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Chennai City FC: The Jewels of the Coromondel Crown

Desmond Mathias  |  Featured Club  |  1 Year Ago

I’d been rummaging through Indian football’s history books when I stumbled upon this group of five friends – SV Kanagasabai, E Vadivelu, TR Govindarajan, PV Chellappa and K Ekambaram. In a state where, its potential notwithstanding, football is relatively unpopular even today, these five gentlemen from Tamil Nadu brought about the birth of one of its first ever football clubs on April 8th, 1946 – Nethaji Sports Club. The club went on to achieve laurels, thick and fast, including a move into the senior league just four years after its inception. Although the club competed in the state senior leagues and fared pretty well through a span of 60-odd years, it looked pretty unlikely that Nethaji SC would ever make it to the forefront of the Indian football scene. 

 

Comes the turn of the century and the dawn of the internet age, football was starting to gain traction in every nook and corner of the country. With some of the world’s most popular leagues being aired on TV screens, the young and the old, alike, could be seen sporting replica jerseys of their favourite world footballing heroes. Brilliant as this may be for football in general, there were only a few among these who concerned themselves with doing their bit to help football in India.

 

One among the few, an Arsenal fan himself, was Rohit Ramesh, a young entrepreneur from a popular business family in Chennai. Rohit decided to give back to the sport we all love by buying Nethaji SC from its then-last surviving founder member, TR Govindarajan, on December 13th, 2013. I did mention earlier that the club had fared pretty well through most of the 60-odd years since its inception; however, times had gotten tough, the club had gotten relegated to the city’s first division in the 2010 season and with the limited resources they had, it had gotten more than difficult to continue. Rohit’s acquisition of the club couldn’t have come at a better time for it; along with Vikram Murali as Secretary and he, himself, as President, he pledged to retain its 18 squad players and add a few more, with an eventual aim to play in the I-League.





“Back in the day,” says Vikram, also the CMO at the club, speaking of the club’s inception, “people felt a huge connect with the freedom fighters. One of the first things we needed to do at the club was to build a local connect and create something that the city of Chennai could call their own. It became essential to change the name of the club to accomplish this.”

 

As you’ve probably guessed by now, Nethaji SC was shortly rechristened to Chennai City Football Club; a reincarnation upholding years and years of footballing legacy, while at the same time, rejuvenating the city’s dormant footballing culture and aspiring to scale new heights in Indian football.

 

“Our first season under the new leadership was nothing short of exceptional,” he continues. “We created a record of an all-win season with a goal tally of 60+ goals and stormed into the senior division. Whatever transpired between a few of the I League clubs and the AIFF before the start of this season of the I League actually worked in our favour. The AIFF saw the kind of effort we were putting in – our focus on grassroots football, how we were working towards building a brand of football in Tamil Nadu – and eventually decided that we deserved a spot in this season’s I-League as corporate entrants."

 

Chennai City FC’s direct entry into the I League for the 2017 season was a dream-come-true for many at the club, but there was no hiding away from the fact that there was still a lot of groundwork to be done. In a state where football is still in its nascent stage, setting up a football culture is of primary importance. Like any other business, today, comprehension of the various stakeholders is the key to success and Chennai City FC had their tasks cut out for themselves.





“With the limited time and budget that we have had,” adds Vikram, “we’ve been reaching out to whoever we can to promote football and the I League matches. We’re even going to schools and sports academies and handing out free tickets to the children to encourage them to come to the games. We’ve been doing our best to reach out to the people through some of the local media outlets – newspapers, radio stations, etc. We have an agency trying to build around the ‘Nammapasanga’ and ‘Namma Chennai’ tags to bring people together. All this and a lot more is happening, but we know, for a fact, that we need to do a lot more to come to a point where we don’t need to invest on advertising to get people to the stadium.”

 

It goes without saying that a huge part of the local connect involves tapping into the local potential that Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu have to offer; aspiring young footballers from the region taking up the sport as a serious career option, in the hope that, one day, their local team could be their stepping stone to representing the nation on the international stage. Local youngsters like Dhanpal Ganesh, Soosairaj and Nandha Kumar have been having phenomenal seasons thus far, so for them to be sharing the same dressing room as some of the stalwarts of the game like Karanjit Singh and Denson Devdas most definitely helps to add value and character to their game.

 

To orchestrate the cacophony that a football club can sometimes be is no child’s play, but Rohit Ramesh seems to be taking all of this, and more, into his stride. Darren Caldeira, midfielder at Chennai City FC, says it has been an absolute delight working with Rohit. “Rohit’s the kind of boss who you wouldn’t, even for a second, hesitate to approach”, he says. “He’s less of a boss, more of a friend. He comes for all the games; he’s there in the dressing room encouraging us before and after games.” “He’s so passionate about the club,” adds Vikram, “he’s even involved in operations sometimes. There are times he picks up the Gatorade bottles himself and hands them out to the players. Sometimes when the boys are down, he comes there and gives them pep talks; rallies behind them, so to speak. He has this personal rapport with the players that makes them feel wanted.”

 

While some of you contemplate switching careers after reading this, my conversation with Darren slowly drifted towards fans and fan cultures in the city of Chennai. “It’s picking up, to be honest,” says the 29 year-old. “On certain days you get a decent number of fans at the matches, while on other days you don’t. The ones who do show up at the stadium – man, they love football; you can see it written all over their faces! The club is doing whatever it can to market the games, there’s still a lot more that can be done, but it would be great to have other football fans spread the word around. There are so many people who are fans of the big European leagues – it’s all over the media, people talk about it, there are television shows analysing players and games, jerseys get sold in plenty of stores across town. Indian football is in the process of getting there, and it’s down to people, like you and me, as football fans if we want Indian football to make it big someday. It’s just a matter of getting people to the stadium once and experiencing the atmosphere, that’s what works wonders! While there are a set of football fans who say they would only watch European football – and I really hope it’s a thought that doesn’t stay that way – there are plenty of football fans out there who are just unaware about the games that are happening, or the schedule, etc. For a city like Chennai that loves its football, a little more awareness and it’s only a matter of time before we see packed stadiums.”

 

While there’s so much truth in what Darren has to imply about fans playing a huge part in making the sport viable in Chennai, there’s no denying the fact that the players, staff and owners at Chennai City FC are working their socks off trying to do whatever they can to nurture the very essence of football in the city. With this new-found respect I have for our south Indian derby rivals, I’m heading out, with my fellow West Block Blues, to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Chennai on the 8th of March as Chennai City FC play host to namma Bengaluru FC. I know I can expect a cracker of a match; but it’s the battle off the pitch, between the fans, on who’s more vocal, that I’m looking forward to as well!

 

 






 

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