Seeking to improve the football ecosystem in the country

“We feel the ISL is a good initiative started by the AIFF and IMG-Reliance, and we wanted to get on board. It connects well with the Tatas getting into sports, connects well with the Tatas being in football, connects with Jamshedpur being the home stadium. Probably we are the only team in the tournament with our own stadium and an infrastructure that is the best in Indian football,” says Sunil Bhaskaran, vice-president (Corporate Services), Tata Steel.

Sunil Bhaskaran... “The Tata Group has decided that football is the sport we want to get in and Tata Steel is just anchoring the decision.”

The criticisms so often levelled against the flamboyant Indian Super League franchises are that they exist primarily in the corporate boardrooms and hardly conform to the structure that defines successful football clubs across the world. The Jamshedpur Football Club wants to change this perceived notion. The new ISL franchise has years of experience in working at grass-roots level and building its own infrastructure in Jamshedpur over the last three decades.

Sunil Bhaskaran, vice-president (Corporate Services), Tata Steel, talks of the values and beliefs that prompted the Tata Group to step into competitive football. Speaking to Sportstar, he says that after having produced more than 150 players, who played for the country after graduating from the Tata Football Academy (TFA), the Tata Group now looks to further develop the ecosystem of the sport by presenting the right platform for professional excellence.

Question: The name Tata has been involved with the development of sports for decades. What made you join the ISL?

Answer: The decision was made by the Tata Group, and what better place to implement it than Jamshedpur. The Tata Group has decided that football is the sport we want to get in and Tata Steel is just anchoring the decision. There are two points to note here. First is the history and the connect between Tata Steel and football. Over 30 years ago, we set up the Tata Football Academy with the idea of providing the best of technical expertise to help Indian talent grow in tune with the best of modern football. That was 1987, and we did not think of creating any downstream, as our objective primarily was to help Indian football with the infusion of talent.

Statistics show that out of the 200-odd football players passing out of the academy, around 150 have represented the country with many of the names captaining the national side. I do not think there is any other ‘cradle of football’ that can boast of such excellence. That is one, while the other is the Super Soccer in the mid-1980s when Tata Steel tried to bring the best of international clubs to India. The idea was to bring the best of football to the Indian audiences, and also make them (international clubs) play with the Indian team. Our connection mainly has been with grass-roots football, but now our efforts are to take the overall ecosystem of the sport to a higher level.

How does the ISL fit into your objective?

We feel the ISL is a good initiative started by the AIFF and IMG-Reliance, and we wanted to get on board. As I said, it connects well with the Tatas getting into sports, connects well with the Tatas being in football, connects with Jamshedpur being the home stadium. Probably we are the only team in the tournament with our own stadium and an infrastructure that is the best in Indian football.

We have seen the impact the League can make in taking the overall ecosystem of football to a higher level. If the ecosystem moves up, there is a pull created at the grass-roots level, giving the new generation of footballers more commercial reason to get into the sport.

There must be a compelling reason that has brought the Tatas into competitive football — something from which it has stayed away for quite some time.

Yes, we feel that we can make a difference in football, a sport that is very popular in India. We feel the ISL is a concerted move to take football to another level in terms of professionalism. We feel the League has been planned, structured and directed towards all good things in Indian football, so we thought of being a part of this. I am sure this will also lead to the development of grass-roots football and help in bringing some good sport to the Indian fans.

Was it only the promise of a high level of professionalism that prompted you to choose the ISL over the I-League?

Let me put it this way: we have been concentrating on getting into formal league for the last two-three years. But we did not progress to the next level because of the churn in Indian football that started with the ISL. As we were not sure how things will pan out after the churning, we stepped back to see how things would develop. Now it appears that among the available options, the ISL is the bigger league and we decided to be a part of that.

Tata Steel unveils the Jamshedpur FC team logo. From left: Koushik Chatterjee, Group Executive Director (Finance, Corporate and Europe), Tata Steel, Steve Coppell, head coach, Jamshedpur FC, Sunil Bhaskaran, vice-president (Corporate Services), Tata Steel and Tata Football Academy chairman, and Jamshedpur FC player, Subrato Paul.

Now that the Tatas have a team in the ISL, will it lead to a growth in the size and stature of the Tata Football Academy?

We will surely revamp the TFA in the coming days. This is our first year in the ISL, and we are focused more on the franchise and are yet to finalise a long-term strategy for our team. It is very clear that we will have the TFA as the main supplier of talent to the team in future. Going forward, we will develop young players in the TFA who will form the input talent for Jamshedpur FC. We are definitely in a position to say that like the European clubs, which gain a substantial amount of inputs from their own academies, Jamshedpur FC will have the TFA playing a big role. Apart from that, the TFA will be gaining a lot as the home team will be practising in its facility where the cadets will get a chance to spar with the top Indian and international players. This definitely will increase the profile of the TFA.

Are you looking to replicate the success of the TFA in hockey too?

We have tied up with the Tata Trusts and are in the final stages of setting up the Naval Tata Hockey Academy. I was shocked to hear that Holland has over 1000 Astroturfs, while India has barely 30, and out of these, only a few are actually functional. We have got one of the best set-ups in the country that has come up in Jamshedpur, and we have identified 26 kids from the grass-roots programme that the Tata Trusts has been running for over a year in Khunti, near Ranchi. We have tied up with Floris Bovelander, the Dutch icon, and his hockey academy and also have former India captain Sandeep Singh as a consultant. As we speak, the first batch of the hockey academy has already started training. We hope to see some bright world-class talent coming out by 2020 or 2021.

By joining the ISL have you fulfilled a long-standing demand of Jamshedpur, which has primarily remained outside the map of any major sporting activity despite having three of the country’s best academies?

We certainly did, but Jamshedpur has a long sporting history. There was a time when the Keenan Stadium here was a hallowed venue when it came to cricket stadiums in Eastern India. The city was well represented in various sports at the national level, but with time its stature seems to have diminished a bit. Despite being one of the big industrial centres of the country, Jamshedpur has not been able to capture that vibrancy in sport. But with the Tatas joining the ISL, I feel Jamshedpur will regain the prominence it once enjoyed as a sports venue. I am sure the ISL is going to appeal to the youth here, and considering the popularity of football, our team is going to have a huge fan base.

The cadets are put through their paces at the Tata Football Academy.

 

How are you going to reach out to your fans and make the ISL a special experience for your team?

We will be using all the available platforms to reach out to our fans. We will be marketing the city of Jamshedpur and the Tatas and we will market our brand of football. The whole connect will be with the various segments of the Indian public and we will reach out to them using the relevant media vehicles. We want to be in the right part of the social media, and for that we will reach out to our group partner, Tata Consultancy Services, which has done some great work on digital platform in the New York marathon. It has done some path-breaking work on the spectator experience in some of the football leagues in Europe. We are exploring how we can use some of the hi-tech digital stuff to create that atmosphere for our supporters in Jamshedpur. We would like to believe that we will be able to provide the best hi-tech digital experience to Indian football fans, as we will have the entire Tata ecosystem backing our efforts.