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Sunday, 15 April 2012

I-League: How to Move Forward

I’m going to keep this brief. This is only concerned with the top tier of Indian football…

1.       The IPL model followed by cricket is fatally flawed and is not the answer
2.       Elements of the IPL are however, part of the solution
a.       The focus on ‘entertainment’ stretching beyond just the sport and the match
b.      The focus on ‘glamour’ and ‘personality’ and ‘celebrity’ (India IS different)
c.       The need for modern consumer-friendly, family-oriented, stadia
3.       The English Premier League provides the most relevant model for a foundation
a.       The forming of an Association by the clubs is a positive step forward
b.      The clubs should own the I-League and take more control over their own destiny
c.       IMG & Reliance can be powerful, capable and important partners/enablers
4.       The I-League should consist of between 18 and 20 teams
5.       Existing teams should be invited to be part of the new I-League
6.       Key cities without an established I-League club – Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi etc – should be offered to tender
a.       Existing clubs can bid
b.       New corporate owners can bid
c.       The selection criteria to choose the winner will be the merit of the business plan and the quality of the management
d.      There would be no ‘franchises’ or franchise fees: the corporate owns the club (subject to fulfilling the promised investment and other commitments)
7.       Membership for ALL clubs should be conditional upon meeting a set of criteria within a given timeframe:
a.        Professional management and administration
b.        The introduction of community programs (to build support)
c.        The development of Academies
d.       The development of new purpose built, revenue generating stadiums
e.       Financial prudence (capital reserves, diversification of revenue streams, percentage of revenue expenditure on players)
8.       In the short-term, centralized support should be available to clubs across a broad range of areas
a.       IP, Marketing and Brand development and protection
b.       Development of supporter databases
c.       Development and diversification of revenue streams
9.       League TV and sponsorship rights should be sold centrally and shared on an equitable basis (similar to that in the EPL)
10.   There would be no relegation for an initial period of time (to protect and justify the investment required of clubs)
11.   The AIFF should be centrally concerned with grassroots development and the national teams

We need to move to a position in which we have a strong league, financially prudent, with modern infrastructure, and an exciting product pan-India. The only way investment can be justified is if it is done on a collective basis in which that investment is protected (from the threat of relegation) for an initial period

We need to look at tier 2 clubs with the potential for promotion, we need to look at the roles and revenue streams of the regional FA’s and the AIFF, and we need to develop a proper pyramid system but I don’t want to address these issues here and now

Comments invited and welcome 

Friday, 3 February 2012


When Reliance partnered IMG, and when IMG-R acquired the marketing rights owned by the AIFF I felt genuine hope for Indian football. The games governing body here had joined forces with the world’s top sports management company and one of India’s most successful and aggressive corporate giants. What could go wrong?

Now, two years or so down the line, there are rumors of discontent and discord between Reliance and IMG, and of a lack of understanding, leadership and vision. Whether this is fair and accurate or not, as the IFA and CMG launch PLS amid much genuine excitement that reaches far beyond West Bengal, most of India is left wondering what happened to the rest of us. Why has nothing changed?  Everywhere else in India seems to have become immersed in a vacuum of nothingness.

The problem that seems to have floored IMG-R and the AIFF is how to square the circle of established I-League clubs and a franchise structure. You could throw in the issue of no adequate infrastructure and mix it with an already overcrowded calendar and you can easily become submerged with the idea that the whole structure and history of football in India defeats any possibility of meaningful change. ‘What to do?’ would seem an appropriate tag line.

The PLS is a gamechanger. Its long-term future is uncertain as of now, however it’s already changed the landscape of football in India forever. CMG wanted Lionel Messi playing in Kolkata so they brought over Argentina and Venezuela as the cannon fodder. IMG-R and the AIFF responded defensively by making it problematic to host a match in India between two foreign teams. The consequence was that FC Bayern played against an AIFF ‘India XI’. The PLS has brought a similarly defensive response: reluctant tolerance mixed with doubts about the concept and viability, and vague assurances as to their own project, still in the planning. PLS pressures IMG-R and the AIFF to deliver something more meaningful…something in fact.   

The IFA has always been symbolic of the challenges facing would-be Indian football revolutionaries. A powerful self-focused State Association that saw itself and its competitions as more relevant and important than the national league. For many Bengali’s it was more important to win the Kolkata Super League than be champions of India. To some extent Kolkata and the IFA have been pushed towards this thinking by the way that football dominates there in a way that most of the rest of India hasn’t (so far) replicated. Now they’ve done it again by launching their own self-contained Premier League for soccer.

In finding a way forward for India as a whole the challenge for IMG-R and the AIFF is to find a formula that takes the realities as they are, and create a structure that allows corporate investment and addresses the weakness of the infrastructure. There is an appetite for corporate investment in to football, providing the structure and vision is right. There is an enthusiasm among the new generation of football fanatics – and sports fans more generally – for an exciting, glamorous and star-studded football format. All the ingredients are there for IMG-R and the AIFF to create a real gamechanger of their own at a pan-India level. Without this PLS is a ticking bomb.    

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Reflections on Life and Death

Yesterday someone I knew jumped to his death. He was a friend in so far as we would spend time talking whenever we met, which, living in the same place for some time, was reasonably regular if not frequent. He was only young, successful in his career, seemed happy, a nice guy always ready to help. He never betrayed any need or inner sadness. He was quiet, kept himself to himself, and was supremely fit. His death, and the manner of it, came as a huge shock and he will be missed

Sometimes the challenges of life sweep over us like a tidal wave, at other times the pressures can be relentless. When you live in a high-rise flat escape is ever present, just an open window and a footstep away. In seconds the pain that is drowning you is no more. The tragedy is that most things in life are temporary. Pain – emotional, spiritual, physical – often eases with time, it ebbs away, or we change the way we perceive it so that it no longer becomes the all-consuming darkness in to which we can sink. The challenge will change, will go, the sun will rise, the clouds will clear, but step through the open window and all is lost, forever, there is no chance of coming back 

In a city like Mumbai death seems incidental – it happens all the time, life goes on. I saw an accident, a year or so ago, in which an auto-rickshaw overturned on a busy road in Juhu. Half a dozen men carried a young guy, who was clearly seriously injured, to the side of the road – some took an arm each, others a foot, and as he was lifted I saw his eyes roll upwards. Even as he was dying there were cars trying to edge past, impatient, insulated, not oblivious but anaesthetized from the reality before them. When I returned a couple of hours later it was impossible to see any sign of what had happened earlier. Life carried on, all was back to normal

For those who lose a loved one, patience and understanding are often short-lived. There is still work to attend, the routines of living that need to be followed. Life goes on but when you’ve lost someone you love, who was central to your life, the pain endures and while it may ease with time, it takes time, and a longer time than most people would extend. There’s an expectation of recovery within an unrealistically short space of weeks and months. If the death is tragic or unexpected, and, or, involves a partner or a child, then the time it takes extends perhaps for a lifetime

Mumbai is a high pressure environment. Competition is intense. Working hours are very long. It’s not easy to find space or time for yourself or for those you love or who are important to you. Children are forced in to this climate of relentless competition and expectation from an early age and too often pushed towards careers that are in a different direction to where their true ability and passion lies. It's no wonder that so many young kids kill themselves and then their parents are left with a lifetime of regret

As I go through life I try to be aware of what’s going on around me, not to take people for granted, to be open and conscious of not just what people are saying but what they’re not saying but trying to tell me. I don’t always achieve it but I try to be compassionate and understanding. It’s easy to make assumptions about other people’s lives but the reality is we just don’t know. At the beginning of a new year can I just ask that we all try and judge a little less, understand a little more, and support each other a little better

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Dummy Contract

A new form is being used by clubs in India in relation to signing foreign players. At the point the player applies for his visa to go to a club on trial he signs a ‘dummy’ contract with the club and usually a form of cancellation in case the club do not sign him. This enables the player to acquire an employment visa valid throughout the period of his proposed contract with the club and endorsed such that he is only able to play for that club. In this regard it streamlines and simplifies the process and if the player and the club subsequently agree terms and a new contract is signed there are no issues.

If however the player and club don’t agree terms the problems can begin. If the player receives an offer from another club whilst on trial the ‘dummy’ contract – which technically is a legally binding contract - can be used to prevent him from taking up that offer. At one level this is fair enough, in so far as if a club has paid for the players flights and accommodation etc during the trial then it’s fair and reasonable that they should have some protection from another club walking in and taking him. Equally the player has a right to make the final decision as to who he wants to play for.

A reasonable protection might be for the club that brings him over on trial to be fully reimbursed by the club he eventually signs for if the two clubs are different. As things stand the player can be prevented from signing for any other club because he has signed the ‘dummy’ contract – the ‘dummy’ contract, with lower wages etc, can be imposed by the club that brought the player over on trial if that’s what it decides to do. The player is powerless.
Even if the player signs the dummy contract but changes his mind before he flies over he can have a problem. Once the contract is signed, even if the player never sees anyone from the club, and even if the club incurs no costs, they can prevent the player from signing for another club by virtue of the dummy contract. They can demand a transfer fee to release the player even though he has not even had a trial with them and he’s not set foot outside his home country. This can’t be right.

In my experience most players would not understand the full implications of what they’re signing when they put pen to paper on the ‘dummy’ contract. If the player has an agent then the agent should know but if the full purpose and intent behind the contract is not disclosed then there’s a possibility that the justification of ‘easing the visa process’ will be accepted. This is especially true where clubs have earned a reputation for being ‘fair’ in their dealings with players. There are many instances in business more generally where protections in law are in place but without the intention of these ever being used except in extreme circumstances.

One solution would be for the player to pay his own travel costs to come on trial. Where a club pays for the player then the ‘dummy’ contract needs to be placed within a broader framework of related rules and/or understandings. Such rules and understandings should be agreed between the clubs, and with the players union, and should be fair to both sides. While the intention of the ‘dummy’ contract may have been positive its application has been fraught with difficulties which need to be addressed.       

Monday, 29 August 2011

Arsenal Debacle: Who's to Blame?

Three games in to the new season Arsenal float adrift of the title contenders, not just in points and goal difference but in class and expectation. Manchester United destroyed Arsenal with a team without many established stars and with an average age of just 23. Manchester City have evidenced their ambition and their ability. They are potential champions. Chelsea have strengthened and will challenge, as always. The top three are already defined, just the order remains to be seen. The coveted fourth spot, and entry to the lucrative Champions League, already appears to belong to Liverpool – the early indications suggest that their investment has paid off.

For Arsenal the dream has been reduced to ashes. The concept of developing a team of young stars who would mature together has been destroyed by a failure to win trophies and the lure of bigger wages for their key players offered by clubs with bigger ambitions. In 2006 Arsenal were arguably unlucky to lose the UEFA Champions League Final to Barcelona. There was little to choose between the teams. Had Arsenal won...subsequent history might have been different. Had Arsenal become Champions of Europe, had they become established as Europe’s best, would the lure of Barcelona have been quite so strong for Fabregas?

The comparative demise of Arsenal has been long in the making. Firstly the emergence of Chelsea, then the entry of Manchester City – both have redefined the landscape in terms of transfer fees and wages. Arsenal maintained their model of financial prudence, investing in young talent where the wage demands were less whereas their key competitors invested in established stars. Progressively Arsenal slipped behind, clinging to fourth place but unable to bridge the divide between contenders and champions.

The defeat to Birmingham in the Carling Cup Final is seen by many as a watershed, but perhaps that watershed came in the previous season. It was then that the team needed strengthening with genuine world-class talent that would have enabled the team not just to defeat Birmingham but push on and claim two or three titles – they were so near, and yet so far... Fabregas gave up, Nasri was unconvinced, Clichy sought greener pastures. The belief had gone. To strengthen this season was just too late.

Arsene Wenger stands accused as the architect of this demise – too stubborn, arrogant, blinkered, wedded to a flawed concept and unwilling to invest in players of the required experience and quality but is this either fair or accurate? He tried to sign Juan Matta who has made an immediate impact at Chelsea. By all accounts Matta was keen to sign, but Arsenal failed to pay the monies required under his release clause within the timeframe. The fee was apparently not the issue, the player wanted to sign, so what was the problem? Perhaps it was the personal terms?

It’s open knowledge that Arsenal operates a strict wages structure. It’s equally well known that this means Arsenal cannot compete with their primary competitors. So where does this leave Arsene Wenger? There have been rumours that Wenger has called for a revision of the wages ceiling to 150k to enable the club to sign better quality players but that this has been refused by the board. If this is the case can Arsene Wenger fairly be held accountable?

As things stand Arsenal will be among the top choices for any exceptionally talented young player wanting to gain first team experience at a high level. Arsenal will also be high on the list of clubs targeted by predatory competitors who will cherry-pick the best talent once they gain experience and develop to a higher level. Arsenal will be a staging-post not a destination, a training ground rather than a theatre of dreams.

The result at Manchester United was important because it put the situation beyond doubt. There is no question now that Arsenal needs to strengthen, that they need both quality and experience, that they need steel to add to the art. There is no question that to acquire such players Arsenal have to compete with their primary competitors, and to match or better the wages they offer. Once they do this then it will be fairer to assess the ability of a manager who has in the past proved his ability to deliver winning teams.    

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Arsenal: Time to Take Control

I’m a Middlesbrough fan although I’ve worked with Arsenal over the years and I admire the way they do business and the football that they play. The team is exciting and entertaining to watch although their inability in recent years to win trophies is frustrating. So too, at times, is their inability to hold a lead or turn vast superiority in terms of territory and possession in to goals and wins, but hey, football is football and sometimes shit happens.

This summer has heaped more levels of frustration upon frustration. Cesc Fabregas wants to play for Barcelona, Barcelona want to sign him, and even though they would prefer it if he stayed with them Arsenal are prepared to let him go. So what’s the problem? Barcelona don’t have the money to buy him. Simple. As a consequence the world has had to endure an incessant drip-drip from Barcelona (the club) and Barcelona (the city) of players, officials, coaches and politicians pleading with Arsenal to release Fabregas from his torment and allow him to return home to his ‘family’ and the love of his life, Barca...
This incessant wailing is accompanied by the undignified spectacle of the Spanish giants mortgaging players by selling them with time-defined agreed-fee buy-back options, and – just to drive the point home – Fabregas even contributing part of his new wages to meet the ransom demand. The point is that it’s not that Fabregas wants to leave Arsenal – any number of Europe’s top clubs would meet their asking price – it’s that he wants to go (only) to Barcelona. Therefore Arsenal have to accept what Barca offer or can afford to pay, after all they are the Champions of Europe, they are big boys, they deserve and get whatever they want, and to the extent that Arsenal may get mugged on the fee it is, after all, a crime of passion.

At the same time we have Samir Nasri wanting to abandon ship and join Gail Clichy at Manchester City’s band of happy campers. It has nothing to do with the ‘half-as-much-again-as-Arsenal-are-offering’ wages but is more about being part of a project that has actually delivered a trophy and promises to deliver more. Clichy has already noted the ‘tough-tackling’ in training which can only be spiced by the brooding resentment of defenders and midfielders who have been offered less than half the money given to new signing Sergio Aguero.

This time next year Nasri, will be out of contract and available without a fee. City are prepared to pay in the region of GBP20m but Arsenal want him to sign a contract extension instead offering in the region of GBP110k a week – substantially less than City are offering. So far Arsenal have insisted they would prefer to keep him, let him run his contract down and then see him go for free if in the end he decides not to stay on with the Gunners.

What we are left with is a drift in deep water. The sense of impending doom is heightened by the club’s failure to address the defensive black hole and the impending Niagra of matches against Udinese, Liverpool and Manchester United that could see Arsenal’s season submerged within weeks of it being launched. Captain Fabregas and first-mate Nasri appear desperate to abandon ship, and the rest of the crew are looking decidedly apprehensive. The time has come for someone to take control.

Nasri is an easy decision. Over the season the transfer fee that Arsenal could get for him equates to around GBP400k a week, add on his wages and you’re up to almost GBP500k a week – think about it for a moment. He has had one-half of a decent season. Sell him. For around the same money bring in Juan Mata arguably a player with greater tenacity, ability and potential. A player who would be cheaper wages wise but more committed, more consistent and a winner. This deal should have been done weeks ago.

Arsenal should state clearly and irrevocably that Barcelona can sign Fabregas if they meet the ‘open-market’ valuation and asking price of GBP40m within a specified period (one month ago should do it). If they don’t he stays. Simple. They should also state that no amount of whining or whinging by bleating mayors or pleading players will weaken that position. If Fabregas doesn’t want to lead the team, and if Barcelona can’t cobble together the cash to deliver Priority Two his place on the bench, then put him on the transfer list. This season there are six contenders for the top four places and as of now Arsenal are looking fifth at best and appear to be drifting to disaster. The time has come to take control of the situation.

From I-League to Premier League: Arsenal & Spurs Fight it Out For Starlet

Nineteen year old Rohit Chand could become the first I-League player to make the transition to the English Premier League with both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur said to be monitoring his progress. Chand, a central defender who joined I-League side HAL in 2010, is a regular in the Nepal national team and became the youngest player ever to represent Nepal when he made his debut for the senior side just twenty two days after his seventeenth birthday.

Now firmly established in the national senior team, he has been identified as a special talent by National Team Coach Graham Roberts, the former Spurs, Chelsea and England defender. With French champions Lille also showing interest the omens are good for the youngster and were he to make it to the big time he would serve as an inspiration to all of the young players both in Nepal and in the I-League who have dreams of playing for Europe’s best clubs.