“It’s more a matter of culture than a conscious decision”, Arunava Chaudhuri says. “I was born and brought up in Germany and nearly everyone is involved with football in some form or the other. It’s quite normal. My fascination with Indian football in particular was fostered when I underwent five years of schooling in my formative years in Kolkata. That’s where my inclination towards the sport began truly.”
Chaudhuri has been working in Indian football for over two decades now, moving from writer to AIFF’s media manager and then to COO with Mumbai City FC and advisor at RoundGlass Sports. “In those days, there was no social media and the AIFF was not as big an organisation as it is now. They did not have a media department and so when they toured England in 2000, they needed someone to coordinate things with regards to the press. Thanks to my experience with indianfootball.com which I had started in 1998, they felt that I’d be able to perform that role and spread the word to not only India but also around the world regarding the performances and happenings of that tour.”
The England tour in 2000 was a highly significant one with the national team led by Bhaichung Bhutia drawing with West Bromwich Albion, beating Bangladesh in Leicester and losing to Fulham by two goals. “It was certainly one of the defining moments of the sport in India in the time that I have worked in it. It goes right up there with the rest of the achievements in the recent past.” Indian football has undergone some drastic changes since he started in the heady days of the late 90s. He reflects on some of the key points which have shaped the sport.
“The formation of the National Football League in 1996 was fundamental to the spread of the sport and its transformation to the I-league a decade later was important as well. India’s qualification for the 2011 Asian Cup is probably the standout moment in the past two decades because it was important for the people to see us going toe to toe with the Asian elite. It was integral to making the sport more popular in the country. In the more recent past the start of the ISL in 2014 and now its merger with the I-league have taken the sport in a different direction”
Much has been said of this merger and AIFF’s proposed roadmap for the sport in coming years. Critics believe that making the ISL the premier league in the country is rather exclusionary and will be detrimental to the sport’s development while others argue that the investment brought in by the ISL has warranted its higher status. Chaudhuri leans mostly towards the latter section.
“It’s quite an unprecedented predicament really. On the one hand, you have a European style league in the I-league with promotion, relegation and its caveats and on the other, you have an American MLS style franchise-based league. I don’t think any country has faced such a decision before. If you look at the investment in the ISL, not only by Reliance but also by the franchise owners then it is quite a considerable amount of money and that is what Indian football needs at this point of time.
The I-league as the second division will help create a pyramid that is needed at the top. Eventually we definitely should be thinking about moving from a 16-team league to a 20-team one and incorporating promotion and relegation into ISL. We need a structural plan to move forward and then build regional leagues in the lower divisions which are further fed by state and city leagues. The direction should be streamlining the process from the bottom to the top which is quite fragmented as of now.”
Along with the merger of the leagues has come the merger of arguably the two biggest clubs in each league – ATK and Mohun Bagan. Chaudhuri, a lifelong East Bengal fan, can’t help but feel slightly jealous of perennial rivals Bagan. “Their fans should consider themselves lucky! The reality is that Mohun Bagan would be struggling like East Bengal had it not been for the merger. Since the UB group moved out of Kingfisher East Bengal and McDowell’s Mohun Bagan, both clubs have struggled for corporate backing to run their teams. Finding sponsors with the amounts that you expect is very difficult and often unrealistic given the economic situation. You also must not discount ATK in the merger, they are three-time ISL champions and as long as the two clubs’ officials handle it professionally the new ATK-Mohun Bagan should be a huge success.”
And what of East Bengal? The club faced a legal battle with its sponsors Quess Corp who have pulled out of their contract early citing the Covid-19 pandemic but there were reports from within the club of the same back in January as well. “I think the whole thing could have been avoided from both sides. There have been mistakes made by both parties and at the moment it’s more about finding an amicable solution that works for the corporate owner as well as the club. There were some misconceptions about how this whole thing came. If needed, they should try and play in the I-league and then move to the ISL with the right partner in a couple of years. Worst case scenario, they wait until the sporting route of promotion into the ISL is open and utilise that.”
Chaudhuri has worked as an advisor to RoundGlass sports who had bought out Bajaj at Minerva Punjab and speaks fondly of the project. “The whole project was about setting up and planning the youth development part of the club in not only Chandigarh but around Punjab state as well so we could bring in the right people and the right resources with the club.” The plan seems to have worked well with the club winning the Hero Junior Youth League in 2019.
He was also the Chief Operating Officer at Mumbai City FC in the nascent stages of the ISL and helped in setting the club up. “It was a very exciting and challenging phase to build a team and a franchise out of nothing. We did what we felt was needed to put the team together. In retrospect, we can see that we did not do everything right but we gave it our best and it was definitely a very unique experience.”
There are few people who hold the multi-faceted view of football that he has with his deep insight into both Indian and German football and one cannot help but ask him to compare the two before signing off. “Well I don’t think that comparison should be made at all. The German league and systems have developed over decades and have evolved so many times and that process has just begun in India. To compare the two would be unfair to both countries. There is a lot that India can learn from Germany however and we can only hope that the sport can achieve the same level of quality and popularity that it holds here.”