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INSIGHT-The billionaire, Bollywood and the future of Indian football

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* Reliance of Mukesh Ambani controls the Indian Super League

* Glamorous clubs featured Bollywood owners, star players

* But Reliance faces a decline in football leaders

* Some clubs outside the new league say Indian play is suffering

* The billionaire Ambani is dominant on the corporate scene in India

By Alexandra Ulmer and Sudipto Ganguly

MUMBAI, July 1 (Reuters) – A storm may be brewing in leading Indian football, a glamorous and acrimonious world that includes Asia’s richest man, the cream of Bollywood and a self-proclaimed former gangster.

Mukesh Ambani, the billionaire tycoon who controls the corporate empire Reliance Industries which owns the Indian Super League, is facing the domination of his family by certain executives of the association and the country’s football clubs.

At stake is the financial future of football in a country dedicated to cricket. The outcome of the power struggle could also help determine whether India could become a global force in the game, realizing the description of ex-FIFA president Sepp Blatter as a “sleeping giant” – and, of course, the big dream: if it could one day play or even host a World Cup.

Ambani’s holding group launched the Indian Super League, an elite competition of newly created teams, in 2014 with the aim of attracting investment and big names from around the world, much like the Indian Premier League in cricket.

However, tensions have arisen over who ends up being the culprit: the Indian Football Association, which technically governs football at all levels, or the Ambani group which owns the top 10-team league.

It is a rare division of powers in world football, and a recent dispute between the Ambani camp and the association illustrated different visions on the direction of the Indian game, whose national team is ranked 108th in the world.

This year, before the COVID-19 pandemic, a senior member of the Indian football association, Kushal Das, wrote to Martin Bain, Lieutenant Ambani, who heads Football Sports Development Limited (FSDL), a proprietary Reliance holding company. of the league.

The national trainer, employed by the association, complained that the recruitment of so many foreign recruits in Indian football could slow down the development of local players. Das, in an email exchange in March seen by Reuters, said the governing body had the right to limit the number of foreign players allowed to participate in the Super League.

The dismissals were quick.

“Contrary to the position in your e-mail, all competition rules must rather be approved by the FSDL,” Bain replied, according to a copy of the e-mail exchange seen by Reuters.

The football association has backed down for this season.

Reliance and FSDL representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article. The football association’s director of media, Nilanjan Datta, declined to comment, but said the questions about the tensions with the FSDL were “baseless”.

Bain and Das’ requests for comments, via FSDL and the association, were not processed.

TWO HALF INDIAN GAME

The problem of players is disputed worldwide; some argue that imported veterans hamper domestic talent, while others say they raise standards and share their skills and experience.

But the exchange also reflects a conflict within the Indian game.

The FSDL and supporters of the Ambani family said that the Super League had raised awareness and raised funds for a disorderly and underinvested sector, and had recruited renowned players like the Italian Alessandro Del Piero and the Frenchman Robert Pires.

Ambani’s wife Nita, president of the FSDL and public face of the league, expressed the hope that India would qualify for the 2026 World Cup and one day host the event. And some owners of Super League clubs have committed to what they see as a football revolution.

“Indian players are enjoying the arrival of foreigners and quality coaches,” said Mandar Tamhane, CEO of JSW Bengaluru FC. “Football has become much more tactical and technical,” he added. “The exhibition has helped Indian football to develop.”

But the Ambanis’ influence is felt by some club owners of the traditional Indian football league, the I-League, who say that the Super League attracts attention and investment from the rest of the game and slows its long-term development. term.

“This is a hostile takeover if there has ever been one. They basically own football,” said Ranjit Bajaj, a self-proclaimed former gangster who found redemption in football, and a prominent figure. of the game that brought the Punjab I-League team to a national championship in 2018 as an owner. “It’s truly sad.”

Ambanis did not respond to requests for comment made via Reliance.

The family is used to the domination of national enterprises.

The Reliance Empire, with a market value of around $ 153 billion, includes India’s largest telecommunications company, a large retailer, its largest refining complex, a media outlet, and a Bollywood studio. The group’s revenues in the past fiscal year have represented about 3% of the $ 2.9 trillion Indian economy.

“SUCH A DIFFICULT SITUATION”

Reliance and partner IMG Worldwide bailed out the cash-strapped football association a decade ago, committing to donate approximately $ 140 million over 15 years in exchange for sponsorship, license fees and management. of the Super League.

The association remains dependent on the money from the transaction. He sent six emails to Reliance executives between May and October of last year, reviewed by Reuters, indicating that payments of $ 6 million had not been received. One warned of a “serious cash crisis” and said the association should suspend payments to suppliers.

A Reliance executive responded twice, saying once that it would take longer to release the payment, then saying that the payment was in progress.

Reliance did not respond to requests for comment on this email exchange.

The football association has examined whether it would be possible to renegotiate parts of the contract, according to an audio recording examined by Reuters of its president speaking to the leaders of the I-League at a meeting last year, although that it is not clear which parts.

“When you are dealing with a giant like FSDL, whose parent is Reliance, legally you will land in such a difficult situation,” declared the president of the association Praful Patel at the meeting in July.

He said the FSDL had saved the association from debt, adding “They have invested so much money”.

Patel did not respond to requests for comment made through the football association.

COMPANY MEETS BOLLYWOOD

So far, however, the Super League itself has proven neither extremely popular nor lucrative – a rarity for an Ambani company. Stadium attendance has halved in the past six years, and the pandemic may worsen the situation.

Of course, creating a profitable league in mad cricket India was always going to be a difficult task. But industry veterans say Ambani made a mistake by excluding clubs of Indian origin and creating an independent tournament without promotion or relegation.

“It was a 100% wasted opportunity. The money coming in is welcome, but it should be spent appropriately and not just create hype,” said senior sports commentator Novy Kapadia.

The eight original Super League clubs belonged to Bollywood heavyweights like Ranbir Kapoor, cricket champions including Sachin Tendulkar and prominent businessmen, although several have since left. Two new teams joined in 2017.

Ambani’s group originally planned in 2014 that the clubs would be profitable in about five years, according to an industry source with first-hand knowledge of the issue.

However, none of the eight original clubs, whose latest financial statements have been reviewed by Reuters, had reached breakeven by March 2019, with the exception of Bengaluru, with a profit of around $ 234,000.

FSDL, in which Reliance owns 65% and Star India, Walt Disney-owned broadcaster, 35%, has significant control over the clubs, according to a 2014 draft contract seen by Reuters.

Clubs must select coaches from a league-approved list, cannot sell shares without approval, and must spend at least $ 500,000 per season on marketing.

Star India referred questions to the FSDL.

Sports commentator Kapadia said the future of the league depends on the billionaires continuing to fund their clubs, especially since the next season may be delayed and played without foreign players or spectators due to the coronavirus.

“The blow will be very severe,” he said, but added that the league would continue “as long as there are enough rich people in India to burn money.” (Report by Alexandra Ulmer and Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by Pravin Char)

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