“When is football in India going to reach its potential?” I’ve heard the same question over and over in conferences, in meetings, at parties and during every family gathering for the past 8 years of my association with this sport in this country. It’s a simple but complex question given India’s size, the structural & bureaucratic challenges of this country and the fact that no one really knows what India’s “footballing potential” truly is. Growth takes time yet for some reason so many stakeholders within and outside of the industry feel that Indian football should transform into what’s seen in England and Germany overnight. Obviously this is not possible and it takes focused, intelligent investment and action from a number of passionate and patient individuals to truly make an impact on the football landscape in this country.
Thankfully, Shirish Kulkarni is one of those individuals. I met Shirish back in 2013 in a Munich hotel when he was considering different options for international club partners for an Academy he wanted to launch in Pune. My organization, Libero Sports, was consulting him on the project and we traveled through Europe meeting different clubs to get a sense of their international objectives and better understand if they were interested in supporting the development and operations of a world-class youth Academy in India.
During those meetings, I learned a lot about DSK Group, Shirish, his deep passion for football and ambitious plans to create a project that can serve as the model for the sustainable development of football in India. He shared his ideas around creating a strong youth academy, investing in world-class football infrastructure and, with all the right raw materials in place, eventually entering a team into India’s top domestic league, the I-League. By that point, I had been in India for 3+ years and had met a number of “talkers,” people who say all that right things but don’t actually act on any of their words. As I listened to Shirish during those European trips, I felt that something was different and truly hoped that much of what he expressed came to fruition.
Fast forward 3 years to present day. I’m on my way back to Delhi from Pune where I had the pleasure of watching DSK Shivajians FC first home match in their inaugural season of the I-League along with Shirish, his family and many of the people who have contributed to this project over the years. Although the Shivajians lost to the Kolkata giants 0-2, there was clearly something special in the air as 5000+ people filled Balewadi’s stadium creating a raucous atmosphere. While the team had trouble scoring on the pitch, DSK Group ensured the fans were entertained with a number of fan engagement activities taking place outside the stadium, a pre-game cultural show and a halftime performance of DSK Shivajians new anthem written and performed by Bollywood singer Shaan.
Over the past 3 years since that first meeting in Munich, Shirish and his team, at a minimum, have accomplished the following:
- Established, Liverpool Football Academy DSK Shivajians, the first Premier League branded football Academy in India and second in Asia
- Built the best football venue in all of India with two full sized pitches (natural grass and turf)
- Scouted and recruited 64 boys to make up the U19 and U17 LIFA-DSK teams
- Hosted and qualified for the final rounds of the U19 I-League in its first year
- Put a model in place for the Academy which ensures quality players, development and sustainability
- Identified and trained 9 players who have been invited to AIFF National camps including Lallianzuala Chhangte “Zola” who scored 2 goals in the Suzuki SAFF Cup and, at 18 years of age, making him the youngest player to score for the Indian senior team
- Getting invited to join the I-League by AIFF and offered relegation immunity for 3 years
So I still can’t properly answer the question, “When is football in India going to reach its potential?” but I can say that we will get there much faster if more people choose to follow Shirish’s lead in focusing on filling in the gaps within the industry rather than trying to replicate the Premier League overnight.
Shirish and I outside of FC Bayern Munich's office