Conversing with Shaji Prabhakaran, about his latest venture, Delhi United FC, and the current and future state of Delhi & Indian Football.
by Sudipto Mullick Sportskeeda
Shaji Prabhakaran, a Senior Consultant of the Asian Football Confederation and an ex-official at FIFA sure has come a long way. Born in Kerala and brought up in a tribal North Bengal Dooars boondocks, Binnaguri, his true journey had begun at eight or maybe it was nine, when he came across a football ground, barely 200 meters from his doorsteps. His restless feet couldn’t wait until April to happen as that was the period till about September when young Shaji could subsume himself in this game beautiful. Just the derived pleasure of kicking about the mystical leather sphere would be all that he would consume. To bear the thought of befitting from any professional training or coaching in any sports, let alone football would be an option for a dream. Shaji still managed to bundle the strands of his aspirations till about 20 whence a serious ACL knee injury – the bane of many a colt - put paid to his progress. Did Shaji quit playing? Yes, he did. Did he quit Football? No. Never. Now he merely channeled his mind on the academic and nurturing aspect of the sport. 1996 brought in his UGC fellowship paving his path with a doctoral study on India football. He tried to stretch further the scope of his involvement in 2010 by booting-up as an entrepreneur into the sports industry. Another setback tried to wobble his trajectory. But why talk about the bumps when we can tell you about his experiences and its extrapolations in the self-explanatory observation, ‘Back to the Roots - A Definitive Guide To Grassroots and Football Development' (Roli Books, 2016). The laboured work demystifies the practicable from the realms of the pedants. It emphasizes the promotion of the game at the crux of the formative years and the constant need to seek noble exercises.
This yearning to lasso the new has prompted Shaji with three of his friends to take up his latest enterprise, Delhi United FC.Sportskeeda simply had to burrow into his intention and gain his audience. This must be his most challenging project yet. Ask him and he promptly confirms, "It is a very challenging project but also one of the most exciting projects I have ever involved myself. We three friends took over Delhi United FC a few months back with an aim to energize Delhi Football and to provide better opportunities to the aspiring youth from National Capital Region "Our long-term vision is to make our club one of the best in Asia by 2030 and in the short term, we would like to put all the fundamentals in place to make the club sustainable in the medium to long term.” Ambition is in its place all right but DUFC was a 2nd division team in the last I-League. To pull up the club from there and bring it into serious reckoning - say something like Delhi Dynamos would require some digging, more so because Delhi is but sparsely represented in the top-divisions of Indian football. Quite cognizant with the factual, Shaji reasoned, "Last season, three teams from Delhi were part of a preliminary round of 2nd Division I-league and we were the only team from Delhi which qualified for the final round and secured a third place in the 2nd Division I-League. This season our target is to win the 2nd Division and qualify for I-League. "We have already started our preparation but we are focusing on youth players and work with them on a long-term basis to make them stars. That is the reason we have hired a former Indian Captain and a highly successful Ex-Coach of Chandigarh Football Academy who produced 36 youth players for India in last one decade as our Chief Technical Officer. "We are not thinking to compete with Delhi Dynamos but we would like to have a close alliance with them." The strategy to harness the services of a coach who has begotten triple-squad worth of top-notch players piqued my curiosity and I found myself to lip an inquiry about the detailed inner workings of this club – as it is now and what it would subsequently be. It met with Shaji’s measured tone, “We are in an infancy stage and daily we are expanding on multiple fronts. The support we are getting is overwhelming from different quarters which are motivating us to put extra hard work on all the fronts. "However, the biggest challenge I see is that of getting corporate support. The sponsorship market in India is tilted towards celebrity Association and very negligible funding is coming towards grassroots or development segment of the sports. We are preparing to meet corporate leaders without stars and present a case where we put our projects and programmes as star powers to create value propositions for the brands which are associating with us. "We like to closely work with aspiring brands to change the perception of Indian business community that the brands can also derive tremendous value without song and dance, be part of a value based sports project which connects masses. We would like to create a win-win situation for all the partners working with us and manage the club as transparently as possible.” Such worldly view will bring under its purview the up-shift of Delhi’s football culture itself. After enjoying a glorious history it had petered out by the 1990s. We caught the fervour in Shaji’s voice when he echoed the similar sentiment, “Delhi football should be revived at all cost and we as a club believe in the potential of Delhi football. Our club would like to contribute in the revival process and DUFC would like to work closely with all the stakeholders of Delhi to make the National Capital Region one of the top football playing regions in India. We will extend best of support and expertise to Delhi Soccer Association and encourage different organizations in Delhi to initiate plans to develop football. "What we also believe is that if DUFC succeeds as a club in short term than many other clubs will also raise their bars and overall investment into Delhi football go up significantly.” It, in turn, might augur well for Indian football by a ripple effect. But try and convince him that and we met with a cautious declaration, “We don’t want to make any tall claim that we would change such and such things in Indian football. We are going to play our basic role as a club and if we succeed in creating opportunities for youth in the national capital region itself in next few years then we would pat ourselves and say well done. "Though we have our long-term vision to be one of the top clubs in Asia by 2030 again it all depends on how we succeed in the initial years with the basics.” The problem with India’s capital is not the lack of football fans or the magnitude of their love for the rotund, it is the vector. Not many of the soccer fanatics are big on the local or national footballing scene. Shaji knows too well that if DUFC has to be put into consideration, he needs to work to change the generic ecosystem of perception. “We have devised various plans to engage fans and our target is to directly work with 25,000 youth by the end of 2020. We have also developed a very innovative fan engagement project which we would like to implement as soon as we secure necessary investment to implement the same. "The target is to engage 500,000 fans by 2021. Due to strategic reasons, we won’t be able to disclose the entire plan right now. Further, we are already working with a plan to scout local talents from Delhi and provide best of training and care as soon as we launch our residential academy,” proffered Shaji in line with his youth-centric approach. When a highly-placed resourceful persona is reluctant to share the specifics of his enterprise’s game plan be assured, be very assured it’s firmly in place to leap into action. The time was winding up fast and we had to ask him about his FIFA stint and whether that learning curve helps him in good stead in his new endeavour. “I feel very fortunate to get the opportunity to work with FIFA and the experience I have gained working with FIFA and global experts are of immense value in every aspect of my professional career. "No doubt, my FIFA experience would be handy in every aspect of this project and my global football network would bring tremendous value to the entire project,” confirmed Shaji. Taking advantage of this fortuitous proximity with a great visionary we couldn’t help but ask him to peek into the sphere of possibilities. As if reading off a prompter Shaji rattled off his prediction, “In 10 years Indian football will become a significant player in the world of football and India might become one of the biggest revenue drivers to the world football. "I can visualize that India will have approx. 600 million football fan base in 10 years and football will be the No. 1 sports as far as participation is concerned. I don’t know whether Indian football will be at par with the biggest western countries but I am certain that India will have a culture of football which would help us to take Indian football to a global standard. "My ultimate dream is to see Indian team in the world cup and to have the longest celebration of my lifetime. The day we qualify for the World Cup Indian football will become the No. 1 sport in India. At this juncture, it is difficult to pin point a timeline but if my calculation goes right then we have a high probability to be in 2034 World Cup.” It was when we were bidding farewell with my heart humming an optimistic tune that I understood that Shaji had come a long way because he had to and if Indian football wants to go the desired distance, it might well be Shaji to walk it to the door.