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Dreaming big leagues: Can European elite clubs change grassroots football in India?

The recent influx of foreign clubs and leagues could help push Indian football in a new direction, but the effort has to go beyond being just a branding exercise and work towards changing the ecosystem and local football culture

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Oct 18, 2022 11:11:59 AM IST
Updated: Oct 18, 2022 11:32:36 AM IST

Dreaming big leagues: Can European elite clubs change grassroots football in India?Davide Marchini (in blue jersey), a Uefa B licensed coach from Italy and technical director of Sports Roots, holds a session in Gurugram Image: Amit Verma
Sometime in the 2010s, Sunanda Das and Rajesh Mehrotra, professionals living across two halves of the country, were weighed down by a common problem: Of finding a suitable football training academy for their kids. “The programmes were unorganised, had only a few coaches, and many wouldn’t even start on time,” says the Bengaluru-based Das, who has held C-suite positions in telecom companies for two decades.

Mehrotra, who spent the first half of his career fashioning commercial deals for the sports industry for 24 years, found it even more galling that an insider like him too couldn’t find a grassroots sports programme that was structured, progression-led and age-appropriate. “Sports training, like academics, needs to be built step by step. Like a child would first be taught the basics of maths before moving on to complicated problems, a similar approach needs to be adopted for sports as well,” says Mehrotra, a resident of Gurugram.

When their search proved futile, Das and Mehrotra, both soccer fanatics, gave up their corporate careers and decided to stride into their second innings. In 2013, Das launched the Boca Juniors Football School in India, and Mehrotra the PSG counterpart the following year, bringing to India a playbook that has fostered greats like Diego Maradona, Gabriel Batistuta and Carlos Tevez on one hand, and Nicolas Anelka on the other.

While Das has expanded his programme, from recreational sports to an elite residential academy for kids with promise, Mehrotra ended the PSG licencing in 2019, but has continued his association with European football through Davide Marchini, a Uefa B licenced coach from Italy and the technical director of Sports Roots, the academy he has co-founded.

But not just PSG and Boca Juniors, the Indian grassroots landscape has, of late, seen an influx of foreign clubs and leagues—from Arsenal, FC Barcelona, Liverpool, and Atletico de Madrid to LaLiga, the Spanish professional league that comprises 42 clubs. While some clubs have eventually exited, like Arsenal and Liverpool, newer partnerships are unfolding with Sevilla FC tying up with FC Bengaluru United and Atletico returning to the Indian fold, after splitting with ISL franchise Atletico de Kolkata, to join forces with the Tata Football Academy (TFA). “We have decided to start preparing a business case for the creation of joint football schools in Bengaluru,” says Jose Maria Cruz, the CEO of six-time Uefa Europa league champion Sevilla FC, “We are also going to open in the city Sevilla FC’s first commercial delegation and office worldwide. We are finishing the project, and the office will be set up probably by the first quarter of 2023.”

Dreaming big leagues: Can European elite clubs change grassroots football in India?At the Boca Juniors School, training sessions are based on matchplay and transition play

What brings foreign football giants to India? Big money, of course, in terms of licencing fees that neither stakeholder is willing to disclose. But the collaborations that survive go beyond these. As the history of these partnerships will tell you, most that have fallen through in the last decade have come undone on commercials.

When Das went scouting for tie-ups, he had to ditch most European clubs due to their whopping fees or their eagerness to develop fan bases and merchandising more than football at the grassroots. India On Track (IOT), Arsenal’s on-ground partner in India, ended the partnership with the London-based club in 2017-18 and switched to LaLiga thereafter due to its “greater participatory nature”. Says Vivek Sethia, IOT’s founder and CEO, “It’s nobody’s fault, but a matter of perspective really.

Arsenal viewed it as a commercial opportunity, but Indian consumers weren’t willing to pay a premium. For LaLiga, it’s a project that will build the Indian market for them. And that’s what’s working.”

Dreaming big leagues: Can European elite clubs change grassroots football in India?

What’s in it for the clubs if it isn’t mere revenues? Goodwill and brand visibility, which will eventually translate into viewership. In two and a half years since launching their operations in India in 2017, the number of LaLiga schools had reached close to 50. While the academies shut entirely during Covid, sessions have now resumed at 28 centres once the schools reopened post-pandemic, and there are plans of reaching 50 again by the end of the year.

While LaLiga designs training from scratch, IOT handles the business—right from scripting deals to hiring coaches, roping in schools and marketing the product. “The money that comes from licencing is the least relevant for us,” says Jose Antonio Cachaza, MD, LaLiga India. “It doesn’t help our business financially. What the collaboration does is bring brand presence across 10 cities and is our humble way of incorporating ourselves into the growth of Indian football.”

It’s a fine line that Joe Morrison, renowned football presenter, warns parents and kids about. Identify why a foreign club has tied up with an Indian partner: Is it to merely lend its crest to a local jersey or to work towards changing the footballing ecosystem in the country. Morrison, who watches Indian football from close quarters, calls many of these collaborations, especially licensing agreements, “mere money-making arrangements”.

Dreaming big leagues: Can European elite clubs change grassroots football in India?A training session at the Sports Roots academy in Gurugram Image: Amit Verma

“LaLiga is different, because it has set up an office in India to expand its presence and has worked on the ground for a few years now, so it’s not just an activation exercise. But when it comes to other collaborations, parents and kids have to remember that the ecosystems of Indian and foreign clubs are very different, and India can only benefit if the ecosystem abroad is brought here. That can’t happen through just a two-week visit abroad or annual supervisions from foreign technical directors. Lionel Messi came to the Barcelona Academy (La Masia) in Barcelona, not Argentina,” he says.  

What these foreign collaborations should bring are structured, long-term training programmes that help kids to build up professional skills over time and not, as some parents would demand, turn them into Messis overnight. “Football training for under-7 kids should be different from under-9, under-11, and under-13. You have to first train under-7s in motor skills, under-9 is when you begin speaking about the technical aspects, and at under-11 you start training them to work together as a team. In India, such pedagogy is hardly as well mapped out as it is abroad. This is why these collaborations are important,” says Mehrotra of Sports Roots.

Dreaming big leagues: Can European elite clubs change grassroots football in India?

Besides visits from technical teams by the clubs, the tie-ups entail a training module structured on foreign methodology for both kids and coaches, and an annual trip to the headquarters for a chosen few cadets (till Covid hit) to get a look and feel of their football philosophy. But most crucial is recalibrating the local football culture, making it match-oriented and one that is led by a guided discovery of skills instead of instructions. “There is no such thing as perfect execution in football,” says Marchini, the technical director of Sports Roots. “The execution depends on the situation I am in, how many players are around me, where am I on the pitch, where do I have to go. That’s why training and exercises have to be game-based.”

At the Boca Juniors school in Bengaluru, technical director Derryl DSouza organises training sessions based on match and transition play, emphasising on set pieces and a player’s ability to make decisions on their own in pressure situations. The success stories have begun to emerge: Three academy players were recently selected to attend under-16 India trials held in May, while a girl from the LaLiga academy has been selected for the under-17 national team.

Also read: Unparalleled passion: What makes Northeast India the talent factory of football

“Our methodology isn’t based on repetitions,” says Saul Vazquez, senior specialist in football projects development, LaLiga. “You don’t need to shoot 100 times every day to become a better footballer, you need a holistic methodology. We need to make the kids intelligent players who understand when to shoot, when to pass, when to cross during a match.”       

“In Italy,” says Marchini, “a five-year-old who joins an academy, plays a match every Saturday. That is 40-plus matches a year. Here, many kids join us because their friends play or their parents have sent them. Many have never touched the ball with their feet.”

Dreaming big leagues: Can European elite clubs change grassroots football in India?LaLiga has designed a soccer curriculum that’s executed by India On Track

Agrees Carlos Santamarina, head coach, TFA and Jamshedpur FC Youth Development: “The biggest problem in India is the lack of quality competitions. An 18-year-old boy in India may have played about 50 matches in his lifetime. That number is achieved by a boy in Spain during his first two years of training (around seven or eight years old).”

In an attempt to bring in the competitive edge, Santamarina has taken the youth tier of the ISL side Jamshedpur FC to tournaments like the inaugural Reliance Foundation Development League this year. Sports Roots has launched the city’s biggest grassroots event—the Gurgaon Youth League—with 36 teams across four age categories and matches over eight weekends. Atletico de Madrid, meanwhile, has taken 10 TFA boys to the academy in Madrid to train them and give them long-term exposure to competitions along with their Spanish counterparts.   

And that, Morrison says, might be India’s best bet to change its footballing ecosystem. “Play the sport at the school level, bring on the baby leagues. But, most important, get players out of the country, get coaches out of the country, immerse them in an ecosystem that is elite, so they can bring that back to the country.”
Morrison recalls a seven-a-side selection trial at the Cooperage grounds in Mumbai some years ago, where a striker was picked up for his prolific scoring only because he was physically big. “However, the best player on the field was a defender who could play left foot, right foot, and had great control on a pitch that was pretty bad. That guy never got a look-in.” Foreign exposure could change this scenario, he says, in which selectors, coaches and even players with a better understanding of the game could push Indian football in a new direction.   

“Two of the great Indian players now—Sunil Chhetri and Gurpreet Singh Sandhu,” says Morrison, “spent some time abroad and imbibed the thorough professionalism in the football culture there. That is what Indian football should do.”   

(This story appears in the 21 October, 2022 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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