Abhishek Bachchan: The world knows about the ISL now

Being the owner of ProKabaddi team Jaipur Pink Panthers and the co-owner of Indian Super League side Chennaiyin FC, Bachchan Jr. wants to do all he can to improve the condition of sport in the country.

The Chennaiyin FC co-owner, Abhishek Bachchan, says that after two seasons of ISL, everyone is fully aware that India is a football nation. The Bollywood star is in Chennai for his ProKabaddi team Jaipur Pink Panthers' pre-season programme.   -  Shaju John

Abhishek Bachchan's enthusiasm for sports is now a well-known fact in India and he has put that passion to good use. Being the owner of ProKabaddi team Jaipur Pink Panthers and the co-owner of Indian Super League side Chennaiyin FC, Bachchan Jr. wants to do all he can to improve the condition of sport in the country. He spoke to Sportstar about the Panthers' preparations for the upcoming ProKabaddi season and also discussed Chennaiyin FC's pre-season plans.

Excerpts:

Question: What brings you to Chennai?

Answer: The new ProKabaddi season starts on June 25 and I was very keen to have our pre-season outside Jaipur this year. Taking the team out to a new place helps a lot with team bonding and team building. When I took this decision, there was no doubt that it was going to be Chennai, it's become my second home because of Chennaiyin FC. Wherever they go, they get a huge response from kabaddi fans, and Kabaddi is huge in Chennai.

Having two editions of ProKabaddi League in the space of five months, do you think there is a slight overdose of the sport?

No. The great thing about kabaddi is that the tournament lasts for just over a month with matches of 40-minute duration. The previous season in February received tremendous response, and it has been similar in the build-up to the upcoming one. There is a huge demand for kabaddi and I don't think there will be a burnout of any sorts. The players are professionals, so when they are not playing in the ProKabaddi League, they play for their other teams.

Two editions of the ProKabaddi League in a year amount to the same number of days as the Indian Super League (ISL), which goes on for about two months, so it is very similar in terms of duration.

Coming to the ISL, will Marco Materazzi remain the head coach of Chennaiyin FC next season?

We are in an advanced stage of talks with Marco and hopefully, we'll make an announcement very soon.

Having retained Jeje Lalpekhlua and Dhanachandra Singh, what other plans for recruitment do you have?

Right now, we have announced Syed Sabir Pasha as our new Head of the Grassroots Programme and as our new assistant manager. His football knowledge is superb and he knows the area. We knew he would be a big asset for our Grassroots Programme, which is something we pay a lot of attention to. We have been working hard on signing more players, so hopefully we can confirm these soon.

How confident are you in signing more local players?

We would really like someone from the state to represent the team. But I've never given this matter the top priority because in the end, it is Chennai's team. It does not matter where the players are from as long as we put out the most competitive team.

With some of the other ISL clubs already making moves in the transfer market, can we expect a big-name signing soon from Chennaiyin FC?

We are in an advanced stage of talks with a few players, but I don't want to say anything more now until everything is signed, sealed and delivered. We have been working hard in the off-season and we are happy with the way the team is shaping up.

The ISL is two years old now, and how do potential foreign recruits respond when you offer them a chance to play here in India?

Even before the first edition, when I went to sign Marco Materazzi, there was already some kind of awareness about the ISL. After two years, everyone is now fully aware of the League and India as a football nation. The ISL has done a great job of putting the word out on the international platform. Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Nicolas Anelka and Roberto Carlos are all legends of the game and to get them onto a football field here in India is a huge deal.

I am a Chelsea fan but I had goosebumps the first time I saw Robert Pires run out for FC Goa when we played in Goa during the first ISL season. This is the stuff dreams are made of!

It has become easier to get the foreign players to come here because they are fully aware of the ISL and also the quality of football has increased with every game played. They have seen the matches and feel the League is really competitive.

The AIFF has come up with a plan to re-structure Indian football and it's likely to be implemented next season. Do you think the League will lose its star names because of its extended duration?

It could be hard to get football players to sign longer contracts if they are going to be playing for only two or three months. The ideal situation would be to have a League that runs throughout the year because that's the norm in world football. If they are playing throughout the year, it should not be a problem. These are athletes who don't want to waste time and play the year round. It is very difficult to compete with clubs all over the world but the idea should be to improve the League which in time would produce better players and eventually attract the best of talent.

We have no illusions of grandeur that we will sign the best in the world. We are not going to go and sign Messi and Ronaldo next season. We have to work towards it and slowly but surely, we will reap the rewards.

Marco Materazzi said midfielder Harmanjot Khabra has the ability to play in the Italian Serie A and right now, we have only goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu playing abroad. Do you think more Indians are capable of playing in foreign leagues?

Absolutely. I think the talent is there. Look at Jeje, he's on a silver steak right now and we're so proud of him. I believe talent can only take you to a certain level. After that, you need good coaching to take it to the next (level). If you get the opportunity to work with the best of coaches using the best of facilities, your natural talent is going to be polished and you will keep improving.

Chennaiyin FC recently signed five young players from the AIFF Elite Academy who trained with FC Metz in France recently. Will we see them in action next season?

We hope so. Marco has never picked a team for sentimental reasons. He's been very clear that if you are worthy of that pitch, you will play. If you're performing well in training, you will play. If not, even if you are the biggest star, you are not going to get a chance. We will field the strongest team possible.

You have come out and said that the ISL's decision to penalise FC Goa for its involvement in the alleged brawl after the ISL final last season should be respected. But don't you think a 15-point penalty is too harsh?

I would like to refrain from passing any comments on this. The ISL is the governing body and we play under the rules they have put forward and we are expected to abide by these rules. I don't think we should discuss this matter anymore. I am just happy that Chennaiyin won the title last time and we are looking forward to retaining it.

Being a Chelsea fan, what do you expect of the team under Antonio Conte next season?

I expect a lot! He is a disciplinarian, he is a tough task master and a great tactician. I hope he has a good time at the EUROs but it will be exciting at Chelsea next season. The Premier League has Mourinho and Guardiola in Manchester alone and with Conte coming in, it will be an exciting season.

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