Rohan Sharma and Delhi Football: Building more than the Dynamos
"Action is character; a person is what he does, not what he says," - Syd Field.
Ahh! The Delhi Dynamos - a rare breed in the ISL. Whilst most are still unravelling the mystery of what the ISL truly is and what it really means to run a football club - proper - at least after the big expansion - the Lions seem to have an identity and certain distinct direction towards which the club is heading or at least how I may put, is trying to head.
When I first met Rohan Sharma, the director of the club at the ISL Draft, there were many things that caught the eye - his geeky choice of glass frames, his deep accent which landed him in trouble whilst calling out his picks but most importantly his youthful exuberance. He had an energy about him and that lit up the room wherever he went.
And that energy was flowing even when he spoke to the journalists off-stage. He spoke (for an ample amount of time) of building from the grassroots and his plans to tap into the potential that Delhi has. Grand plans indeed. But as I can recall time and again with many an official from clubs across India, those were just words.
Sharma, however, proved to be a man not only talks the talk but also who walks the walk.
The moment it all started and the long walk to Delhi
"It's funny I can remember the exact month and year I got into football. It was June 2010 during the World Cup and Landon Donovan had scored a stoppage-time goal against Algeria which ensured that the USA would go into the next round of the World Cup," spoke a candid Sharma, who had spent the majority of his life in the USA.
"I was in the UK at the time and I was the only person in the restaurant going insane and yelling like crazy. Ever since then I became a huge football fan. Watching the World Cup and seeing the USA do well really kick-started that love."
It's moments like these for many around the world that can change lives and makes you fall in love with the beautiful game. But not many get to do what Rohan Sharma has on his plate. Times have changed (but enthusiasm really hasn't) and so has the responsibility on his shoulders as he heads the Dynamos' charge into the new season - truly getting to grips with the task in hand in front of him.
And whilst we didn't see him at the forefront of the action from the Delhi team last season. You are sure not to miss him this time around.
"It (the responsibility) has changed a lot. Last year I wasn't as visible because I was trying to get a hold of living in India and understanding the ISL. Now that I have a good handle on the league, I was willing to step up and take on more responsibilities whether it is technical related or marketing related.
"I work very closely with everyone from kits, to players, to marketing, to planning etc. We have an absolutely amazing staff and it starts from bringing someone so experienced like Ashish Shah (CEO) to help me build the team long term."
Walking the walk
Sharma came across as a person who was genuine with his words when he spoke. No real corporate language filters or the snobbish 'owner' attitude. His emotions ebbed and flowed in the conversation. He genuinely looked like he cared. He owned the conversations but with a smile on his face.
"You really have to be there, man. On the grounds where people can see you. Then only they will believe in you. It just can't only be posters and the logos there. I have to be there and so have to be our stars like Albino and Pritam be there when we have the tournaments and camps.
"The club has to do its part to reach out to the community. We have to get more involved with schools and at the grassroots level to motivate kids to be a part of this beautiful game. Expect us to be heavily interacting with the city this season.
"Also, this is where the technical partnership with Aspire plays a major role. I want the next Indian football superstar to come from Delhi. We need the city to rally around one of their own making it big.
"It starts from our squad. It's one of the reasons why we went so young in the draft. I want the fans to grow up with our players. Up until now outside of Anas and Souvik there has been not much consistency in our lineups.
This year all our key players are under the age of 25, so for the next five-seven years, the fans can identify with the players."
"When the kids see the stars come out and get in touch with them. That's when the magic happens."
His words looked heartfelt and a few months later, he proved that with his actions.
And that was evident in his signing of foreigners for the upcoming edition of the ISL. For a club that has benefitted the most due to well-scouted signings (except for the Del Piero debacle), it was not the names that they brought in this time around that resonated. Rather it was the number. Seven. One short of the eight foreigners that the ISL allows in a team's squad.
And he followed it up with an even bigger reaction on social media as he made his intentions clear that the team envisages a future where even less number of foreigners take the field for the Dynamos. A bold move.
More than just the Dynamos
Rohan Sharma is, however, not done and dusted with just the Dynamos. He believes in the power and passion of Indian football and especially the region of Delhi.
"You just have to look at two names - Sunil Chhetri and Sandesh Jhingan. Two of the biggest names in Indian football and where are they from? The northern heartland," quips the ever-fervent Sharma.
"There is this misconception that Indians don't care about football, which is radically untrue. When I came to Delhi full time, I didn't know what to expect. But there are so many football fans in this country. And the fans that support the ISL are so passionate.
"DDFC gets a bad rep for not having fans or passionate fans and that's so untrue.
"Every day I get messages from fans critiquing or praising the moves the club makes. Even at games, the Ultras are so loud and they will scream themselves hoarse to be heard."
The faith in Indian players is something you have to genuinely admire in this guy. And whilst a lot of the purists in Indian football still are not clear about kind of a long-term impact the ISL will have on the footballing dynamics in the country, the man is gung-ho about his vision.
"Indian players are really good. They just need the right coaching and have someone believe in them. I've said this story before but I remember last year there was a point where Souvik came off a couple games not playing the best and I remember watching practice nervously in Goa before our match against FC Goa," elaborates the man on a mission.
"After practice, coach Zambrotta pulled Souvik aside and spent like 20 minutes working with him. Souvik worked harder than I ever seen him in those 20 minutes. After that, he played brilliantly the remainder of the season."
Rohan aspires Delhi Dynamos to be "the developmental powerhouse in India".
In the past, the Dynamos have focused too much on signing marquee names and while it has raised the profile of the club it hasn't done much to win championships. And under the stewardship of the Rohan Sharma, they have decided that they rather invest that money into building a centre so they can see the benefits long term.
Grassroots, he has declared "is a big part of our plans for now and the future". And with the Aspire program in place, the Dynamos hope to not only help develop kids in Delhi but also take select athletes to the elite program in Doha.
This he feels "will ensure they will get the best training in the world as well as a free education".
"Aspire is going to help us develop our own training centre here, so even if in the future we are no longer associated with Aspire, we have a base to keep developing and growing players.
"If we want the ISL to be the top league in not just in India but in the AFC as well, we have to grow our players and keep developing young talent," he added.
Grassroots football. Development. Long-term.
Heavy words and yet used with so much nonchalance time and again in Indian football that to have faith in anyone who utter them. Yet in Rohan Sharma, we have one who has shown the guts to go the tough path. And long may it continue.