Football tie-ups with big clubs of Europe yielding little

The involvement of Europe’s big clubs in Indian football seems to be driven primarily by commerce, if experts are to be believed.

Atletico Madrid ended its association with Atletico de Kolkata (in picture, celebrating ISL title win) due to disagreements over youth development.   -  H. Vibhu

‘Tied up in knots’ could be an apt summation of the plethora of tie-ups that Indian football has witnessed with top European clubs in recent years, partnerships that seemed to be driven primarily by commerce, if experts are to be believed.

Notwithstanding the involvement of the biggest names in club football - FC Barcelona, Paris Saint Germain, Arsenal and Liverpool, among others - these tie-ups, most of them technical, have failed to inspire confidence as far as development of the sport in the country is concerned.

Recently, Spanish club Atletico Madrid ended its association with Indian Super League (ISL) franchise Atletico de Kolkata due to disagreements over youth development. “These are all commercial ventures and has little impact on football development,” says Shaji Prabhakaran, former FIFA regional development officer for South and Central Asia.

‘Branding exercise’

Prabhakaran has been involved with the sport for more than two decades and had worked at the All India Football Federation and Asian Football Confederations (AFC) before being appointed regional development officer of FIFA. He added, “It’s basically for elite people who can afford. Many of the country’s promising talent, living in abject poverty in the deep interiors of the country, don’t even know of such projects and will never be able to afford them. It’s basically a branding exercise.”

Despite the flurry of activities in recent years, including gaining hosting rights for the upcoming FIFA U-17 World Cup and the advent of the ISL, an Indian team in the World Cup still remains a far-fetched dream. Realising the enthusiasm for the sport among Indian teenagers, Europe’s biggest clubs have associated themselves with some leading schools in the country and set up training schools with private partners.

As part of a tie-up with DSK Shivajians, Liverpool FC set up a residential football coaching academy to develop players up to the age of 18. Another English Premier League giant, Arsenal FC, has opened Arsenal Soccer Schools across the country. “See, these tie-ups have their pros and cons. Football development is one area where we need technical support from them. We get very strong curriculum from them and coaches come and deliver these curriculum,” says Vivek Sethia, founder and CEO, India On Track -Arsenal Soccer Schools.

‘Huge gap’

But they are not able to leverage it well because of the “gap in talent,” which is big. “The gap is so huge, it becomes a huge challenge. But the positive thing is there is an exchange programme, like sending students there and getting experts from there,” he adds.

Sethia agrees that it’s a commercial partnership. “It’s a commercial partnership from our perspective but the fee is minimum, because they (European clubs) also look at burgeoning Indian market. Most of the clubs are okay as they can generate revenue from the commercial Indian market, talent is not the first priority right now. We are trying very hard to become relevant from the talent perspective. We run both commercial and non-commercial programs and also have scholarships programmes that are talent-based. The onus is on us; we don’t have a footballing ecosystem and that is the biggest problem.”

Neel Shah, CEO of DSK Shivajians, which has a partnership with English Premier League club Liverpool FC, feels the real test of any technical partnership is to see “how the programme is running” once the novelty factor wears off. “My first recommendation for any group exploring a technical partnership with a top European club is to ensure both parties, the international club and the foreign partner, are clear on the short and long-term objectives and expectations of the project.”

Shah adds, “My second recommendation is that the local partner ensures their senior Indian coaches buy into the idea of the technical partnership and their inputs on the deliverables are taken into account before finalising the agreement. Finally, it is critical to get the right person from the international club to come over to head the project. It is absolutely vital to have someone with solid character who can comfortably handle challenges and serve as a mentor for the local coaches.”

Rajesh Mehrotra, director of PSG academy in India, emphasises on the three Cs - coach, culture and curriculum - in “no particular order.” According to him, India is still a long way off from having a good grassroots curriculum like developed football nations.