Michael Regin remembers the first time that he played professional football.
It was 2006 and he was still a college student. That CFA second division league game was an opportunity not only to kickstart a career, but to make some much-needed money. Regin grabbed his opportunity with both hands and went on to make a living out of the game, appearing first in the Santosh Trophy, finding a job through the sports quota, and then playing in the I-League and the Indian Super League.
Fifteen years later, this platform, that propelled Regin to financial security and his younger brother Michael Soosairaj to international football, lies broken. The CFA league has not been held since 2018, a tussle between the Chennai Football Association and the Tamil Nadu Football Association derailing what was one of the best-organized city football leagues in the country. The damage that it has done so far is difficult to measure.
EXPLAINED: Why can’t CFA and TNFA agree on Chennai League?
“How many years has it been?” asks Regin. “How many talented players have missed out? The platform that I had, so many players who are much better than me are not getting.”
That the current state of affairs threatens to derail the development of a whole generation of players is perhaps its most obvious consequence. Yet, there are so many more, the aftershocks of which will be visible in years to come. When a machine lies idle for a prolonged period, the individual parts begin rusting. A few years later, when the powers that be decide to switch the machine back on, Tamil Nadu might not have a football ecosystem.
“Before the league shut down, we had seven professional clubs in the district league,” says CM Ranjith, who has coached the Tamil Nadu Santosh Trophy team and Viva Chennai in the district league. “It was one of the better district leagues out there.. We were playing with foreigners and a lot of good players from across the country were willing to come to Chennai because the standard was very very good.”
Trying to quantify the kind of damage that has been done to this ecosystem might not be possible until the league eventually restarts. But there’s no question that damage has been done. The signs are there for everyone to see. Be it, departmental teams or the professional ones, they will take a while to get back to the standards that they once adhered to.
“Only Income Tax have called for selection trials (among the departmental teams),” says Ranjith. “Most other department teams are not recruiting footballers anymore. The players they do have are not training. They have to be in the office every day like anyone else.”
Among them is A Raegan. Once one of Tamil Nadu’s best players and the star of the 2016 TN Santosh Trophy team that reached the semifinals of the tournament, Raegan managed to play in the I-League for Chennai City FC in 2017. In the CFA League, he used to wear the colours of AG’s Office.
“I go to work every day now. My life revolves around the office,” says Raegan. “This is a strange experience for me, but because there is no league, the team doesn’t train anymore. I try to keep fit by training by myself every day after work. But it’s not really effective. I have put on a lot of weight. Getting back to football now will be difficult.”
Raegan says that many of his teammates are worse off. When the league does resume, AG’s Office — and like them, most department teams — will be putting out teams that are only a shadow of what they once were.
The situation is worse for private clubs, many of whom invested in young talent only to suddenly see all that work derailed. “We progressed to the top flight the hard way and along the way, we developed many young players,” says Ranjith about his team Viva Chennai’s journey. “But now all that is lost. We disbanded our team. We have not registered a single player since 2018.”
“When the league resumes, we will definitely try to put together a team. But it will be like starting afresh.”
Even putting together a new team will be easier said than done. Where are all these players going to come from?
“If an 18-year-old boy doesn’t play football for four years, that means he is effectively out of football,” says Ranjith.
There are many such players who are out of football right now. Coaches speak of former wards making ends meet by working in shops or on fishing boats.
“When the league was last held, there were more than 5000 registered players. Where are they now?” asks Ranjith.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the state of affairs is that all this came at a time when Tamil Nadu football looked like it was going places.
The team’s performances in the Santosh Trophy had made it clear over the years that the talent was there. Tamil Nadu were emerging as serious challengers to Kerala to the mantle of South Zone favourites. Then, in 2018, Chennai City FC’s Malaysian coach Akbar Nawas, instead of going home over the summer, sat and scouted the CFA League and packed his team with the talent that he found. Chennai City went on to win the I-League that season.
Back then, it looked like the good days were only beginning for Tamil Nadu football. Now, 2018 looks like a solitary sunny day before a long monsoon. Then, the likes of Nandhakumar and Soosairaj were among the best young players in the country. Now, players who should have followed them to the top, are not even playing football.
“Now grassroots activities are finally gathering pace in the state,” says Robin Charles Raja, a former TN Santosh Trophy and Chennai City FC coach. “There are a lot of academies doing a great job, a lot of U12 tournaments being held. But where are all these players going to go and play? Currently, there is a big gap between the grassroots and the senior level. However you train, if you can’t get an opportunity, then what’s the use?”
That has reflected on the state’s Santosh Trophy performances as well. In the last edition, Tamil Nadu failed to even tackle the South Zone qualifiers. This year, when every one of their challengers have begun preparation, Tamil Nadu are yet to put a team together or start a camp.
“We are like Moses, staring up at heaven, asking God to open up the sea,” says Robin.
And right now for Tamil Nadu football, the promised land looks as far away as it has ever been.
This article was originally published as part of the tenth 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/