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A leg-up for Indian football

As a player, Raman Vijayan spent close to a dozen years in the National Football League, turning out for clubs all over the country. His career in the top tier of Indian football included stints at East Bengal, Dempo SC, Mohammedan Sporting, Mahindra United, and FC Kochi, not to forget his 30 appearances for the national team. He took up coaching after retirement, finding success fairly quickly in Bengaluru’s local leagues. Raman’s words thus have merit when, as an assistant coach with the Indian Super League (ISL) side Delhi Dynamos, he notes how different things are now. “Everything is so scientifically done,” he says. “This is how it should be. The programmes for fitness and recovery are so elaborate and detailed. Having swimming pool sessions at the team hotel, being in the sauna and the gym at a particular time — everything is monitored. If training is at 5, the players assemble at 4:45. There’s no need to follow up with anyone. Everyone knows his job. That’s one of the biggest things for me. It is all fully professional.”

Whatever its flaws may be, it cannot be denied that the ISL has exposed Indian football to a level of professionalism that it had not consistently seen before. The organisational structure of the clubs, the training methods, player facilities, marketing — every aspect of the ISL aspires to match industry standards elsewhere in the world.

“All these ideas existed in our time as well,” says Raman, “but they were not strictly implemented. If you look at the I-League (India’s primary football league competition) now, teams do their pre-season training at home. Whatever facilities you have — you don’t bother. In the ISL, almost all the teams have gone abroad and trained. The facilities and the standard of practice matches are completely different. That has helped the players a great deal.”

A professional setup

Gaurav Modwel is the Chief Executive Officer of FC Pune City. Clubs in the ISL, he points out, are run no differently from corporate organisations. “We see ourselves following the best international practices in all regards,” he says. “It is an absolutely professional setup – with clear plans and budgets. It’s important to run the club that way. The players and coaches are very happy. There are shortcomings in that we still don’t have the kind of infrastructure that a 100-year-old European club may have. But we will get there slowly.”

Rehabilitation, injury prevention, and fitness have been the most important areas of focus for teams.

Niall Clark, FC Pune City’s ‘sports scientist’, has previously worked with English clubs West Ham and Manchester City. The club’s physiotherapist, Matt Radcliffe, was working with Manchester United until last season. “We have invested a lot,” Modwel says. “We are right up there.”

The midfielder Harmanjot Khabra was one of Chennaiyin FC’s best players in the inaugural season of the ISL. The 26-year-old, who has played in the I-League for close to a decade now, appreciates the impact the ISL has had on him. “The recovery requirements that we have immediately after the match — everything is as per schedule,” he says. “It’s very important and we are not getting that when we are playing on the domestic circuit. But as a professional, I always try to do that by myself. That really changes things.”

On returning to his I-League club, East Bengal, after the first season of the ISL, Khabra found that players were implementing what they had learnt. “During the I-League, I noticed that everybody knew what he had to do: a pre-game meal, a post-game meal, match-day recovery.”

Khabra also feels that he is an improved player, in terms of both technical and athletic ability. “I tried to work on what they taught me. I’m more comfortable with the ball under pressure; (I seek) to keep it and think instead of running.”

Bengaluru FC is an honourable exception, but most teams in the I-League do not attach anywhere near the same importance to fitness and recovery as those in the ISL. Perhaps, quite simply, it is a question of money. With vastly bigger budgets, ISL clubs are able to afford the sort of players, staff, facilities and equipment that football in the country had largely not been used to before. Teams, though, need to have their priorities right. “All the teams have realised, especially after year one, that it’s okay if you spend extra on fitness and injury prevention and cut costs elsewhere,” says Indranil Das Blah, CEO of Mumbai City FC. “Because you need the players fit. It’s a short season but a tremendously gruelling season. Even the international players have not played a schedule like this. The physiotherapists, masseurs, and doctors that all the clubs have brought in are those you’d find in any leading club in Europe. Teams have realised that you don’t cut corners in terms of getting players and your staff. Every player we had last year wanted to come back and play with us. That just gives you an indication as to how they were looked after.”

Point of inflection

Fan engagement and marketing too have become a thoroughly serious business: clubs are active on social media, match tickets can be purchased online, and merchandising is steadily gaining importance (earlier this month, the first new lot of 250 FC Goa jerseys was reportedly sold out inside 30 minutes in Panaji). When the competition was conceived, the ISL was clear that clubs had to be run in a professional manner. “A lot of initial thought and structuring — marketing, ticketing, hospitality, fan engagement — was first shared by the ISL,” Blah reveals. “Then it was up to the franchisees to take it forward.”

The ISL may only be a two-month-long competition but, as Khabra points out, participating Indian players could enjoy lasting benefits. The ISL’s stakeholders are convinced that its impact on Indian football, in the long term, can only be positive.

“The ISL is a point of inflection,” says Modwel. “If we continue this way for a few more years, football will never be the same in India again.”

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 1:12:23 AM |

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