In the I-League, Sudeva FC gives Delhi football a reason to cheer

January 6, 2021



A debtless Indian football club with an associate in Spain, an all-Indian roster of players and a coach from Bhutan—there’s more to Sudeva Delhi FC than being the first team from the capital in the history of the I-League and its predecessor, the National Football League, which started in 1996.

The Indians-only squad, clarified club co-founder Anuj Gupta, is not a fixed idea. “That will depend on whether I want to win the league or stay in the league. This year, I want to see how an Indian contingent performs against those with foreign players (a team can sign four imports). But the winners of the 2021-22 will qualify for the ISL (Indian Super League), we have been told. I want to go to ISL,” said Gupta on a Zoom call.

On the last day of a family vacation before flying to Kolkata to join the team in the I-League bio-bubble, Gupta took the call in a club jacket. Recruiting only Indians is an experiment that exploits the immunity from relegation Sudeva Delhi FC have after having successfully bid for a direct entry among three teams (Sreenidhi (Visakhapatnam) and Ryntih (Shillong) being the other two). Like in the past with Bengaluru FC, Gokulam Kerala and Chennai City, a bid committee scrutinised the proposals for financial viability, investment in infrastructure and future plans. On August 12 last year, All India Football Federation (AIFF) greenlighted Sudeva’s entry this term and Sreenidhi’s next season.

Sudeva Delhi FC’s Indian squad has players with experience of being part of clubs such as East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC. These players will blend with eight academy graduates, some of whom were part of the first trials Sudeva had conducted in January 2015 for a residential academy in Delhi and for the 2016 under-15 youth national league. Goalkeeper Sachin Jha is among those who have been with the club from the first day, said Gupta. Among players from Delhi are midfielders Mohit Mittal and Ansh Gupta and goalkeeper Ashish Sibi, he said. “While it is important to have local connect, it doesn’t mean we need to recruit locally only. We have players from 11 states,” said Gupta.

Appointing Bhutan’s Chencho Dorji as coach was a decision forced partially by soccer economics. “We could have gone for an Indian coach but because their numbers are less, the salary component becomes higher.

“Chencho has done the majority of his coaching courses in Japan and the way he has developed the team since joining in 2019 is really commendable,” said Gupta. Assisting Dorji is Pushpender Kundu who played 11 years with Delhi club Hindustan FC.

Gupta and Vijay Hakari, his partner at the club, grew the age-group teams and when they bought Delhi’s Moonlight FC in 2016, the players got a platform to perform beyond youth leagues. “One step at a time, from academy we had a club in the Delhi league,” said Gupta. There have been many examples of clubs zooming to the top tier and fading out, usually because of financial problems, so it was important we worked from ground up, he said.

Crucial to sustaining this model was buying majority stake in Spanish third division club Olimpic de Xativa in 2018. One of the goals is to provide a pathway for Indian footballers to Europe, said Gupta. The other is generating funds. In Delhi and Xativa, Gupta and Hakari run residential academies where 80% cadets pay and play, the others being on full scholarships. Residential programmes in Delhi cost between ₹5.6 lakh to ₹6.82 lakh annually, according to the club’s website. The charges listed on the website for the 10-month programme in Xativa is between 24000 to 30000 euros. “That helps us subsidise running the academy and helps in funding losses, if any, at the club. We have no third-party debt,” said Gupta.

Sudeva will kick off the new I-League season on Saturday afternoon when they take on Mohammedan Sporting at the Salt Lake Stadium. Mohammedan are returning to the league after earning promotion from the 2nd Division League.

Football Delhi president Shaji Prabhakaran said Delhi, where AIFF is headquartered, missing from the country’s top flight has impeded the sport’s growth. Not having a team from Delhi reduces the value of a league, he said. Since Delhi Dynamos moved to Odisha in 2019, the country’s top competition, the Indian Super League, has no team from Delhi.

“For football to grow in India, special focus is needed on the two most important cities, Delhi and Mumbai,” said Prabhakaran in a separate Zoom call from Delhi. According to an August 10 Mint report that tracked the geography of growth in India, Delhi’s average annual GDSP (Gross Domestic State Product) growth between 1980 to 2014 was 7.6%, the highest in the country. Together, Delhi and Maharashtra contributed 18.1% to India’s GDP in 2013-14, the report said.

Among reasons listed by Prabhakaran for Delhi not being on India’s football map were the lack of sustained success of clubs from the state and the absence of a competition structure that would motivate teams to look beyond the local league. So, any club that wants to grow in Delhi needs to give itself a minimum of 10 years, said Prabhakaran, a former Fifa Development Officer who has also worked in the AIFF.

Hopefully Sudeva Delhi FC will motivate other clubs to aspire for I-League, said Prabhakaran. “We shouldn’t have to wait 25 years for another club from Delhi.”

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