Shooting straight

Gaurav Modwel… ““The ISL is bigger, better and more popular.”-

Gaurav Modwel, the CEO of FC Pune, dreams of assembling a ‘Galacticos’ star cast in the western Indian city. He also has a practical viewpoint on the commercial viability of the ISL.

The team principals in the inaugural Indian Super League are quite reclusive, rarely speaking to the media or sharing their ideas with them. Gaurav Modwel, the CEO of FC Pune City, however, is a little different. He dreams of assembling a ‘Galacticos’ star cast in the western Indian city and nurtures a practical viewpoint on the commercial viability of the ISL.

“We will be the Galacticos. This year, we didn’t know what to expect; we didn’t know who to sign or who not to sign. In football, more than big names you need a balanced side,” he says. “Next year, we will have players of a certain stature. It won’t be Galacticos in that (Real Madrid) sense, as I don’t plan to sign Juan Mata. But we will have 10-12 players of similar nature, of similar stature.”

A strong proponent of merging the ISL and the I-League, Modwel says: “The ISL is bigger, better and more popular. You look at the J-League, MLS or the Australian League — the new league replaced the old system. We have to converge. Some of the I-League clubs have committed a lot, but the number of clubs there is shrinking. There has to be a formula whereby the I-League can be the second division and some of the clubs from the I-League, which have the commercial and professional capacity, can move up and be part of the ISL, which can then have a regulation (promotion) mechanism. The Indian players will love to have a situation like that. And, as a football fan, I think, that will be an ideal solution.”

He, however, agrees that a longer League will need bigger financial commitment from the franchisee owners. “The window has to be right, where we can spread 14 teams over eight months. In the short term there will be a commercial disadvantage, but it can be more than made up,” Modwel says. “There is going to be a proper valuation if it’s a longer League. The standard of foreign players will also see a dramatic change.”

Goal-line technology

The International Football Association’s goal-line technology has been a successful experiment, with the players and referees lauding the foolproof system. The ISL organisers, however, have not implemented this technology, and Atletico de Kolkata had to forego a point because of its unavailability.

The Kolkata side, trailing 1-2 to Kerala Blasters in Kochi, saw its marquee signing Luis Garcia’s volley hit the bar and bounce inside during the stoppage time of the second half. However, the Uzbek referee, Ravshan Irmatov, and his assistants failed to see it. Kolkata has lodged an appeal with the All India Football Federation, but the ISL organisers are in no hurry to introduce the goal-line technology this season.

Referees benefit as well

While there has been much focus on the growth and development of Indian footballers in the ISL, it has been an enriching experience for some of the home-based referees as well.

As the quality of football has risen, there has been a need to raise the level of refereeing standards too. There have been a few obvious mistakes, most notably the decision to disallow Luis Garcia’s ‘goal’ for Atletico de Kolkata against Kerala Blasters, even though the ball had crossed the line. However, the general standard of refereeing has witnessed some improvement.

Speaking about the support provided to referees within the competition, match official Arun Pillai says: “In my eight years of experience, this is the first time that I have witnessed the organisers giving international level training to the referees. The ISL has given all of us a platform to undergo the anticipatory and simulation training, which is conducted by the AIFF and senior instructors.”

Pillai was in New Delhi recently with 21 other referees for a ceremony organised by the official referee sponsor of the league, The Muthoot Group.

Sri Lanka’s Dilan Perera was in attendance as well. He has worked as a referee for 18 years and features in the shortlist of officials for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The Sri Lankan had some kind words to say about the ISL.

“The ISL has been one of the best tournaments at the Asian level. The crowd has been overwhelming and I feel it marks the beginning for India to reach a higher level globally. I wish more such tournaments like this should be played in India.”

Changing the game

The moniker ‘Mecca of Football’ has been so deeply ingrained into the psyche of the general football lovers of Kolkata, that the clubs in the city have been so full of self-importance. The people running the century-old clubs such as Mohun Bagan, Mohammedan Sporting and East Bengal have taken their legion of supporters for granted and have hardly cared for their hopes and aspirations. This sort of amateurish set-up has reigned for well over a century ever since the colonial rulers introduced the sport in the erstwhile capital of India. (The Bengali ‘babus’ learnt the game quickly and bested the British rulers to win the prestigious IFA Shield in 1911, the year that defined the glory of Indian football.)

However, the arrival of cable TV network in the early 1990s ushered in some changes, as exclusive sports channels brought the essence of world football into the drawing rooms of the football fans. The need to professionalise the game in the city (read country) arose then. However, the first real step in this direction came only decades later with the advent of the ISL, which forced the corporatisation of the sport. With it came the corporate social responsibility and the need to connect with the community.

Atletico de Kolkata launched a slew of initiatives to reach out to the football fans of the city. The team’s latest initiative was the adoption of the young trainees of the ‘Durbar’ Sports Academy, which essentially works for the rehabilitation of the children of sex workers in the city. Sourav Ganguly, the former India cricket captain and the prime motivator of the consortium owning the city-based franchise, has repeatedly stressed on the need to have a good grassroots programme and a good academy for development of the players and the sport.

Ayon Sengupta, Priyansh & Amitabha Das Sharma