Hercules CEO on Chennai City deal: ‘In India for the long term’

"In terms of the sporting side of the deal, I guess it is a great opportunity and challenge for budding football players to know that you have a partner club that could be the gateway to Europe," says JS Hercules CEO Christian Happel.

"The deal isn’t just about sports," says Christian Happel.

I-League club Chennai City FC signed a long-term agreement with Finnish club JS Hercules on Thursday. The path-breaking deal will see both the clubs co-operate in boosting business, trade and exchange of knowledge between the countries.

Read: Finnish football club opens branch in India and ties up with Chennai City FC

Speaking exclusively to Sportstar, JS Hercules CEO Christian Happel explained his club’s new deal, which he believes is ‘larger than football.’

Excerpts:

Question: What has brought a club like Hercules to India and how did you identify Chennai City as the right partner?

Answer: I, personally, have been looking at India very closely for quite some time. Even when I was at my former club in Germany I was interested in a partnership with an Indian club but it did not work out. A friend got me in contact with Rohit Ramesh (team owner of Chennai City FC) and that’s how we started the conversations. I told him what our club was all about and how it would be an interesting case to tie up. We had several phone calls and chats, and finally met up in London last week to seal the deal.

What is so attractive about Indian football that is prompting many European cubs to open shop in the country?

I guess you can write a book on the potential of India, because it’s that vast. The thing is, it (the tie-up) is not just about football. Needless to say, and, of course, a lot of people have said this before — India is such a big country with so many footballers and it is a massive opportunity. But the deal isn’t just about sports. It is a more holistic approach. Our football clubs share the same attitude in a lot of ways because they are very much community based. Hence football can be a connector between business, sports and societies. And this is like the main thing — it’s not like a short-term plan to just go to India, scout some players, bring the best over here, give them a chance and that’s it. That is not our approach. I think a lot of that has been happening in the past, not just in India, but in general, but we are here for a real partnership.

If Chennai and Hercules can develop along with their communities, then it is for the good of everyone. In terms of the sporting side of the deal, I guess it is a great opportunity and challenge for budding football players to know that you have a partner club that could be the gateway to Europe.

There is a buzz in the football world that Asia is the next biggest market, especially after the advent of the Chinese Premier League. Was that a major attraction in the deal?

People have been saying that for quite some time now. Of course, now with China and the money going into the league, they are at one stage going to play in the World Cup. It’s very much of a state affair there. But that’s not our agenda. It’s not about us saying, “Oh what an interesting market, let us go and make some money.” Don’t get me wrong; it would not be bad if make money. But all I’m trying to say is that this partnership is not just about development on the sporting side. It’s an opportunity for people of Tamil Nadu to come over here and join our business network. Help exchange of knowledge. This is what will help both clubs to grow. And we want everyone to benefit from it — on the social side, on the business side, and of course the sporting side. It was not just about, “oh yeah, we will have a team in the Asian/Indian market and get filthy rich.” I would be happy if we make money out of it, but the goal is much larger.

I think that is why the approach we have is slightly different. We are not a big Premier League or a Bundesliga club. It’s not like we go into the market and sell our merchandise there; have a friendly match, be there for a few days and move back. Chennai football will not gain anything from such a deal. This is an opportunity to build a larger tie. In Oulu (where the club is based), there are top businesses, entrepreneurs and companies. So if we can help them, through our partnership in India, to grow in that market then everyone is benefiting from it. And the money will go into football which will help the players.

So it’s really like a circle. We are not looking for a short-term partnership. There are a lot of business opportunities in this deal and I want to get as many stakeholders as possible in this. It is not a short term project where we go to Asia, open up an office and make a lot of money. I don’t believe in it. I don’t think it will work. I don’t think it should work. You need to have a genuine interest in the area and we have that. Rohit Ramesh has a fantastic attitude and a great vision for the club and we quickly realised we are on the same wavelength.

Could you share some of the tie-up details? Is a football academy in the pipeline?

It’s a co-operation agreement which will see the clubs partner in sports, business and social information sharing. Our projects will hinge around these three factors. Football is a great connector because of its ability to connect people. I’m hoping to bring business delegations to Chennai and vice versa to improve the business.

We will also be sending scouts to see the Chennai players and bring them here. But it should be in a way that the players are comfortable with the shift here. And very importantly, a partnership is a give and take relationship. It should not be about the Europeans coming and telling the Indians how to do things. That is a very arrogant approach. We want an exchange of information and learn from each other. We have to think from project to project. It’s not like we have a rigid plan — an academy in three months, this in nine months and that in 12. We have to see and understand what the right areas — where we can co-operate — are.

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