New Delhi: Kushal Das came to the All India Football Federation (AIFF) as its general secretary in 2010. Before that he served as chief financial officer at the International Cricket Council. Das, 57, is an optimist. In the face of marquee clubs choosing to pull out of the national domestic league—I-League—he stays positive by counting the number of new teams that have joined the league. His primary job, he says, is to restructure the league in a way that helps Indian football grow. Focusing on youth and strengthening the sport at the grass-roots level is one key ingredient to overall success.
Das is instrumental in bringing the U-17 World Cup to India (the event will be held later this year) and thinks it can be a game changer for Indian football. Edited excerpts from an interview:
India is hosting the U-17 World Cup later this year. How are the preparations coming along? What do you hope to get out of it?
The preparations are on schedule. A Fifa (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) team came for inspection in October and was satisfied with the progress. They have actually ratified the six venues.
As far as the team’s preparations are concerned, we are sending it for exposure trips abroad. It travelled for more than half of last year. We expect to have a competitive team in the tournament. The standards, as you know, are very high. I have seen it in Chile during the 2015 event. It is amazing to see the level of competition and the talent on the ground. Our endeavour was to prepare a competitive team and we have done it. We will be very happy if the team reaches the second round.
I expect some of these boys to actually play in Europe after the World Cup. And I believe that this is the base for the future senior national team.
Talk us through the development process of this team.
When I came to AIFF in 2010, my primary focus was grass-roots and youth development, something that was missing then because the clubs and the state associations were not focusing enough on that. And that is probably why Indian football never grew. Then it occurred to me that if we got an event like the U-17 World Cup to India, it would give us an opportunity to test our grass-roots development programme. I think this will be a game changer for Indian football.
Coming back to the team, we started scouting for talented players through the AIFF academies. We felt there was need for a foreign coach with experience in dealing with youth teams. We identified and brought in Nicolai Adam, who was with the Azerbaijan U-19 team, in 2015.
We then started sending the team for various tournaments. It played in the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) U-16 in October 2016, the BRICS Cup in Oct-Nov 2016, went on tours of Brazil and then Russia where it just finished playing in a tournament and, in the summer, it will again go to Europe.
How many AIFF academies are there?
We pick the best players from various tournaments and send them to three academies—U-15, U-17 and U-18—and prepare them for tournaments. The academies have 25-30 players each.
The U-17 team lost quite a few matches in Russia and by a good margin. Wouldn’t it be detrimental for the team’s morale?
I don’t think so. You should know that the other teams there were the U-18 teams. It was also very cold there. So the first game our boys got hammered. The second game against a higher-ranked Belarus, they won. And though they lost to Latvia, Estonia and Russia afterwards, I think the exposure was significant.
What about AIFF’s resources?
We don’t have the resources that cricket has. So we have a strategic plan and allocate funds accordingly. Our annual income including grants from Fifa and AFC, guarantee from our commercial partners and the support from the government, is about Rs60-65 crore. On the expenditure front, an I-League costs about Rs15 crore. Each national championship costs about Rs2 crore. Then there are salaries, travelling and other expenses. So we are stretched thin. I’d be really happy if our revenues increased fourfold.
Club-based sports events are still a new thing for India. Do you think the model is going to improve finances?
That is the whole idea. But it will take time. Except for the Indian Premier League, I don’t think any other league is making money at this time. Kabaddi may have done well this time but every other league is struggling. It is an investment, so it will take time to make money but ultimately it should, for the sake of Indian sports.
The focus seems to be on the Indian Super League (ISL) with plans to have longer seasons. Do you think it is the right way for Indian football?
Look, the accepted practice across the world is to have long leagues. That’s how players develop. ISL, initially, was brought in to give Indian football better visibility. And it has done that. TV ratings have improved and there are more spectators at the grounds. But the tournament has to be longer. Right now, the players travel more than they play.
Has ISL come at the cost of the I-League?
At the end of the day, we are not talking about ISL or the I-League. We are thinking about Indian football and its development. ISL was necessary to get people to talk about Indian football. And the numbers suggest that there has been a positive effect on the I-League—viewership has risen 40%, the number of spectators has risen significantly. So I think it is wrong to compare the two or say that ISL is killing the I-League. The whole idea is to restructure Indian football in the most sensible way so the national team does well.
The clubs seem to have taken it the other way. Several teams from Goa have pulled out of the I-League…
As I said, we should not be only talking about the I-League. The structure we are looking at is of a three-tier league. That is what it is about, not the I-League or ISL. While many people say that many teams have pulled out, they don’t look at the new clubs that have joined us. There are so many clubs like Aizawl FC, Minerva Punjab FC, Chennai City FC, DSK Shivajians FC that have joined. Yes there are some clubs from Goa who thought their legacies are not being appreciated and I understand their concerns, but at the end of the day we can’t just look at individual clubs.
Is there a chance of a merger of ISL and the I-League from which the three-tier league will emerge?
That is the structure we have discussed with the stakeholders. There will be a premier league which will have teams from the current I-League. But one has to understand that for the premier league, the investment has to be significantly higher. We are also looking at creating it as a sustainable model. It is still a work in progress. There are a lot of things to keep in mind, the teams that have been there for ages, their legacies… We wanted to see if it was possible in the 2017-18 season and we still want to do it as soon as possible but it is difficult to put a final timeline to it at this point.
But when it happens, there will not be any ISL or I-League?
Well I don’t know what name we will choose for it but it essentially will be a three-tier football league similar to the structure that is followed worldwide.
And the format will be similar too? If you are at the bottom, you get relegated?
Eventually, yes. For the first few years, because of the new clubs that have come to ISL and invested so much money, there is a restriction on relegating them. Just like in the I-League, when a team comes in through the bidding process, we give them immunity from relegation for three years.
How many teams are you looking at in the restructured league?
Initially, we are looking at 10 teams in each tier. But eventually, we are looking at bringing in more tiers.
What do you think ISL has done for Indian football, considering the major scorers are all foreign players well past their prime?
See, this is the model followed by everyone. In Japan, when they started, they got the Zicos who were well past their prime. In MLS (Major League Soccer), they did the same to get some visibility. For the first 10 years, they were what we are today. And I agree with you that right now there are quite a few older players who are coming here and playing for 90 days but that is to give the league visibility. But you have to understand how much it matters for our boys to share a dressing room with a Diego Forlán. Also, we are competing against cricket here, which has so much visibility. So to give the game some eyeballs, this was the immediate effort but as we go along and create the longer league, we will get the players who really matter.