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In the first part of an exclusive interview with Goal, the co-owner of Atletico de Kolkata explains why ISL is the way forward for Indian football…

Harshvardhan Neotia, who is one of the youngest Padma Shree awardees and chairman of the Rs.2000-crore Ambuja-Neotia Group, shares his thoughts on why chose to be a part of the much talked about Indian Super League (ISL) and how it could raise the standard of the domestic football.

Goal:  From real estate to hospitality to education to football – why did you decide to take the plunge in the ISL?

It was a mix of many things. To begin with, I have had a general interest in sports, not particularly football but there has been a desire in mind for some time to get associated with something. When this opportunity came, I read about it and started doing a little bit of homework.

Incidentally it so happened that Sourav (Ganguly) who is a friend of mine, was also doing a similar exploration. He came to know from somebody whom I spoke to, that I was also looking around. So he called me up and asked, ‘If I was interested’. So I said, ‘Yes’.  So he said why don’t we talk and do it together. I thought it would be nice as I didn't know much and probably he also didn’t know much. Sourav being an icon of the city (Kolkata) and a great friend of mine, I said ‘Okay, let’s do it together’. That’s how we got involved and of course, one thing led to another. I contacted my other friends thinking that we may require more resources than the two of us were willing to put in.

Atletico Madrid were also looking for something. Sourav was in Bangladesh doing commentary and he got a call from an Atletico representative saying that they would be happy to join our consortium. Sourav called me up from Bangladesh and said this is the call I got and I am in Bangladesh. That’s when I spoke and had a little chat. Then we met in Dubai and were able to conclude our understanding because there were hardly two or three days left for the bid to be submitted.

Goal: The Kolkata derby is probably the one marquee game in Indian football which sees football fans turn in numbers to the stadium. How would you entice a football fan who focusses on European football to watch the domestic league?

It is clearly about the quality of the game. I think ISL format allows us to upgrade the game from the present level as we will have international players. Also I suppose it depends on how they try to position this entire thing – strategy, marketing, communication. Everything plays a role to ultimately create a fan base. I sense that from the IPL (Indian Premier League) experience, they will learn a few ideas and put something together. I am quite optimistic as this is the world’s most watched sport and I have no reason to believe that India wouldn’t follow suit.

Cricket is a national passion and we performed well as we have international quality players. I think as and when the same can be developed to that standard in football, we will have that success and of course, we have the population. I see the possibilities lie but how it will happen, you will have to wait for a few years to see. I certainly feel optimistic about its possibility.

Goal:  Talking about the infrastructure in Calcutta, is an overhaul required to raise the standard?

The Atletico Madrid representatives said that its fairly adequate from the playing point of view but from a visitor experience, we may need to do some work but this will happen over a period of time. Also the fact that there is going to be the Under-17 World Cup and I believe Salt lake stadium is one of the venues for it. That will also bring in some central government assistance to upgrade.

So all together over a period of time, I think these stadiums will improve. I mean that’s also what we saw in cricket as Eden Gardens transformed in three or four seasons of IPL. So these are massive infrastructural changes which will happen over a period of time.