I’m currently mid-flight on my way home to Pune from Delhi – the final leg of a weeklong trip East to Malaysia and China. While I am thoroughly exhausted from 6 days of meetings, speaking engagements, red-eye flights and yesterday’s strenuous trek up a part of the Great Wall of China, somehow I still feel happy and alive at this moment. Maybe it’s because I’m still reeling from the adventure of travelling to two new countries or maybe it’s because this trip created new opportunities for me to have some influence on the growth of football in Asia or maybe it’s because I’m still living my 15 minutes of fame when I was awarded the MVP trophy during the conference football tournament in Beijing. Whatever it may be, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to take this trip.
In Kuala Lumpur, I was part of a group of individuals representing I-League and Indian Super League clubs sitting down to discuss the future roadmap of Indian football with members of the Asian Football Confederation and the All India Football Federation. It was a positive discussion and, at one point during the meeting, I did stop to reflect on the extraordinary road that has led me from being an outsider in the industry to one of the 20 people discussing one of the most important topics in the current phase of the Indian football industry.
China was a completely different experience. I was invited to speak about the Indian Football Landscape at the World Soccer Conference & Exhibition in Beijing. Because of the AFC-AIFF meeting in Kuala Lumpur on the 7th, the earliest I could get into Beijing was at 2:00am on the 8th which was unfortunate as I was scheduled to speak at 10:45am on the same day. Needless to say that I tried my best to sleep on the 6+ hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
I landed in Beijing feeling and looking like a zombie and horribly failed at my mission to get out of the airport and into my hotel bed as quick as possible. Of course ATMs didn’t work, there was no Uber, nobody spoke English and the taxi stand looked more shady than the legitimately shady drivers that pounced on me as soon as I stepped out of the airport as I clearly didn’t come across as a local. I don’t blame Beijing for this experience though as no matter what city you arrive at in the world, it will always be slightly shady and daunting when stepping out of the airport between the hours 1:00am and 4:00am.
Anyway, after very little sleep I finally got on stage to make my 45 minute presentation on the “Present Landscape & Future Opportunities in Indian Football” and looked out to see a roomful of Chinese men and women ready to listen to my talk through a translator via headphones. This was a first for me and threw me off initially but I eventually found my groove and was able to make a number of comparisons between the growth of Indian football compared to what’s happening in China.
Overall the conference was very interesting. The organizers lined up a number of speakers from China and abroad to discuss various aspects of the Chinese football industry. I most enjoyed hearing from the former coach of the Chinese national team Jan Olde Riekerink share his experiences as they were very similar to some of what goes on in India. I was able to learn a great deal about the country’s football landscape during the VIP dinner where I was seated next to the Head of International Projects for Stoke City and some player agents that have facilitated a couple of deals in the country as well as a few people on the technical side that have been living in China for many years. While eating local cuisine, we engaged in fascinating discussions about the opportunities and challenges of trying to have an impact and stay sane in a completely foreign land – many of which I could completely relate to.
I must say, though, that my favorite part of the whole conference was the friendly football match organised for conference VIPs. We took a bus out to Olympic Village and played 60 minutes of football in an incredible turf complex right next to the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium made famous during the 2008 Olympics. It was about 100 degrees and humid and I comfortably took up my “cherry picker” position up top and put away a few goals earning me MVP of the match. It’s amazing how much proving yourself on the pitch adds to your credibility as a football professional as I felt that more people wanted to speak to me about my background and business opportunities in India after the match versus when I had just finished my in-depth presentation on the business of football in India the day before.
The day after the match I woke up early and spent a few hours walking along the Great Wall of China. It really is an incredible structure and one of the many wonders of the world that is impossible to fathom how humans would have created something so vast so many years ago without access to modern machinery and technology.
Overall, though, it was a great trip. Given the amount of government support and activity around football in the country, I can see why so many people are looking towards China as destination to bring their football business and expertise. That being said, I can clearly see how the fact that few people speak English in the country can create a number of personal and professional challenges. It is definitely one of those places where it is critical to establish the “right relationships” on the inside be it, foreign or local, before even attempting to make an impact within the country.
I hope that my travels take me back to China soon as it’s definitely a place that I would like to explore more. And, who knows, maybe one day I’ll even be considered a “right relationship” to have in the country. Anything is possible.