Girish Mathrubootham, the CEO and founder of Freshworks, has launched the FC Madras Football Academy in Mahabalipuram, about 60 km from Chennai.
Girish Mathrubootham knows a thing or two about building from scratch. In 2010, the former Zoho employee started up a software products venture from a 700 sq ft warehouse space in Chennai, rebranded it as Freshworks in 2017 and, four years later, led its blockbuster public listing at Nasdaq, making it the first Indian SaaS (software as a service) company to achieve that milestone. While Freshworks, which recorded a turnover of $498 million in FY22, has been going through a rough patch ever since—including a stock slump, legal battle over allegations of misleading investors during the IPO and layoffs—Mathrubootham hasn’t lost his itch to build.
Last week, the CEO and founder of Freshworks launched the FC Madras Football Academy in Mahabalipuram, about 60 km from Chennai, that will house an in-residence programme for a cohort of 55 grassroots footballers scouted from a pool of 2,416 youngsters across the country. Sprawling over 23 acres and built over a flattened watermelon field, the academy boasts of three Fifa-approved grounds (with natural grass, synthetic turf and hybrid), a learning academy and cutting-edge training and rehab facilities that align with global standards.
While FC Madras’ Under-13 and Under-15 teams will be trained in the best practices of soccer, they will also go through an open schooling academic curriculum via the NIOS (The National Institute of Open Schooling) system that will help the academy tailor lessons and prepare each child for college. “Only 2 percent of athletes from any academy turn pro footballers. While our dream is to produce a ‘Messi From Madras’, we want to make sure the other 98 percent also end up being well-rounded people in life,” says Mathrubootham, clad in a navy blue FC Madras jersey. “Our mission isn't sport or education, it's sport and education.”
As one turns into the academy from the main road, about 4 km off the East Coast Road that connects Chennai with Kanyakumari, its banner in blue, reading ‘Scamper Park: Home of the Flying Squirrels’, is visible from a distance and is somewhat reminiscent of the colours of the Chelsea Football Club. Mathrubootham flashes a smile when one points out the resemblance. “I am a big fan of Chelsea,” he says. “And, among its players, Didier Drogba is my favourite.”
Mathrubootham has invested a little over Rs 100 crore of his personal money into the project, and estimates the annual running cost of running the academy to be around $1 million (around Rs 8 crore). “This is just Phase 1 and includes the cost of the land and construction,” he says. “We haven’t gone to anybody yet for fundraising, but will be going in future.” The 47-year-old has included a business centre among the facilities for corporate use, and is also planning to organise paid weekend and summer camps to generate revenues.
Also read: The Qatar Effect: How India can take the FIFA legacy forward
Each of the kids selected for the project will be fully funded, irrespective of their financial background. “It’s not just about supporting the underprivileged. It’s about supporting anyone who has potential,” says Dhananjai CKM, the director of sports and governance at FC Madras, who has been the data and performance analyst for the Indian cricket team as well as IPL franchise Mumbai Indians. Consider that 11-year-old Mohan Nitish from Madurai, who lost his father, a Swiggy delivery executive, to Covid can now actually pursue his dream of playing for PSG one day, the club his idol Lionel Messi
currently plays for.
Mathrubootham’s trigger came around 2016-17, when he took his younger son to football training in Chennai, where 80-100 kids were packed like sardines on a dustbowl. “On the other hand, whenever I would visit the US on work, I would see large fields with no one to play. In our country, children have the aspiration but not the infrastructure,” he says. Once, the kids’ team had rented a field at the SSN College of Engineering, founded by HCL Chairperson Shiv Nadar, to play a match, and “the joy they had in running around on a proper field” was unmatched, says Mathrubootham. “Somewhere, I have to thank Shiv Nadar for the inspiration,” he says with a smile.
In 2018, Mathrubootham set up a public trust to back FC Madras, formerly the Mahogany Football Club, run by corporate executives Arindam Biswas and Joseph Vaz since 2006. The club got a plot in Thoraipakkam, on the outskirts of Chennai, installed a professional turf and rented a small hostel nearby to put the kids up. In the 2018-19 season, the club’s U-13 and U-15 teams became the Chennai Zone champions of their respective I-League junior divisions.
When Covid struck, FC Madras’ playing and hostel facilities had to be shuttered down, and the boys had to be sent home. “In those two years, we ideated profusely, led by Girish’s vision,” says Dhananjai. “The concept was thrashed out fully even before one brick was laid.” In May 2021, the Mahabalipuram plot was bought and in two years the facility stands ready to be used.
“Grassroots is the most important tier of sport, especially in football, where we are far away from the world stage. We have to create a world-class ecosystem at that level that is conducive to excellence. That is what Girish has done,” says Viren Rasquinha, former India hockey captain and the managing director and CEO of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a not-for-profit programme that supports India’s Olympic athletes, who visited the facilities in Mahabalipuram during its launch.
For Mathrubootham, also a founder-partner of the Together Fund, a founder-first venture capital fund, building FC Madras from ground up is akin to setting up Freshworks, albeit with a bit more legroom. “When I was building Freshworks I didn't have the resources that I have now. But I am a big believer in constrained creativity and we used it to build the company brick by brick,” he says. “FC Madras is a much more fortunate startup compared to Freshworks, because it has more resources. Sometimes, it makes me worried, because it also means we have to get things right from Day 1.” Also read: Football in India: What will it take to put the spotlight on players?
Building Freshworks has also given Mathrubootham key insights into the mechanism of scaling up: To invest in the right people and the right infrastructure. “You have to learn from the best in the world and also compete with the best in the world,” he says. “World-class from Madras was what we demonstrated with Freshworks, and with those principles we went on to say how does world-class look like for FC Madras?”
During the two years of the Covid-induced hiatus, Mathrubootham and his team scoured the internet to find out who has built the best academies, what should a gym look like in a football facility, what are the right specs for a field, what does a hybrid turf look like, what have you. FC Madras’ locker room, for instance, has been fashioned after the facilities of Southampton FC in England, its gym holds more cycles than treadmills (since that’s where footballers warm up), while the tech focus of the venue—that includes the Pixellot AI camera for detailed video analysis of a game—has been inspired by Mathrubootham’s meeting with Niyas Abdulrahiman, the chief technology officer of the Fifa World Cup in Qatar.
Along with the infrastructure, the entrepreneur has also brought in pedigreed administrators including the likes of Dhananjai, former India captain Abhishek Yadav as the CEO, Venkatesh Shanmugan, another former captain and former head coach of the U-20 team, as the technical director and management scholar CN Narayana as the director of education and life skills.
Life skills, explains Dhananjai, are crucial and comprise aspects like speaking to the media, handling social media, explaining anti-doping, spoken English etc. that are outside the ambit of a mainstream curriculum but key to building up a rounded personality for a modern-day sportsperson. “Essentially, we are looking at the right combination of skills,” says Dhananjai. “If you have eleven Sachin Tendulkars your team will fail for sure. You need the right combination.”
“It’s one thing to build the brick-and-mortar structure, but equally, if not more important, are the softer parts, like investing in the right coaches, investing in the right sports administrators,” says OGQ’s Rasquinha. “Girish has hired some of the best people in Indian football and sports administration, and also taken care of the kids’ education. This will be one of the best football academies in the country.”Also read: Unparalleled passion: What makes Northeast India the talent factory of football
Having a trusted team in place also enables Mathrubootham to lay off daily operations, with a catch-up call every Sunday, especially since he’s based at the Freshworks headquarters in San Mateo, California, with only quarterly visits to Chennai. But he invests enough mindspace to leave his imprint. Dhananjai recalls how the WhatsApp group wouldn’t stop pinging the day the areas of the facilities were being christened in keeping with the squirrel theme that the club derives from its logo.
“Usually, football clubs pick an animal or a place that represents the local city or town,” says Mathrubootham. “The squirrel represents the youth, they are incredibly agile, can turn 180 degrees, and have peripheral vision, attributes crucial for footballers, and the Indian palm squirrel is abundantly found in the southern states.” Then, a few weeks ago, when the signages for the ground were being finalised, he asked ChatGPT to throw up squirrel-themed names that yielded Scamper Park (for the main hybrid turf), Drey Hall (for the hostel), Acorn Cafe (for the cafeteria), In a Nutshell (for the building that houses the gym, rehab centre etc.), Almond Learning Centre and chestnut, walnut, pine nut and hazelnut for the classrooms.
Mathrubootham acknowledges that FC Madras needs to traverse at least a decade before it can nurture a player to the national level. In the short term, he wants to improve player capability every year, giving each team a minimum of 40 competitive games and help them work their way up to the top tier ISL one day. “The setting up of the academy is the end of the journey for the architects, but, for us, the journey has only begun.”