Corporates in Indian Football – II

In our last edition we have seen how two big office clubs in Indian football like JCT and Mahindra United are coming to a premature death due to lack of financial support. In this edition we are going to discuss a few more instances of corporate involvements in Indian football.

East Bengal v/s Mohun Bagan

This season will witness some mouth-watering clashes in Indian domestic football. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, 2 archrivals from Kolkata, the Mecca of Indian football, with 2 Englishmen at the helm of things, will lock horns at the Salt Lake Stadium. The stadium has an average crowd expectancy of around 100,000 spectators – at 120,000 capacity, it is the world’s second largest football stadium. Just a small trivia – their main sponsor is the same company, United Breweries (UB Group), with an estimated annual cash injection of $1.5 million for each club. While this is unique in Indian football, there are a few such instances in other parts of the world, viz. Rangers and Celtic in Scotland (common shirt sponsor is Scottish brewing firm Tennent’s), Sheffield United and Sheffield Wednesday in English Championships (co-sponsored by Gilders, a Yorkshire Volkswagen dealership and Westfield Health, a not-for-profit provider of health insurance), Simba and Yanga in Tanzania (sponsored by Tanzania Breweries Limited) and so on.

Salt Lake Stadium, Kolkata, India

Foreign Invasion

Orange Sports Forum (OSF), a Dutch company, is taking a keen interest in Indian football. They are providing the technical know-how to the AIFF at a grass root level. It will be for the betterment of Indian football if they share their superior football knowledge with us and not just have this exercise to capture the growing craze for the game in a country with close to 2.5 billion eyeballs. But at least on paper, the plan seems quite encouraging. A group of sporting directors is going to prepare a report on the grass root level development of the game in the country in an effort to bridge the gap between teams across different age-group levels. OSF is understood to have done a thorough study on the culture of football and the (lack of) infrastructure in India. Travelling across the country, especially to places where the game is keenly followed, will help the team to understand the Indian psyche and then mould their solutions accordingly.

Clearly, OSF feels that these investments would bring in rich rewards if the potential of the huge Indian market can be capitalized to the fullest. However, if OSF’s venture goes according to plan, it will be a double bonanza for the Indian football. Not only is OSF going to inject some much needed liquidity into the game, but can also pave the way for legends like Guss Hiddink to come here and provide valuable insight regarding development at the grass root level.

At the International Football Arena (IFA) roundtable last year, industry stalwarts, club representatives and football experts had a discussion on how to take Indian football to the next level. Alberto Colaco – All India Football Federation (AIFF) General Secretary, emphasised on becoming one of the top 10 teams in Asia. Addressing the roundtable conference, Ben Wells, Head of Marketing – Chelsea FC, repeated the sentiment that Chelsea is closely observing the Indian market and is scouting for compatible corporate partners. They realize that playing the odd match here and there would not allow them to capture the vast potential of this untapped market. Rather they want to enter the Indian market with grass root level engagement to get over 2 billion eyeballs. The signs are clear that Indian football market has captured global attention; it is now up to the AIFF to craft a mechanism to help both foreign and Indian clubs to improve training facilities and create a healthy infrastructure.

Also, there is a pertinent issue which remains unattended till date – how to increase awareness level across India in order to make football viable for investments, merchandising and international partnering. FIFA is also finding it difficult to dodge the bureaucracy prevailing in Indian system. Investments to the tune of $8 million were made way back in 2008 mainly to build artificial football turfs in Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Imphal and Shillong. The scheduled deadline was December, 2011 but the project is only half-way through.

Strangely enough, two giant Asian superpowers – China and India – have not done enough in football at international level. Their mindsets are quite similar – bring in corporate houses to gather funds for foreign coaches and support staff rather than investing in home grown talents. While short term commercial gains will not facilitate Indian football, the country needs to explore and polish young talents. As Marcel Schmid, Founder & Chairman – International Football Arena has rightly pointed out:

“To create the right product, India needs the infusion of good professionalism, sponsorship, investment and above all infrastructure. And for good infrastructure, the public – private partnership is necessary.”

PLS – a gimmick?

At present, the I-League is the top division in India featuring 14 teams playing on home-and-away basis during a six month season – December to May, with the champion going on to participate in the Asian Football Confederation’s Champions League. But this top flight is set to have a new competitor in January 2012. Enter the Premier League Soccer (PLS)!!!

This new brand is the brain child of The Indian Football Association (IFA), governing body of football in Bengal. Conceptualized in the lines of the franchise system, the inaugural season will be contested by six clubs from Kolkata, Howrah, Barasat, Asansol, Midnapore and Siliguri – various districts from Bengal – the heart throb of Indian football from the time of its inception. Each franchiser, with a minimum net worth of $22,000, will be able to participate in the bidding to own a team. They will have to take up the added responsibility of looking after the development of infrastructure in their respective zones. The league will be played from January to March in an attempt to take away the fans from the existing I-league and hone the enthusiasm of soccer fans in West Bengal and the entire country. The discriminating factors from I-league will be money, talent search and most importantly an eye to build a new soccer infrastructure.

PLS Venues

One of the biggest and possibly most intriguing aspects of the new league is regarding the players who are going to feature in it and how they are going to be allocated to different teams. First of all, the league doesn’t intend to rope in India’s top players – they will be plying their trade in the I-league meanwhile – at least not at the moment. Instead, PLS will look to develop talent and most significantly bring in professionals who are past their prime like Denilson, Junichi Inamoto, Edgar Davids et al. It is quite evident that the focus is on ageing international stars to catch the imagination of soccer enthusiasts in the country. Bringing in players in their late-30s to early-40s may not be a sound idea – what motivation would they have apart from pocketing a handsome kitty?

However, this is not the most fascinating feature of the league. The most concerning fact is the system of yearly allotment of players, taking cues from the country’s #1 sport, cricket, and the world’s wealthiest cricket league – the Indian Premiere League (IPL). At the start of each season, each player will be placed in a pool and auctioned off to the highest bidding team. No player will be contracted to a team for more than one season and will have to change his shirt if another team bids the right amount of money in the next year’s auction. It begs the question whether any team create a loyal fan base with none of its players turning up season after season on a consistent basis?

Sunil Chhetri and other top players will not be seen in the PLS

All the matches are scheduled to be played under floodlights and the league will work on a home-and-away structure. The television rights have been bought by a popular local news channel. Addressing the concern over poor state of infrastructure at the venues, Mr. Utpal Kumar Ganguli, the IFA General Secretary said:

 “The onus will be on each franchisee to make their stadium up to the mark. They will have to install temporary lights for evening matches and also make adequate renovations in the dressing rooms, VIP boxes and media rooms.”

Is it not asking for too much from an investor? It is like asking them to buy a barren land, provide them with no support and hope that they will build a township in no time!

However, there are positive aspects too. While each team can include one marquee player – an international star – and three quality overseas players including one overseas player of Asian origin (like Korea’s K-League) in the 25 member squad; a minimum of 5 catchment players, a minimum  of 6 players of under 21 years and a maximum of 10 players from across India must also be recruited. Also to facilitate the development of the game and individual players, only overseas managers, with FIFA/UEFA licenses will be recruited, as of now. All these rules suggest that the intentions are there to hone quality home grown players. But the question remains, will it be able to stand the test of time and draw enough enthusiasm 10 years down the line? If it can, no doubt, Indian football will take a giant step in the next decade.


Debojyoti Chakraborty is a hardcore Manchester United & East Bengal fan. You can reach him at

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