I-League may not be the top-tier domestic football competition anymore in India but the Delhi based Sudeva FC's entry into the league made a lot of headlines, mainly because the decision means the national capital would have representation in the championship for the first time.
All India Football Federation (AIFF) on 12 August approved Sudeva's entry into I-League for the upcoming 2020-21 season. Sudeva will be immune from relegation for the upcoming season as they take the I-League plunge through a corporate entry.
AIFF's decision also means Delhi would once again have a club in either Indian Super League (ISL) or I-League. The city was without a team since ISL franchise Delhi Dynamos moved to Odisha.
Sudeva was founded in 2014 by Anuj Gupta and Vijay Hakari and in 2016, when they bought senior division club called Moonlight FC, later renamed as Sudeva Moonlight FC. They have fielded teams in DSA (Delhi Soccer Association) Senior Division and in various age-group tournaments from Under-13 to Under-18. Sudeva's major focus area has been grassroots development, the club runs a residential academy in Delhi-NCR region and also has majority stake in Spanish football club Olimpic de Xativa, which plays in the Tercera Division.
We are in Hero I-League. Thank you AIFF and everyone who has shown trust in us. I promise to develop a great team and players who could represent in the India National Team.
" Anuj gupta (@SudevaAcademy) August 12, 2020
The upcoming I-League season, which will be held only in Kolkata due to the coronavirus pandemic, will not be Sudeva's first appearance in a national league though. They participated in the I-League second division in 2016-17 and failed to move up. The club feels they are now better placed to pursue top level football ambitions.
"After 2016-17 we decided that we need to focus more at the base and need to make the foundation stronger, focus more on the residential system and get the youth set-up ready. This year we felt it was the right time. There is no club from Delhi also, Delhi Dynamos have moved to Odisha, so overall it was the right time to make the move," Sudeva co-owner Anuj Gupta tells Firstpost.
"2015 is when I made a plan for 10 years and my initial plan to enter I-League was in 2019, so we were ready. We also have the experience of managing a senior club team from Spain's third division [fourth tier] for last two years. We have been handling 100 kids every year and they are now graduating, so for me to give them a proper platform is very important, otherwise we would have lost this talent."
The club has already begun the process of recruitment for the upcoming season. Sudeva's academy players would form a big part of the squad, including players from Delhi, while experienced players would be brought in from outside. The club plans to hold a trial in September to select remaining players before organising a two-month pre-season. There are no plans to sign any overseas players for the upcoming season and the club confirms that it would have an "all-Indian contingent".
Delhi has a rich and passionate history of football but the sport has had few takers in the modern era with cricket ruling the roost in the city. The imminent challenge for Sudeva would be to make majority of Delhiites identify with the club, something Dynamos failed to do in their five years in the national capital. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the city residents won't have the opportunity to watch the team from the stands but the club has its plans in place to enhance their social media presence among the people of Delhi.
A red letter day for football in Delhi.
The first team from Delhi to be part of @ILeagueOfficial
Let's celebrate this historic day and support Sudeva FC in its endeavour. pic.twitter.com/wQzTAVbD72
" Shaji Prabhakaran (@Shaji4Football) August 12, 2020
"We plan to start a campaign in Delhi so people know that we are a club for Delhi-wallas, so that we can increase the fan base on social media. This season fans can't come to watch us in the stadium but it will be about how many people we can put online to support us when we play," says Gupta.
"I will be talking to Delhi government next week, if they come onboard as part of the campaign it will be great. Because it's not just important for Sudeva to do well, if we do well Delhi's name gets stronger. It's important for the capital city to do well in a sport for the sport to grow. I am not going to tell the government that I want money, my message will be it's your club also, so in whatever capacity you come in, it will be really great for people to know about it."
Producing players for the national team is what Sudeva describes as its "main goal" and the I-League participation could just be a sojourn as the club prepares for top level football experience.
"The plan is to be in ISL in three or four years. In the long-term it seems like the national team would only be selected from top division. Our main goal is how many players can we give to the national team and for that I need to be in the top division," says Gupta.
In a very short period, Sudeva have managed to catch attention for their grassroots development work but good intentions and hard work can only take you so far in Indian football, an ecosystem which could be more unforgiving than any. In recent years, numerous popular and old clubs have ceased operations due to financial pressure. It's arguably the biggest of challenge for Sudeva.
I don't want a situation where we shut down operations in few years - which many clubs are doing. We have a responsibility towards all the players that are dreaming, who are coming to Sudeva with dreams
The club is determined to run its operations in a manner where it remains self-sustainable. The owners plan to expand their residential academy operations to fund the "first team".
"I have a 70-30 model. 70 percent of the kids in residential model pay for it and 30 percent are under full scholarship. So based on this model I am able to save money. It has taken a hit due to the pandemic but in normal circumstances that saving could have been used for the first team. The savings, sponsorship money and AIFF money (subsidy) would have been enough for me to have a good budget," says Gupta.
"The first team will never be dependent on sponsors, that would be 30 percent of the budget. Self-sustainability is the key. I am looking to open a school in Uttarakhand with a residential football academy. I have done some real estate scouting in Kolkata, so hopefully we will have a school there in coming years. So my savings from these schools along with sponsorship money should be good enough for me to even have a club in ISL. This way I will not be dependent on anyone.
"I don't want a situation where we shut down operations in few years - which many clubs are doing. We have a responsibility towards all the players that are dreaming, who are coming to Sudeva with a dream and feel Sudeva can take their dreams forward. We need more clubs to come up and stay afloat."
Still sponsors' money remains vital for football clubs, it provides them the extra cushion which could allow them to invest in expensive players and improve infrastructure. Poor broadcast of I-League matches, however, can dent the plans of clubs to attract sponsors. Sudeva also has a detailed plan in place to tackle such a situation.
"My expectations from sponsorship money is lesser than market rate, so I hope I am able to achieve the target. Considering the pandemic and the fact that TRP has gone slightly down for I-league. My value for our sponsor for this year would be that our social media reach is already very strong, so how much stronger can we become pan India. How many tie ups with feeder academies will we have pan India. My plan is to have 100 such tie ups within this year, so having presence in so many locations would also bring value to sponsors."
Sudeva had an unexceptional start with football academies which later developed into a successful residential academy and now an I-League club. They would be putting Delhi back on Indian football map and have meticulous plans to expands their wings further. The toughest period, however, is about to begin for Sudeva, the jump in standard of competition is going to be exponential, from Delhi Senior Division League to I-League. Running a professional club sustainably is a different ball game than running an academy. If they successful tread through it, the rewards should be rich, for Delhi, the club and Indian football.