The TATA Group has been the pioneer in Indian football as they thought ahead of time and set up a professional football academy (TATA Football Academy) back in 1987. Now with Jamshedpur FC (JFC), the Indian multinational conglomerate has finally stepped into the top level of professional football in India.
Sunil Bhaskaran, Additional Director (Jamshedpur Football & Sporting Pvt. Ltd), explains that to own a club was a natural progression which would help the Tata Group to be more actively involved in the development of Indian football.
"It has been a very exciting journey for us in Tata Steel. Our association with football has been long as we had the TFA and we were looking to set up a football club. We had plans to get into I-League but then with the advent of ISL and all the associated changes we kept that decision on hold. This is around four years ago.
"Subsequently, when the opportunity arose to get into ISL with the addition of two new franchises we thought it would be the best way forward to get connected and work for the development of Indian football. It was also a step forward from the work that we were doing with TFA. We had the oldest professional football academy and it was a natural progression to create a club of our own," states Bhaskaran.
Jamshedpur FC is the only club in the Indian Super League (ISL) to own a stadium of their own with state of the art training facilities. There has been a significant amount of investment to develop the right football culture in Jamshedpur which makes Bhaskaran confident that the Men of Steel would soon be the top club of Indian football.
"At JFC, we have undertaken a journey and within our first three to five years, we believe that we will be among the top teams in ISL. In the first year, we finished fifth and although we are not in the top four right now, let us see how it goes forward. We have invested to develop an overall ecosystem conducive to football with our own stadium, practice pitch and bio-medical facilities. So it makes me confident that JFC will be one of the top teams next season."
The management roped in Tim Cahill as the marquee player at the beginning of the season and the member of the board of directors of Jamshedpur FC heaped praise on the Australian for bringing the right values to a club that has just stepped into its second year.
"We wanted to have somebody who will be an iconic figure within the team. We want to create the right culture in the club. Even if we were looking at an icon, we were trying to find a player who could bring the right values. Cahill has played in some of the best leagues in the world. He also did some homework and found out about the footballing scene in India. It happened very quickly and our thoughts of bringing someone who would be a big asset to our team came to fruition."
Under the guidance of Cesar Ferrando, JFC has undergone a Spanish revolution as they are now more inclined to play possessional football. The results have been mixed but Bhaskaran remains coy on giving Ferrando a contract extension.
"I think much of the conversation will progress as the season comes to an end. But you can see that there is a significant change in the pattern of play of JFC and we will continue on the same lines. We are totally invested in the Spanish-ATM philosophy of football. It will be more of a possession-based, effective football. We have been unfortunate to be hit with injuries to some of our key players. The coach has never had the opportunity to pick the best players right through the season except maybe for the first three-four match. But these are a part of football. But definitely, we are going in the right direction."
The viability of the ISL model has been questioned as the franchises are not given a share of the broadcast revenue which happens to be one of the primary sources of income in leagues abroad. Instead, the franchises are given a share of the sponsorship. Although Bhaskaran could not give a timeline of when will the clubs break even, he believes that the creation of footballing icons will definitely accelerate the process.
"I cannot give you a timeline of when one can expect the franchises to break even. But for sure, the ISL model is going to be sustainable. For example, when IPL (Indian Premier League) started they took some years to break even. You may always say that cricket is a religion in India and football is not in the same league. But the reality is if you go down to different parts of India football does have a strong foothold. I think as the disposable income in India grows, the penchant for people to start investing more to watch sports goes up and it will help in making the league sustainable.
"After cricket, I think football is the most popular game in India. It is a matter of creating icons in Indian football. If some of the players start playing in the more popular leagues abroad, it will create interest. Moreover, if the national team does start performing better at the continental level, which I am sure will happen, things will definitely take a better shape. Whatever I have seen in the past two years I am extremely hopeful that we can see some big ticket growth in team revenues," opined Bhaskaran.
ISL has also come under scrutiny for poor refereeing decisions and Bhaskaran believes that it is high time to use technology in football to minimise human errors.
"It is extremely important to incorporate technology into football. Some things will still remain unresolved but it will help immensely. I actually find it quite surprising that the kind of technology that cricket has brought in why has not football been able to do so. It was a just a couple of yeas ago that goal line technology was introduced and the video assistant referee (VAR) after that. I am not aware if in ISL we are going to have these technologies anytime soon," signed off Bhaskaran.