro Swades United in the Himachal League and of course, Delhi FC. Mali was initially registered on the Techtro roster and he did well enough to be recalled to Minerva to compete in the Punjab State League. After another successful stint, the big step-up came with Delhi FC who finished as runners-up after a penalty shootout loss to the Indian Air Force in the final. The club however have still been nominated by their state association as one of the two representatives from Delhi (the other being Garhwal FC) to compete in I-League II.
Two other lads from Pune – Jordan Fernandes and Ishan Sharma also left the city in search of opportunities to make it as professionals. Jordan, who was a team-mate of Mali’s in the Shivajians U-18 I-League squad, currently finds himself playing in the Goa state league for the Churchill Brothers reserves after spells at ARA FC (Ahmedabad Racquet Academy) and Madhya Bharat SC under the tutelage of Vivek Nagul. Ishan also played for ARA before making the switch to I-League hopefuls FC Bengaluru United but currently finds himself without a club.
Although the city cannot boast of a rich footballing heritage, recent developments in infrastructure (small-sided artificial turfs) have given players an opportunity to play the sport regularly which was not possible earlier due to restrictive policies by ground operators. Approximately 5,000 people play football on these pitches every single day but the Pune District Football Association (PDFA), whose shortcomings are well-documented in the local press, has failed to capitalise on this turf culture which could have boosted the local talent pool of players.
Pune’s football system has four tiers – the Super Division, First Division, Second Division and Third Division – of which only the Super Division can boast of games that are the full 90 minutes. The lower division games have varying game times, some even lasting as less as 25 minutes. Pitch conditions have worsened over the years with a worrying lack of natural grass grounds, one even having a cement cricket pitch in the middle. Kick-off timings can be scheduled at 2 pm in the sweltering heat with no medical support available in case of a mishap.
The achievements of the likes of Mali, Tamhane and Badadhe are not because of the current state of Pune football, but in spite of it. Unless there is a marked improvement in the governance and infrastructure of football in the city, the brain drain is likely to continue and the current stagnation of the sport will turn to decay.
This article was originally published as part of the sixth edition of Kalpanthu’s newsletter Vuvuzela. The newsletter costs just $7 or 550 rupees a year and empowers us to keep our YouTube channel for Indian football documentaries free for all. To subscribe/check out our content, visit https://theawayend.co/kalpanthu/