In the three years of its existence, Delhi Dynamos have never reached the finals of the Indian Super League (ISL), falling at the semi-final hurdle twice in a row. But after a re-jig ahead of the fourth season of the IMG-Reliance owned league, Dynamos' director Rohan Sharma has his sights set on the ultimate prize.
In an exclusive chat with Goal, Rohan Sharma elaborates on the team's aspirations and their partnership with Qatar's Aspire Academy in addition to other facets like recruitment.
"Anything less than the championship is a failure in my eyes. Just because the team has changed, it does not mean the club's expectations haven't. We have a strong team, we have a great coach, and the difference in terms of the quality of the teams in the ISL is very minimal," he expressed.
The Dynamos made some noise in Indian footballing circles when they inked a strategic partnership with Qatar's Aspire Academy which has some of the best training facilities in the world. Instead of tying up with a European club, Delhi's move to tie up with Aspire Academy was made with an eye on long-term development, as per Rohan Sharma.
"When we were transitioning from ISL season three into the season four, we knew we wanted to tie up with a technical partner. We had received offers from prominent clubs but we took an internal decision that we did not want to just follow the tide," he revealed before adding. "At the end of the day partnering with clubs does not give you any long-term solutions.
"Some clubs will say that 'We will train kids in England or Spain etc' or 'We will have friendlies and provide players and coaches' and that's ok for the short term. My personal opinion is that at the end of the day the foreign clubs don't need you and rather you need them. And getting coaches and sending three kids every summer to Europe or South America doesn't really move the needle."
Rohan goes on to explain what they are aiming to achieve from the partnership.
"What made Aspire (Academy) the perfect long-term partnership is that we will be able to actually create a sustainable football ecosystem in Delhi and in Qatar. To me, it's important that we have an academy. It's a basic need for any football club. Even clubs in Greece or Belarus have a youth academy. So, what we are getting is the ability to send 10-12 kids each year to Aspire as part of our 'Elite Program' to train at the Aspire Academy in order for them to become excellent players for DDFC and create national heroes who can start in the Indian National Team.
"They are also bringing expert technical knowhow to us and teaching us methodologies, both technical and pedagogical, to help enhance our club. Aspire is also willing to help us find coaching staff, players etc. To me having the ability to liaise with Sr. Ivan Bravo (Director General of the Aspire Academy) when it comes to big issues and development is a privilege because he has so much experience and helps me understand the industry better."
Delhi Dynamos are also planning to set up an academy in North India, with Aspire's help but an earlier plan of setting up an academy at Lucknow fell through, reveals Rohan.
"This was a previous CEO tie up (Lucknow academy) that wasn't properly planned. Thus it never materialized. Now we are working with Aspire along with our grassroots department to develop a centre somewhere else, either in Delhi or in Northern India. This will be implemented during the offseason at the end of ISL season 4."
Rohan Sharma also pointed out a change in coach and a draft system as the factors behind Delhi Dynamos opting to overhaul their squad for the new ISL season.
"Whenever new ownership comes in there is always changes. Since we came in late last season, we didn't want to rock the boat too much. After being a part of the organization for a year I saw some changes that needed to be made.
"Now obviously, if we didn't have a draft this year the changes wouldn't be that drastic. But let's face it. Most teams have a new squad this year. We just felt that it was crucial to get an excellent Indian Goalkeeper and being able to get Albino (Gomes) is a major feather in our cap. Add to the fact we got the best right-back (Pritam Kotal) in the country who just turned 24 and now suddenly we have two major centrepieces for our club.
"Since we also have a new manager this year, his system is different than Coach Zambrotta's (previous coach) system. Coach Miguel Angel Portugal has different needs in terms of players and we worked closely with him to make sure we have the right pieces."
Delhi have been criticised for not having many local players, which might have contributed to a perceived apathy from football fans in the capital city but Rohan Sharma disagrees with the line of thinking.
"Well, Munmun (Lugun) is from Delhi so that's not entirely true. We also have a lot more players from Punjab this time around. But in any case, when we select Indian players we have to find the best players available.
At the end of the day, we are an Indian team. For me, I don't care where you're from as long as you can be a constructive member of the team and the Delhi community. In any case, I hope to have more Delhi boys in the squad in the future. Also, the majority of our youth teams consists of Delhi boys."
One of the surprising aspects about Delhi's recruitment was that Florent Malouda and Marcelinho, ISL 3's best player and highest goalscorer respectively, were not retained. But Rohan Sharma felt the team's new recruits were more than capable of replacing the duo.
"I have the utmost respect and admiration for Florent (Malouda). He was an excellent leader and represented the club with class and professionalism. But all good things must come to an end. We wanted to have a new page in the Delhi Dynamos chapter.
I think Paulinho, Vinit, and (Matias) Mirabaje have a lot to offer in terms of replacement. But I will always have a special place in my heart for Flo and everything he did for the club.
"We did approach Marcelinho. Unfortunately, things did not work out as it so happens in football (he moved to FC Pune City). But DDFC has a strong history of identifying attacking talent as shown by the examples of (Giovanni) Dos Santos or (Richard) Gadze. I have really high expectations for Guyon (Fernandez) and (Jeroen) Lumu this year and I'm sure they will live up to the high standards."
Rohan spoke eloquently when asked what inspired him to take over Delhi Dynamos, pointing out a burning desire to see Indians excel in sport.
"For me, I wanted to see Indians excel in sports. You hear all the stereotypes when you live abroad about how Indians are not good in sports besides cricket. I think it would be amazing to develop an Indian football culture in a country with so many people. There is that old Russell Peters joke that said, 'In a country with a billion people, how can we not find 11 people to play in a football team?!' I think the time is now to change that narrative and we want to help steer that ship into a positive direction."
He was also optimistic of the club breaking even with the ISL becoming more popular day-by-day.
"I certainly hope so! I think the more the ISL gets publicized and achieves a better standing in the world, it will become more sustainable. We also have to achieve AFC Cup qualification. Overseas sponsors and investors will see this and will be keener to invest in the league."
Delhi Dynamos currently play their home games at the Jawaharlal Nehru stadium in Delhi where they struggle to fill out the stands during ISL games. Many have suggested that they move to the Ambedkar stadium, which has a lesser capacity. However, Rohan is not convinced by the facilities at the Ambedkar stadium currently.
"If Ambedkar's facilities improve then I have no problem. But it needs a lot of work in order to make it into a top Indian Stadium. Track notwithstanding, Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium is a very impressive structure. But we will evaluate and see if anything can be done every offseason because we don't like to leave any stone unturned."