Pailan Arrows – A brave experiment in Indian football

Football academies, in joint venture with corporate houses, have come and gone. Through them, talents have bloomed and died a natural death over the years. Yet we don’t give up. Kaushik Saha profiles AIFF’s new baby and hands out a few tips on how the greenhorn can ensure a sustainable model to nurture talent.

Some time back, there was a post in Goalden Times about Corporate and their role in Indian football (Read it here and here).  Corporate honchos with their deep pockets, have significant money to invest  and take the sport forward by developing infrastructure. A case in point is the way Indian cricket has been shaped and made into a global mega money sport.

Several articles have been written on the slow and steady demise of Indian football and I myself have spoken and written about lack of big money and sponsors  and the apathy they have shown to the Beautiful Game. A recent case in point is that of a big Industry house inIndiashutting down its football team. Their MD tweeted that he will make sure the money is used for “promotion of sports”, which then turned out to be sponsoring a cricket league in a neighbouring country.

It is in the backdrop of this that I will write about the experimental baby of Indian football – the AIFF XI which was renamed Indian Arrows, and finally, under the aegis of the Pailan Group called Pailan Arrows. The word “sports talent hunt” can mean many things inIndia, though in the past 30 years it has been associated with cricket mostly, thanks to effort of a few individuals. It has been extended to Olympic sports like boxing, wrestling and badminton, with good results. But in football – it has been sporadic –TataFootballAcademytook more steps backward than it took forward, as most of the “future talent” seemed interested in securing themselves a job with the Tatas than taking up football as profession.

Milan Singh (l) and Holicharan Narzary

In 2010, the then Indian football coach Bob Houghton noticed that most of Under-19 and Under 22 footballers of the national squad were warming the benches in the clubs, while foreigners (mostly big bodied Africans) dominated the scene. The clubs did not have a sense of duty towards their country, in some cases (as shown by recent incidents), not even to their spectators. Their aim was to win tournaments, not develop talent. The few development academies some of these clubs run (one, run by a certain “National Club” in my hometown is a sham of the highest order, where mostly those who can afford the high fees make it), were found to be inadequate. With this in mind, AIFF XI was founded on recommendations of Bob Houghton, the then manager of Indian football team, and AIFF President Praful Patel, with the intention of qualifying for the football world cups in Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022).

They were supposed to have debuted in Tier2 of the Indian National League, but as the aforementioned “Corporate Club” was disbanded, they made it to the top tier. They finished in the bottom 2, but were not relegated as the entire purpose of their existence was to make them keep playing with the top teams.  Sukhwinder Singh, the former (and moderately successful) coach of the national team was the coach initially, but he was sacked after the team’s dismal performance. Finally, after a few experiments, Australian Arthur Papas was made the coach.

Considering they play in the national colours and are sponsored by the Pailan Group fromBengal, the team changed their name and shifted base to Kolkata. This shifting has done a world of good to the team. First, they can play their home matches at theSaltLakestadium, which is one of the better football stadiums in the country. Secondly, they have developed a significant supporter base from the Kolkata crowd who are one of the most passionate followers of the sport in the country.

Will the experiment work?

Let’s analyse it from three perspectives:

(1)    Football Clubs owned by Corporate houses – They fall into three categories themselves – first the Salgaocar-Churchill Brothers- Dempo  type of football clubs – owned by business houses or families which cannot be termed as Corporate houses in the strictest meaning of the term. These organizations are largely family-owned, and it percolates down to the football team as well, whose management, team and coach selection etc depend to an extent upon the whims and fancies of the “families”. But this also has an advantage. Most of the players who play here know they won’t land up jobs with the “families”, hence the set up is more game-oriented where the primary focus is football.

The second type of clubs owned by Corporate houses are Mahindra United – JCT as part of their CSR drive (both not in existence incidentally) – here sports is much more organized, there are teams within the organization which ensure the sports ventures go on unhindered, selection of players and coaches are taken in board meetings and the set up is more professional. But there is also the risk that the Corporate house may feel they no longer want to invest in football, might want to move into Olympic sports or shut the sports division altogether to manage top-lines. Also, the risk remains that footballers may view these as means to land up a job in the organization, and once they get in, lose interest and the hunger to do well in the sport.

The third type of corporate house-fotball club tie-up is in organizations like ONGC and HAL who have sports teams, just like another division in the company. Here, there are a few outsiders, but the core group of players and officials come from inside the organization. Unlike in the first two types, here there are no insecurities as as players already have a job and management of the sports teams is separate. But here youngsters with potential do not find a place unless they are capable enough to be employees of the organization in some capacity, and that leaves out a significant portion of football talent.

Pailan Arrows falls in the second category as far as this classification is concerned, but they are slightly different in the sense that they are backed by AIFF and hence do not face risk of being dissolved. Not falling in category one means they are more professionally managed and not falling in category three means they do not leave out talented but unemployable youngsters. But it is also to be noted that the first category of teams has historically done well – the reason is not difficult to fathom – by keeping interference from the “organization” separate, and having quick decision-makers means there is no red tape as far as taking strong and quick decisions are concerned. Here the AIFF will have to be careful. They should ensure minimum red tape, be professional, streamline management, and bring in the funds.

(2)    Developmental academies owned by Corporates: The Tata Group owned a football academy called Tata Football Academy (TFA) which turned out to be a not-so-successful experiment. They had the right talent spotters who got in good players from across the country and trained them well, and earned the sobriquet of being the “Nursery of Indian football”. However, once the players impressed here, they were netted by the big clubs with the lure of decent money and in the club vs. country debate, the country lost out.

Here AIFF will have to be careful. They have to have a good mentorship team besides the regular coaching team who would counsel the players, keep their focus in tact and instill in them the pride of playing for the country. There will still be a few defections, but the core group of talent can be preserved.

(3)    Developmental academies run professionally: This does not necessarily mean football. Olympic Gold Quest is an organization run by former stars from different sports who identify talent in Olympic sports from a very early age and enroll them, taking care of their education, coaching and other mental and physical well being. This has started to show results with players from Badminton and athletics who have been doing well in various national and international events. The team here is extremely professional, have degrees in sports management, sports medicine etc, and this, besides the good results have ensured good sponsorships as well. Besides OGQ, boxing, wrestling and hockey also have small pockets of good trainers – some former Olympians themselves. They have helped to develop talent in these sports.

AIFF, presided by a former cabinet minister, is not short of sponsor-pulling power. They just have to get the right people in the mix and ensure similar talent spotting and development happens here in football as well. As of now, AIFF is not the most well-managed body. Charges of nepotism, red-tapism and corruption are rampant, and this is indeed a cause for worry.

It has to be kept in mind Pailan Arrows cannot produce overnight results. There will be lucrative offers from bigger clubs or the players might not come from well-to-do families. In their initial years, they will win few, lose a lot more. But the key will be to keep a wise on the young shoulders and create an impact.

Kaushik Saha

About Kaushik Saha

Kaushik Saha works for a stock exchange and follows Indian football. He can be reached @kaushiksaha1982 /