What ISL’s better salaries mean for footballers
Sandesh Jhingan’s career and mutual funds have always been subject to market risks.
Before arriving at the I-League second-division outfit United Sikkim FC in 2011, Jhingan had been rejected by six clubs. Fast-forward to 2018, and the 24-year-old is the captain of the Indian Super League (ISL) team Kerala Blasters, drawing a salary of Rs1.2 crore for the season, making him among the highest-paid domestic footballers in the ISL.
“With my first salary in 2011 in Sikkim, I got the name of my mother tattooed on my forearm,” says Jhingan, who isn’t comfortable talking about that figure.
Bengaluru FC captain Sunil Chhetri (Rs1.5 crore) and Jhingan both draw eight-figure salaries in the ISL. In a league where most players get six-month agreements, both have signed contracts that extend to 31 May 2020—this ISL season ends with the final between Bengaluru FC and Chennaiyin FC on Saturday.
The ISL has brought in some riches for Indian professional footballers—historically dependent on public sector companies for jobs—over the four seasons of its existence. These earnings have given them a choice of savings too, besides options to spend.
This season, Delhi Dynamos shelled out Rs23 lakh (the most expensive transfer in Indian football) for a 22-year-old winger from the I-League club Chennai City FC. S. Nandhakumar, the son of an autorickshaw driver, was till recently studying and playing for Hindustan Eagles, a local Chennai club.
What was initially a loan deal turned into a permanent move, earning Nandhakumar a two-and-a-half-year contract with the Dynamos.
Delhi finished eighth in the points table but Nandhakumar has been in fine form. With three assists in seven outings, he has been one of their most consistent players.
At the other end of the age spectrum is Mehrajuddin Wadoo, an employee with the Jammu and Kashmir Police. The 34-year-old defender draws a salary of Rs43 lakh at Mumbai City FC. Unlike Jhingan and Nandhakumar, his contract ends on 31 May.
Conversations about how the ISL has improved the financial situation of domestic players are frequent these days. But Wadoo admits there was always money in football, though it was concentrated in the hands of a few.
“When we were playing in the I-League, players were not getting enough money. Only big clubs like East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC paid well. Sunil was always getting paid a lot and he deserves it,” he says.
It’s the reason why Under-23 international Nandhakumar is still struggling to convince his family of his career choice.
“My mother and father are extremely happy, but, for some reason, they keep asking me to come back and get a government job. I try and make them understand that I have a contract here and I am really happy playing in the ISL,” says Nandhakumar.
Luckily for Dharmraj Ravanan, 30, money is not as important since his family is not dependent on him. “Whenever I have signed a contract (with a football club), I have not spent much time considering money. I am in this profession—the reason why I left a secure job in a bank—because I want to play,” says Ravanan, who is on loan to the Chennai City FC (an I-League club) from FC Pune City (an ISL club).
“After college, I got a job (with Indian Bank in Chennai)—no one from my family had got a government job before me, but I said I wanted to play. I joined Dempo, but did not even ask them how much they are paying me—because there is no pressure from my family. I just landed up in Goa.”
“For every footballer, having a good livelihood is important. We have all dreamt of a comfortable life,” says Jhingan.
“I love buying watches and perfumes—I have a big collection,” says Jhingan. “I used to collect shoes but now we are only allowed to wear sponsored ones. I have six watches. I love Fossil and G-Shock. I have three G-Shock watches but gave one to my brother because he liked it more than me.”
“Till last year, I never used to think about expenses. But I have started now because we have a (two-year-old) baby. But shopping is my main expense because I love buying shoes and clothes,” says Ravanan.
Six months ago, Chhetri bought a house on the upscale Lavelle Road in Bengaluru.
What are Jhingan’s savings? “Mutual funds and real estate,” says the Blasters player, who has a chartered accountant managing his money and advising him.
Real estate is a popular investment choice for many players. Ravanan’s investments are managed by his father Natarajan Dharmaraj. This includes their property—they have a farm in their village, Sembarai, about 25km from Trichy, where they grow coconuts, paddy, bananas and sugarcane.
His other investments are in insurance, savings accounts and real estate.
Nandhakumar has given the money to his family. “Within two-three years, I want to build a new home for them in Vyasarpadi, Chennai,” he says.
Father of a five-year old son, the veteran Wadoo grasped the importance of saving and financial planning at a young age from his father, who was a player for the food and supplies department in Srinagar.
“It’s important to plan. Even though I was getting only a little money, I started planning for the future when I was in Jammu and Kashmir. I cannot disclose where I invest my money—I put it in some financial plans,” he says.
Wadoo does not have a wealth manager, nor does he consult anyone.
An eye on the future
“I am not denying that we want the money but I never think about how much money I have to make next year. The priority is to play for, and captain, India,” says Jhingan.
He understands the nature of this profession. On an average, footballers can hope to play at the highest level for 10 years if they remain fit. By the time they turn 30, players begin to feel the wear and tear.
Add to that the threat of a career-ending injury or one that could possibly push them to the sidelines for a prolonged period.
“We all have to accept that we are not going to play for the rest of our lives. I have to make sure I have a good livelihood when I am done with football. It’s a risky career, you never know,” says Jhingan.
“Football is unpredictable. It’s not like I will be paid like this for my whole life,” says Wadoo. Mumbai City FC’s experienced campaigner has already begun planning for the future. He has an All India Football Federation (AIFF) coaching licence and is keen on managing a team once he retires.
“I do not ever waste money because I know my profession is such that it will only last for 15 years,” says Ravanan.
Right now, Indian football players may not be laughing all the way to the bank—but they’re definitely walking towards it with poise.
Arun Janardhan contributed to this story.