Football-crazy Jamshedpur all set for ISL debut

Subrata Pal remembers the first time he came to Jamshedpur. Back in 2002, he was just a 15-year old boy looking to jump start his career by joining the city's Tata Football Academy. It was a journey that almost began in failure after he arrived a day late. A sympathetic coach let him give a trial which he ended up acing.

"I'd say it was the turning point of my life. If you were a young football player in India, who wanted to be anything, you really wanted to go to Jamshedpur. It was a dream come true to be selected, " he recalls.

A little over a decade and a half since that fateful day, life has turned full circle and Pal is back in town. He isn't a trainee anymore, having had a distinguished career as the goalkeeper of the Indian football team. As the current goalkeeper of the Jamshedpur FC franchise of the Indian Super League (ISL), his return this time around has been a lot smoother. He travelled with the team from Ranchi in an air-conditioned bus featuring a blown-up photograph of him and stays in comfort at the Tata Apartment complex.

Even as he prepares for Jamshedpur FC's first home game in the ISL, Pal can't help but reminisce about his formative years in the city. "I have many good memories of this city. Of the academy and of the stadium. It feels good to be back."

The whiff of drying blue and red paint and varnish greets you at the JRD Football Stadium in the heart of Jamshedpur. The heart of this steel town in the Indian state of Jharkhand is the Tata mill, whose immense chimneys, constantly belching out thick white smoke, are visible from nearly everywhere (including the stadium) in town. But for at least a couple of days until Friday, this sporting venue will have a similar attraction.

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Banners of the Indian Super League's latest franchise are ubiquitous on the roundabouts leading to the stadium alongside busts of the city's founder and other doyens of the Tata family. The crowd at the ticket counter is thin but that's only because there are no tickets left for the opening game itself.

There are no black market sellers to hang your hopes on in order to find a ticket. Unlicensed sellers of the team's home jersey are doing better business. Knockoff red T-shirts with a blue border of tribal Saura paintings are selling briskly for 150 rupees. The club's logo - a red hot football being poured by a crucible - pays tribute to the city's steel heritage.

Inside the ground, workers are applying one last coat of paint. Steel fabricators are constructing the team dugouts. Plastic chairs are being stacked on the concrete stands. A gaggle of schoolkids is being drilled on the niceties of holding players' hands as they escort them to the field. Alongside them a Singha Baaja - a percussion group featuring the traditional deer antler ornamented drum kit known as a nishaan - thumps out an impromptu beat.

Everyone is preparing for Friday evening. The city has been preparing for this date since half a year back when league organisers announced Jamshedpur would be one of the two new entrants to the Indian Super League along with Bengaluru FC. But Jamshedpur's links to the sport go back a lot further. Locals will remind you of a letter written in 1902 by the city's founder Jamsetji Tata, advising his son Dorab to "earmark areas for football" in the town that would only be built in 1907.

From a league that began in the 1940s and was considered the best in undivided Bihar, Jamshedpur's link to football has continued. It carried on into the 1980s through the Super Soccer series that saw teams like Sao Paulo and PSV Eindhoven play matches in front of tens of thousands at the JRD Tata football stadium. And then of course there was the Tata Football Academy.

As Pal mentions, the academy, that was set up in 1987, has long been synonymous with football development in the country. The club prides itself on producing a claimed 138 players who have represented the country across age groups.

That TFA link continues into the ISL too, where scores of trainees play for different franchises. When ATK began a practice session at the Academy grounds on Thursday afternoon, one of their youngest players - Hitesh Sharma - received an impromptu round of applause from the hostel students. Sharma had graduated in 2015 and was a senior to several of the cadets at the academy. Striker Robin Singh also graduated from the academy, while Jamshedpur reserve keeper Rafique Ali Sardar is in his final year of training here.

It is the academy that grants the club a relevance unlike many other franchises in the ISL. "Because of the academy, Jamshedpur already has a football culture. No other team has this. Not even Bengaluru FC, which is seen as a very good club. We have our own academy, our own ground. No other team has their own ground. This is what makes this club different," says Pal.

It is this football culture that the club hopes will fill seats on a regular basis. Many believe this can be done. "Nasha hai yaha football ka (there is an addiction for football here)," says Jagannath Behera, a coach with Aruna Samity, one of the oldest clubs in Jamshedpur. "The majority of people in this region are Dalit and Adivasi (tribal). Football has always been popular here. It is a sport for poor people," says Behera, whose club draws its support base from the Dalit and tribal community dominated Dhatkedih neighborhood of Jamshedpur.

Behera says interest had somewhat waned in the sport over the last two decades ever since teams from Tata Steel and Tata Motors - the biggest clubs in the city - stopped hiring footballers. "When I used to play, if you played well, you were guaranteed to get jobs in Tata. But after 1995, it started coming down. You only get a stipend now."

That hasn't stopped the local 42-team strong league from being heavily attended. The final of the 2017 league was held in front of an estimated 12000 fans at the crumbling Keenan Stadium. "People come down from the villages - Jadugora, Kogda, Kalikapur and Jojosai - surrounding Jamshedpur to watch matches. And now with the ISL, it is only going to get more popular."

It is an assessment that former India midfielder Deepak Mandal agrees with. Mandal , who played for Kerala Blasters in the 2015 ISL season, isn't from Jamshedpur. He hails from the iron mining town of Noamundi, a three-hour bus journey south-west of Jamshedpur. "I was really surprised to find how interested they were in the ISL matches. They would ask me about the foreign players I played with. It was almost a routine that at eight o'clock, the TV would be switched on and a football game would be played. And for families that didn't have a TV, they would gather at a house that did have a set."

Mandal has little doubt that Jamshedpur FC will draw the same backing. Yet, this support can't be taken for granted. Even though the cheapest seats are priced at 50 rupees - the lowest across the league - it will remain out of the budget for many fans, in what is one of the poorer parts of the country. "The people in this region are very poor. You could buy two kilos of rice for fifty rupees. Not everyone will be able to spend that. But for many fans this tournament will be a must-see," says Behera.

There are concerns over a lack of local connect in a city that is nearly a third tribal with the percentage increasing as one moves into the surrounding villages. "When Jamshedpur FC started, they visited our local clubs and asked for suggestions. It bothers a lot of people that there aren't any local players in the team and very few in the TFA. We want to support our team but we also want to support our own players," says Behera.

Jamshedpur FC coach Steve Coppell admitted as much ahead of Jamshedpur's opening game. "The team hasn't yet got an identity with the town. It's only been two months since we got together in Jamshedpur; so we didn't have a lot of time, but we have to develop a real identity with the town."

This isn't a scenario that can change overnight. While there is no denying the tribal region surrounding Jamshedpur has been a hub of talent, players like Mandal and his fellow Noamundi resident Sanjay Balmuchu -- another TFA graduate who plays for Chennaiyin FC -- have been the exception.

"There simply isn't a lot of opportunity at the grassroots," says Mandal. "States like Bengal have so many clubs that give players a chance to improve. In Jharkhand a player doesn't have that opportunity. I was lucky that I got the chance to train at the TFA. I already had a platform. So my only job was to work hard." It is a concern that the club is looking to address.

"It isn't as if a club like Mumbai FC that scouts players predominantly from Maharashtra or Chennaiyin from Tamil Nadu. But that is a priority for us at Jamshedpur FC. Earlier when TFA was there, the goal was to develop players. We wanted to bring out the best possible product, regardless of where in India he might be from. I could bring him from Chandigarh, J&K and Chennai. But if I have to build a supply chain from Jharkhand for Jamshedpur FC, the grassroots have to be a lot better," says club CEO Mukul Choudhari.

"We knew there was a lot of passion over here. Now we have to make a concentrated effort to channelize this passion with a formal structure," says Choudhari. These are long-term goals for the club. For the moment though, Jamshedpur FC's target will be to put up a good show in their first home game. In their first two games - both drawn - their key player was Pal, who stopped four near-certain chances. He will be expected to carry on the same form on Friday. That outcome would be all the more rewarding for him.

"This city gave me an identity. If I hadn't come here I might never have continued playing football. Whatever I learned was in Jamshedpur. Now what all I learned, I have to give back here," he says.