Sudeva FC became the most prominent football club from Delhi when it was inducted into the I-League by the All India Football Federation last month. It means the 2020-21 season will be the first to have a club from Delhi participating in the competition, which is now the second-tier football league in India after the Indian Super League.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the club resonates with the football fans of Delhi. Anuj Gupta, the co-owner of the club, hopes to generate a buzz in the coming years through the promotion of local, home-grown talent. He points out that Delhi Dynamos, the ISL club based out of the city until 2019, failed to create a local hero and paid the price for it.
“I think one mistake that Delhi Dynamos made was: there wasn’t any particular local lad who was playing locally and they straightaway took them,” Anuj told Sportstar.
“A local lad, who’s left many years back, and he’s playing everywhere in the country, he’s playing for Delhi Dynamos: that’s different. When you take a local lad playing in the same city, then you take him and make him a hero. Then maybe people start connecting with him, not with the club but with him. So that I think didn’t work there,” he explained.
Aspirants from Delhi wouldn’t be tempted to leave the city in search of opportunities, and talent wouldn’t be wasted either.
“Now, we have an I-League club. Players in Delhi know there’s a way of playing in I-League: by staying in Delhi. A lot of talent was lost because it’s not easy to leave the city, just because [an aspirant] wants to try for an I-League club. At the I-League level also the salaries are very less, so the risk to reward is very high. Having an I-League club definitely would help promote the ecosystem as now a very talented player has a chance of becoming a star. And the media will also be helping, as if you win, it will come in the newspaper, and the media would also help promote the sport locally.”
Through support from amateur clubs of Delhi and others, Anuj hopes to spread the word and ensure a full house at the Ambedkar Stadium, which he plans to make the club’s home ground.
“I have always believed that one has to work together to make a change. I’m also the vice-president of the Delhi Soccer Association. I have been working a lot in the development; that’s why lots of amateur clubs, in the A-division, in the B-division, they believe in me. They’ve already said in writing that they’ll be supporting us.
“A local lad, who’s left many years back, and he’s playing everywhere in the country, he’s playing for Delhi Dynamos: that’s different. When you take a local lad playing in the same city, then you take him and make him a hero. Then maybe people start connecting with him, not with the club but with him.”
“This year they’d be supporting through digital views. But next year when we play on our ground, they’ll be coming to the stadium to support us. They’ll be supporting Sudeva as the first club from Delhi, and they’ll be promoting or helping us in whatever possible way in helping people know about it. Once you know about it, then only you’ll be able to make a decision whether to support Sudeva or not. Getting people to know about it is also a challenge; at least there, the movement will be helping. So I feel that if all that happens, and if one of the local lads starts shining, we would definitely get some mileage out of it, and next year I’m very much sure that the Ambedkar stadium will be full,” Anuj declared.
Anuj informs that the club will be embarking on a seven-week pre-season training camp to prepare for the I-League. What are his expectations from the club in the debut season?
“My expectation for this season is that my team should show a very strong spirit. Philosophically, people should love watching us. Result definitely matters but we will not change the philosophy even if we’re losing. Our philosophy would be: good football, penetration football, and giving chance to the youth. Then see how they come out. Even if we come sixth [or] seventh, I think it’ll be a great victory for us. It’s a belief; I want to end the season believing that we can have an all-Indian team. This is the trial season.”
Good performances in the I-League could entail a promotion to the ISL and a possible desire by a corporate entity to purchase the club. But Anuj clarifies he would never divest his 51 percent stake in it.
Seven of the players who will play for the team this season would be products from his football academy, a residential facility established in 2016 in Delhi that houses keen youngsters hoping to make a career in football. Anuj says his academy uses a “24-hour surveillance” strategy to make sure the kids are shaped properly and have their needs met.
“With money you can make infrastructure. But for passionate service, you need to have the right recruitment. I feel the success of a residential academy is the right recruitment of employees. And that doesn’t mean only the head coach, the assistant coach, the physio, but everyone: from the kitchen staff to the security guard, the guy who washes the clothes, because only if everyone delivers will the child benefit,” he explains.
Among the players who will play in the I-League this season will be 16-year-old Shubho Paul, a product of the academy. Paul has already played for India in age-group football.
“He’s already played U-14 India, U-15 India, he’s one of the main players in the AFC U-16 national team. He’s already scored over 15 goals for the country. He will be debuting in the I-League, one of the youngest kids to debut. If you see the place he comes from, in Howrah, he’s extremely poor. But when he is in Sudeva, he is so happy; money is not driving him.”
“I created this model of 70-30: 70 percent of the kids are paying, 30 percent of the kids are free. So, that 70 percent money which we get sustains the whole residential academy and also gives us a certain profit. The first year was loss, because it was the first year. From Year Two onwards, it has yielded us profit.”
Anuj says he employs a “70-30” revenue model to try to induct aspiring kids from poor backgrounds as well as sustain his residential training facility.
“I created this model of 70-30: 70 percent of the kids are paying, 30 percent of the kids are free. So, that 70 percent money which we get sustains the whole residential academy and also gives us a certain profit. The first year was loss, because it was the first year. From Year Two onwards, it has yielded us profit,” he reveals.
Anuj’s dream is not just to make his club and his academy strong and successful. He hopes to contribute players who would go on to play for India.
“Success to be calculated based on the number of trophies you’ve won: Indian football is not ready for that. My philosophy is: can I produce a player who can play in the national team? If I do that, if I’m not able to win any trophies it doesn’t matter. It’s more of: can I make [the club] the Ajax of Indian football? Rather than making it a Real Madrid of Indian football.”