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Interview with Supratik Sen, CEO, Unilazer Sports - "U-dream will help Indian children train full-time at Hoffenheim academy for 6 years"

Interview with Supratik Sen, CEO, Unilazer Sports - "The U-dream program will allow Indian children to train full-time at the Hoffenheim academy for 6 years"

Supratik Sen, CEO, Unilazer Sports talks about the U-Dream football initiative and the plans they have for the future

In a country of over 1.23 billion, U Dream Football offers young talented footballers an opportunity to pursue a long term career in professional football. Brought to you by U Sports, a division of Unilazer Ventures Pvt. Ltd., U Dream Football is a 6-year full time international football training and academic programme that aims to identify talent at an early stage and offers international training, academic and infrastructure support to help them advance as a professional footballer.

In collaborative guidance of Bundesliga, U Sports has partnered with TSG 1899 Hoffenheim for the first edition of U-Dream football which aims to build a deep seeded foundation for the radical development and transformation of Indian football. It is among the few football training programmes that lays equal emphasis on the academic development of the young student athlete as it offers CBSE schooling with an opportunity to apply for admission in the German Public Education system.

In 2015, U Dream Football will encourage participation from talented football players of 13 or 14 years of age and the 30 finest footballers selected from a massive talent hunt will be sent to Zuzenhausen, in Germany where they will train at TSG 1899 Hoffenheim’s youth training academy with complete access to the club’s rich facilities and world-class infrastructure. The programme will touch 1 million students and will witness 15,000 players participating in the selection tournaments conducted across 65 cities in the first year of its launch.

We spoke to Supratik Sen, the CEO of Unilazer Sports about the entire thought process behind the program, and why he thinks it will be a resounding success. Here is the conversation that happened:

Would U-Dream be the first major program undertaken by U-Sports that has a proper grassroots approach to football?

Definitely, in terms of the deep-rooted grassroots approach, this is our first program in football. In kabaddi, we did Pro-Kabaddi league, and we have an already running Future Stars program, which aims to fast-track the development of young Kabaddi stars into the main team, but we have just stepped into football with what is, I think, the largest grassroots program ever undertaken in the history of football globally.

The program intends to run for six years. Can you tell us the thought process behind the time duration?

That's right, our plan for the first year is to test and send 30 boys in the first year, and next year we would look to send 60, if not 90 kids. In terms of our first goal, with the establishment of the process for the program, in terms of how we do it, 30 is the number we will work with.

So, most clubs across the world believe that it takes six years for a 13 year old to develop enough to be able to make it as a professional football player, and it is said that 19 is the ideal age that most club teams assess a player and his/ her readiness for football at that level.

How our program helps is that it has education ingrained into it, so it is a full-time initiative that will finish when the children are 19 or close to 19, so they will have finished their schooling. They can then choose to stay there and continue their college education, or come back, or think of pursuing sports sciences there. Basically it gives them a lot of options. Obviously, the main objective is to help them become a professional footballer, for which you need time, but if that doesn’t work out, one still has a lot of options. 

With this being a long-term program that requires adjustment to a different country and culture, what factors have you taken into account both for the selection of the kids, and preparing them for the duration of the program?

So how we have designed the process is from January onwards we start moving. We go to 60-65 cities in phase 1 while in Phase 2, which will happen in 2015 itself, we intend to go to about 100 cities. In phase 1, we will be spending a day or two in each city. We will run a league-cum-knockout tournament there, and look to pick the best 3-4 boys from each city. The kids will be given a dock-tag as part of the recognition, which will bear the logo of the program, and their rank, alongwith the city.

So, with about 60 cities in the program, we will have about 240 children, who will all be ranked, from where we will pick the top 30 children. The program contains the provision for a need-based scholarship. The first year we have ensured that all the kids will go for free, while for the rest, there will be a pay-to-play program as well, which is where the education plays out. 

That is precisely why we have made it so deep-rooted in education, so when the child is asked to come into the program, he will be asked to move into a CBSE based school, registered with an Indian school, there will be teachers moving with them, and when they are in Germany, their full-term education is taken care of. They will not be distrubed on the education front at all.

If any child is very good during their education, they get a choice to move into German Public School, where the medium of instruction is in German, so they will need to get their proficiency in the language.

I believe that’s a very good thing, because say a child doesn’t make it as a footballer, then he/ she can think of working in India, where there are more than 5000 registered German companies, who are always looking for people to go to Germany and work on different projects, so they will be a well-rounded candidate on your job.

If one does make the cut, then it is a whole new ball-game. One can come back to India to play in the ISL, the I-League, or if they are very good, they might get a chance to play in Europe in any of the other leagues, the Bundesliga, or leagues like the MLS, or parts of Asia, South America, Australia and Africa. They say that there are more than a 1000 footballers globally who make more than a million dollars, and not one of them is an Indian. So this program can be of great help.

Since education is an integral part of this program, what is the arrangement you have with the Motilal Nehru School of Sports, Rai and the tutors who will help the participants of the program?

So, what we have arranged for is the children in the program to be registered under the school for their examination, which is CBSE based, and the tutors, will be aligned with the school, saying these are registered CBSE teachers, and will move with them to Germany, to help them with the education. The children will undergo their education in Germany, alongside the coaching, and they won’t have to come back to India for their exams as well.

The only time they will need to return to India would be for their 12th board examination, which we’ve been informed by CBSE is the most important. So all their education, classes, tests, assignments and grading will all go on in Germany, under the guidance of the tutors. This will be a full-time program, that will work uninterrupted.

The Bundesliga is known for its youth development models, and their focus on grassroots development. Was that at the back of your mind when you made this arrangement, and why did you choose to collaborate with Hoffenheim specifically?

Completely, that was our thought process when we approached clubs in the Bundesliga. We wanted to partner with a club that is renowned for the same, and Hoffenheim is not the only club that we will partner with, they are the first to do so, but we will also run this program in conjunction with other Bundesliga clubs in the future.

So we are doing an U-15 and U-17 program, and we are also interested in an U-13 program, in the future, as we think it will be too difficult for 12-year-olds to move at that age. With the current programs, we will have 13-14-year-olds and 16-year-old kids, so there will be two different age groups travelling.

To answer your question as to why we chose Hoffenheim, they have a proven track record of their development model. They are the champions of the U-12, U-13, U-16, U-17 and U-19 leagues in Germany, so they are the ones who are challenging the Bayern Munichs and the Schalkes in terms of the development of players and their growth in football.

With the 2017 U-17 FIFA World Cup in India, do you believe the program has an eye on getting players ready such that they can make the step up to the U-17 Indian team?

That is definitely an influence on our program, the fact that we can have players ready by the 2017 U-17 World Cup. This program in Germany is being supported very well by the people responsible for development of children in football, and they, in Germany, are completely aligned with the thought that we need to produce the best players for India. They believe that if the kids do the training program well, then there should be a handful of players, not just two or three, but close to ten, who should be able to make the team. 

The fact that the players will be placed in a competitive environment day-in, day-out and will play matches in the league against other talented kids, will ensure that they develop very well and have a better chance than say kids in Kalyani, Goa or Mumbai.

U-dream football program layout and details

Will Hoffenheim be open to the prospect of the participants of the program, if found to be good enough, joining their academy teams on a full-time basis?

Yes, they are very open to that possibility, and at the moment, are very eager to see, if some of the kids can make that move from the training program to the academy teams. Right now, we are not even thinking about it, because it is just too early, and we do not want to put any pressure on the children who do join the program. 

For the moment, we are happy with the fact that these Indian kids will get the chance to work at a world-class club as part of a full-time program for the first time, which itself is great for them.

You have proven Indian team players like Subrata Pal and Mahesh Gawli associated with the program. What do you think they bring to the initiative?

Subrata is the spokesperson, and will keep an eye on the program, but Mahesh Gawli is the heart and soul of the program. He is one of the most respected Indian footballers in the country, came out of the best football academy in Indian football, the Tata Football Academy, and wants to give these kids the chance and facilities to come up to international standards at a young age, which he himself couldn’t do. Having him there is cutting edge, as he knows what the shortcomings are, and he is the man who will run this program.

Having said that, Subrata is probably the Indian player I know of, who has played abroad the most. He has been a part of teams in Europe for six-eight months, and has good experience there. He has also experienced German football closely, having worked with Red Bull Leipzig in the past. Having guys like these with the program is just a great thing. 

Also, I would like to have more Indian players who have had the chance to go abroad and try-out for different clubs associated with the program going forward, as the presence of these players will go a long way to convincing the children to participate, as they can then understand they too can make it as a professional football player. The fact that we are giving them a chance to go to Germany and learn from the best is very important, as it immediately gives them an advantage, and increases the chances that they can make it. 

I believe that Europe is still the best place to be if you are a professional footballer, as you can see by the number of South Americans and African plying their trade their, and I think it is a given that if we are able to send more players abroad and to Europe, the competitiveness of the Indian football team will go up.

How have you planned to ensure that you get the best talent to choose from whom you can send to Germany? Do you intend to open an academy in India in the future?

Well, the Indian Schools tournament is going to be the biggest tournament for children in schools, and schools should ensure that the kids participate in as many matches as possible. This tournament will go on for about six months in the year, so it will help raise the competitiveness of the participants. What their regular participation will do is that it will help them grab our attention that much more, and aid in their selection as part of the select few who get the chance to go to Germany and train regularly with Hoffenheim. 

Although we might think about starting an academy here, it is not in our plans right now, and for the sole reason that it is easy to establish a very high-quality academy, with the best of facilities, but difficult to sustain the quality of children graduating the academy in the absence of regular competition. This has come directly from the TFA boys. They came from the most cutting edge academy in India, and they never got any proper competition, and were able to play only one or two proper matches in a year. 

The absence of competition is a big hindrance to establishing an academy, and it is only the competitive nature of a game that helps harness the talent of a young 13-14 year old kid and give it direction. That is where we think playing in Europe will make the difference.

How important do you think is Hoffenheim’s complete involvement with the program?

The fact that it is a completely engaged program from TSG Hoffenheim is what adds the value to this initiative. The entire process will be completely overseen by the Hoffenheim staff, and monitored regularly, parallel to their own academy kids. There will be regular fifteen day report cards of every player’s performances, and there will be a monthly assessment of their progress at school and on the field. 

Traning, fitness and diet schedules will be drawn out for the players just like for the Hoffenheim academy players, so it will be running parallel to their academy set-up with the same coaching staff. It will ensure a lot of professionalism and see that players receive the best of coaching. 

Thanks a lot for your time Supratik, and we hope this program turns out to be very fruitful for India in the coming future.

Thank you Vinay, and yes, we are positive it will be!

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