ISL 2018/19: 'Bengaluru FC is the benchmark,' says Mumbai City FC CEO Indranil Das Blah
Back in our younger days, finding open spaces to play football was a significant achievement. If you've lived in the chockablock streets of Mumbai, you'd know what I'm talking about.
We started in the upper echelons when we played ball in the spacious and green Joggers Park. Having real grass under our shoes was truly a luxury. But pretty soon we were relegated when a stray shot broke a jogger's spectacles.
Then came the buildings. As soon as it was starting to get fun, a terribly inaccurate pass found a window and we had to find a new place to play.
But unlike a certain London club, we didn't have great issues finding a home ground, and shifted to the parking lot. And so the process continued.
Us young dreamers did at some point think of making it professional though. But as we grew up, most of the guys fell into the trap, better known as engineering, medical, CA, you get the point.
But then there were these select few kids, who may not have made it pro, but stuck to their guns, stuck to their studs, and chose to make a career in the field of their passion.
One such inspiration is Indranil Das Blah, CEO of Mumbai City FC. The man from Shillong heads the backroom staff of the Indian Super League club and Sportskeeda was fortunate enough to sit down and speak with him. Here’s how that went:
Looking back, there have been some unpleasant incidents at the club, like the rift between Andre Moritz and Nicolas Anelka in season 2. As a CEO, what is your course of action in such times?
Our philosophy is very clear. I will try to be the negotiator, and unruffle the feathers. But ultimately the philosophy of the team remains constant - you hire the coach and let him run the ship. You could be right, or there could be learnings. But from season 2, we were very clear that Anelka is the man in charge of the ship, and that was the thinking behind our call.
Unless the coach has done something detrimental to the club, we'll always let the coach decide what's best. I can't tell exactly what went wrong, but there was a clash of personalities, and ultimately it got to such a stage where the club had to take sides.
And like I said, you always back the coach. Moritz is a great guy, did really well for the club and it's unfortunate that it ended the way it did. But there was no wrong party, it was just a relation that went slightly sour. There was a mutual termination of contract.
If you have unhappy players in a club, that breeds cancer. One unhappy player could spread negativity throughout the club and that's what we learned from. This year, so far we've had a good season because this is a team. Whether you're playing or not, it's all about keeping a team together and that is our main learning from season 2. You can not have factions.
Absolutely. Did you ever imagine being the CEO of a football club at some point?
So, as soon as I left my college, I started my career with sports. I interviewed in 2002, at a time when there were few agencies in the country, and I was lucky to get a role in a small golf marketing company called Tiger Sports. I was very clear I want to do sports and now it's been 18 years and Mumbai City sort of just fell into my lap.
Was it in my plans? No. But I guess it's just about being in the right place at the right time. Ranbir was already a part of Kwan (Indranil's talent management agency), so when he decided to buy a club, he just felt we're the right people. So yeah, it's a matter of right place, right time. But it's the best job one could ask for.
If someone asked you to name another Indian club that inspires yours, which one would it be?
Bengaluru FC is the benchmark, in terms of how a football club is run in India. They have an owner deeply invested in the sport, and with deep pockets. At times people forget the fact that clubs like ours, and the Northeast, are run not by companies, but you know, individuals.
BFC with JSW have been able to establish their foundation right. They've got their own accommodation, their own training facility, their own sports centre. So, to be a truly successful club you need to have your own assets. In a place like Bombay, and with an owner who's not, you know, a corporate, it is a challenge.
While BFC and even Jamshedpur remain benchmarks, it's not a realistic objective for us. Given the circumstances, the limited budget, I think we're doing a good job. It isn't going to happen soon, but eventually we do want our own assets - our own stadium, accommodation, training facility, our own academy.
5 years into this league, what other significant learnings can you tell us about?
Every single year has been a learning. Year 1, we had Peter Reid. We learned that firstly, English coaches may not be best-suited to the Indian game. And secondly, maybe you should go for a coach who's slightly younger, perhaps more motivated. Reid was a great guy, but maybe because he was much older, it was difficult for him to adapt to Indian conditions.
Year 2 we learned that you can not have a player-manager. The reason why we took that call is honestly to save money, and we did. We were very impressed with Anelka in year one - his technical knowledge and how he was as a person. I wouldn't blame our problems on the pitch in season 2 on him, and I think he did all that was expected.
But a player-manager does not work out because the mind-space is just not enough. And also, you can not hire a coach after picking a team. So the coach doesn't have his own tools, and he was given players that didn't suit his vision. That was our mistake then.
For year 3, we first hired the coach and then built the team around him, and that was a good year. But in year 4 we got complacent. At some level, we trusted the coach's knowledge more than we should have when it came to Indian players. Alex Guimaraes is a great coach, tactically one of ISL's best, but maybe we overestimated his knowledge of Indian players when we should've given him more information ourselves.
The ISL is a really funny animal, it's unlike any other league, because if a team starts doing well, they must build on that. But that hasn't happened in the ISL. So our challenge would be - assuming we make it into the top 4 - to replicate the successes of this year in season 6, and retain the core of the team.
If we can retain our coach for next year, great. But what if a European side comes calling with ten times the money we can offer? We can't do much about that. Then all our plans of stability go for a toss. But with that said, 90% of our Indian players are on multiple-year contracts. And among internationals who we have on a multiple-season contract, there is Lucian Goian.
That's what Watson and the team have done really well. This year we decided to spend significantly on our Indian players. In the past, we spent around 65-70% budget on internationals and rest on Indians. But now with us having to play 6 Indians, we need to have a strong Indian base. So this year we've spent over 50% on Indians, and not just our starting 6, but also our backups, which is why I think we're having a good season.
That's where I think a couple of other teams are lacking. This year, unfortunately, we lost Davinder before the season who was critical to our team. But we haven't missed him as much since we have someone like a Shouvik to cover. This wasn't the case earlier when we lost Aibor (Khongjee) in pre-season and struggled at right-back during season 4. This year we have quality backups.
With the learnings now established, can you take us through the goals for Mumbai City FC?
When we started, we had short, medium and long-term plans. Right now we're at the medium phase - and here we planned to be a successful club on and off the field. On it, we've had mixed results. We would've had wanted to win the ISL by season 5, but I hope that happens this year.
Off it, we wanted to be successful in terms of sponsors, and retain our main sponsors. Not many clubs can speak about a 4-year relation with their sponsor quite like we've had with Ace group.
In the medium term, we also wished to be sustainable, and that we are. In our long-term, we hope to be one of the most successful clubs in Asia on the field. Which is - by year 8 or 10, we wish to be fighting for the AFC Cup.
And off it, we want to own our assets - a stadium, training ground, accommodation. And yeah, we seem to be on track. If we don't win the ISL this year, we may have failed slightly in terms of the medium term, but really you can't control what happens on the pitch.
Fair enough. And what's a piece of advice you'd give youngsters hoping to be in your position someday?
I've done English Literature honours, that's it. Nothing to do with sports. I was determined not to do anything else, but sport. I never believed in a degree. What we do is not rocket science. We just require the basics - you need to know your sport, and you need to get the business of sport.
When we hire people, we don't look at degrees, we hire people if they've got experience in sports, a passion, and also, an understanding. For example: if you want to interview at Mumbai City, you must understand the ISL ecosystem, the main sponsors, the challenges facing an ISL club.
It's all on the internet, you need no course in today's time. So for someone to break into sports, you must do your research, work hard, and of course, be passionate.
Finally, Indranil, what is your favourite part about this awesome job?
As a football fan, to be working with a football club is ideal. For a guy from Shillong, who's always loved football, to be discussing football with a Costa, who's played at the highest level, with a Forlan, with an Anelka, it doesn't get cooler.
What's important though is to not take this job for granted. It's important to stay humble and grounded. But right now in Indian sport, this is the best job, better than working for a league, better than working for an IPL club. As a football fan, this is a dream, but also definitely a responsibility.