Interview with Abhishek Bachchan - "Chennaiyin FC has immense fighting spirit thanks to Marco Materazzi"
His side were the champions of the Indian Super League in 2015 after having had their backs to the wall, both during the campaign as well as the final. This year, Chennaiyin FC’s quest for a repeat is on to show that last year's title run was no flash in the pan.
And their co-owner Abhishek Bachchan is looking forward to that and a whole lot more, as we discovered during a brief chat earlier this week at the team hotel in Chennai.
We know that you are a big football fan and as football fans, what most of us want is a league, close by, serving up the game. From being a fan to now actually being a part of making that come to fruition, what's it like?
I grew up in an English boarding school and have been a football fan all my life. Seeing the English football culture, you hope and pray that you can have that here as well, considering most of the people here follow the EPL (Premier League). How nice would it be to have your own local team?
It's something we felt we had to work very hard to achieve, especially in a city like Chennai, which is not known as a footballing hub. You have Kolkata, the northeast, you have Kerala, you have Goa – major footballing centres. Mumbai is a growing football centre. Chennai is known more for the Chennai Super Kings.
And what fuelled it?
So, building a football market here is something that I looked forward to because I knew that the fans here are very passionate and very loyal.
And when you come to the matches, you see the atmosphere is electric. So obviously I wanted to do something in football, you know there's a lot that can be done with football in India.
From infrastructure to training to everything. I'm just happy we were able to set up something like this which has grown hugely in the last couple of years.
We've seen that you are a very animated watcher of the game on the sidelines. It probably stems from your inherently competitive nature. Is that something that's common across the board?
Absolutely! Absolutely! If you’re a sports fan, when you support a player or a team, you can't hide that. You know, I get a lot of flak for it, but, in the end, I want to say that's good for the sport.
I don't mind going to a place where the away fans are going to give me flak. That's fine, for, at the end of the day, it says they are passionate about their team, and I like that. It's good, I take it positively.
At the end of the day, you’re there to make a difference, to help football grow. My dream would be to see some of these boys (pointing to the U-17 boys from the AIFF’s academy) play for India at the 2026 World Cup.
We don't know if it's going to happen in the next World Cup, but you have to start planning ahead. The ISL is taking great steps. The grassroots initiative has been brilliant. There's a lot of talent over there, I think we need to channelise that.
Chennaiyin FC have been involved in two of the most heartbreaking moments over the two seasons so far. In season one, Stephen Pearson's late goal stalled the amazing second leg comeback, knocking you out in the semis in front of your home fans. Last year, the boot was on other foot. Your club caused heartbreak to fans of FC Goa, after coming from behind to win the final in front of their home fans. Talk us through those moments.
Heartbreaking, as you said, is correct.
There wasn't a dry eye, wasn't a dry eye in the Marina Arena that evening. My god, the last 20 minutes felt like an eternity because I remember Marco (Materazzi) got his second yellow card, softly if I might add, and he was sent off.
I called him up and he sat next to Vita (Dani) and me, and he was crestfallen. The team was fighting, we still had a chance, but when Pearson scored that goal everyone went quiet. It took time to sink in.
When we all came back to the hotel and had dinner together, we were all very proud of where we had reached. We were the last team to enter the ISL. I signed Marco three weeks before the league started and we had, what, about 10 days of pre-season that year.
The media here in the city were asking if this team was even going to stay in Chennai or if it was just a one-year thing and we were going to move elsewhere.
From having nothing to reaching the semi-finals, in fact, being the first team to qualify for the semi-finals and topping the table, I think was a huge achievement. So I don't think the first season can go down as a failure at all.
And then obviously the second season to go on and win it the way we did, where at one point we were at the bottom of the table. To turn that around and win the tournament after having gone through whatever the city had been through. Despite all of that, we came through and it was an emotional moment for the whole team.
Every team needs a ‘pick me up’ at certain times. What has been, until now, the most challenging such moment for this team and how did they rebound?
Obviously, for us, the watershed moment was when we were bottom of the league last year. We had no clue what was going on.
From what I could tell, we were playing our hearts out, but for some reason, we weren't getting the points. I remember, we were together in this very hotel, trying to figure out what to do because everybody was at a loss for words.
So when you run a team, there's always that bit of 'pick me up’ that happens, pretty much every day. I'm sure Marco right now at the stadium is screaming and shouting at them (the team had left for practice), telling them what to do. So it's an ongoing process.
Having said that, through the two seasons, with all the players that have come and gone, what's the one thing about this group of players that you've come to like?
Now, don't misinterpret this, but they’re not professionals. Anybody who's played for Chennaiyin is not a paid professional, they play from the heart. They’re not here just to do their job.
I remember when the floods happened, we were stranded in Chennai for three days. Every day of those three days, the boys were out helping out. And I'll never forget something that Marco said when we were stranded without flights for three days.
We had to reach Pune and we had to win that match. Had we forfeited, we would not have qualified for the semi-finals. Marco came out and said if we have to walk to Pune, we’ll walk to Pune, but we’re not forfeiting. That's what it is.