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'No stadium' at home, Rajasthan United FC travel 300 km for I-League season

One of the most exciting teams in the I-League, Rajasthan United FC will play their 'home' matches in Delhi after being turned away from their own home state.

No stadium at home, Rajasthan United FC travel 300 km for I-League season

The Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi, where Rajasthan United FC will play their I-League 2022-23 home matches.


Rajdeep Saha

Updated: 5 Nov 2022 9:39 AM GMT

The I-League 2022-23 season is set to begin from 12th November when Gokulam Kerala host Mohammedan SC in Malappuram. The home-away format is back in the competition, giving teams the advantage of fans rallying behind them during home matches. However, Rajasthan United FC will not be able to enjoy this privilege.

RUFC have been on a giant-killing run across all tiers of Indian football recently. They knocked out ATK Mohun Bagan and East Bengal from the group stages of the Durand Cup after becoming the first club from Rajasthan to participate in the tournament in 40 years. But, as they look to improve on their 6th place finish from last season, they have had to seek refuge in Delhi's Ambedkar stadium - 300 km from their base - to play their home fixtures.

"It's disheartening that we have to play in Delhi. We have many fans in the state, we could have worked on that. If matches were to happen in Rajasthan, at least 4000-5000 fans would have come," club owner Kamal Saroha mused.

But why have RUFC had to travel so far to find a home?

The two biggest stadiums in Rajasthan, the Barkatullah Khan Stadium (Jodhpur) and the Sawai Mansingh Stadium (Jaipur), are exclusively reserved for cricket.

According to Saroha, the Rajasthan Cricket Association and the state's Sports Council were both approached for help, but both bodies turned them away.

"We tried to speak to the RCA and the sports minister but it didn't work. (Former Commonwealth Games Discus Throw gold medallist) Krishna Poonia, who is the president of the Sports Council, told us hume farak nahi parta tum kaha khelo, tum khudka dekhlo (it doesn't matter to us where you play, fend for yourself)," Kamal said.

No footballing oasis

Speaking to The Bridge, Krishna Poonia's husband, Virendra Poonia, who was the athlete's coach and is now Chief Officer in the state's Sports Council, said it would not have been enough for them to give permission to RUFC to use the state's primary stadiums. The cricket body would also have to agree.

"The matter wasn't up to us to handle. We have an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the RCA for the cricket stadiums, so it'd be up to them to lend out the pitches. As for us, we agreed to lend a ground we have under our jurisdiction to the football club but they needed it for eight months. Humare log kaha jaenge phir (Where would our people go for those months?)," the former coach reasoned.

The Rajasthan Cricket Association said it would not have been possible to offer RUFC the grounds because the cricket domestic season was already underway.

RCA's Honorary Secretary Mahendra Sharma said, "The stadium in Jaipur is under our control, whereas the one in Jodhpur is under the Sports Council, as per the MOU. The main reason why we couldn't offer the ground to RUFC is because our season has started and our activities will take place on the pitch. Other than that, there wasn't any issue," he said.

The Umaid stadium in Jodhpur was another possible option, but it wasn't up to 'AFC licensing criteria'. Having just the one changing room, according to Saroha, it would not have been feasible for two teams to have team meetings or operate on matchday in general.

"AU Rajasthan played a 2nd Division match at the Umaid stadium and that was only because the AIFF made concessions and were nice enough to relax the conditions at that time," Saroha said.

President of the Rajasthan Football Association Manvendra Singh, however, said that the Umaid stadium is not as bad as RUFC are claiming.

"They were offered the Umaid stadium, which is solely for football. The changing rooms are there, and the only room which was required by the club to make was the media room. I-League officials had come to survey the stadium as well in 2018," he retorted.

While the administrative rigmarole continues, fans of RUFC, one of the more exciting narratives emerging within Indian football in recent years, are the ones losing the most. Some buses might be arranged for them to travel to the national capital, but the club's finances are facing a blow.

Without a helping hand from the government or local authorities, the I-League outfit is having to fend for itself. And so are their fans.

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