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Indian Super League

ISL: Some success on the pitch but not so smooth sailing off it for franchises partnering with foreign club

05:52 EAT 22/08/2018
Atletico de Kolkata ISL Champions season 3 2016
Tie-ups with foreign clubs have yielded mixed results for Indian Super League franchises so far...

European clubs looking to scale up their imprints on new developing markets like India and China has been a noticeable trend for some time now.

A few I-League clubs down the years have entered into tie-ups with European clubs down the years and their Indian Super League (ISL) counterparts haven’t been far behind ever since the league came into formation in 2014.

Three ISL franchises formed some sort of a tie-up with foreign clubs before the start of the inaugural edition. Spanish LaLiga outfit Atletico Madrid partnered up with the then Atletico de Kolkata franchise, Delhi Dynamos entered into a strategic alliance with Dutch Eredivisie side Feyenoord while FC Pune City inked a technical partnership with Italian Serie A outfit Fiorentina.

Atletico Madrid’s foray into India involved them buying a 25 per cent stake in the Kolkata franchise while also providing technical support.

The Spanish influence was immediately visible in the ISL club who signed former Granada coach Antonio Lopez Habas as their manager while roping in former Liverpool midfielder Luis Garcia and Real Madrid midfielder Borja Fernandez ahead of the first season.

Pre-season training camps were arranged in Spain while as many as six Spanish players were signed in total. The partnership worked a treat as the club ultimately went on to lift the inaugural championship with a win over the Kerala Blasters in the final.

The same formula was applied in the second year during which the club sailed into the play-offs before tasting a 2-4 defeat on aggregate to eventual champions Chennaiyin FC.

Habas left the club before the start of the third season and he was promptly replaced by another Spanish manager Jose Francisco Molina who is now the Director of Football for Spain. After some initial hiccups, the former Villareal coach repeated Habas’ first season feat by leading the club to their second ISL title in three years.

That would, however, prove to be the end of the partnership between the two clubs as Atletico Madrid bowed out by selling out their stake.

The official statement from the Spanish club seems to indicate that their expectations from the partnership had not been met.

CEO Miguel  Angel Gil had told the club’s official website, “India is an incredible country, with a great potential. Atlético has done a great job in Calcutta. We have managed to make Atlético de Madrid loved and recognised, but we need to develop it there, working, in addition to a professional team, with the children, through our Academy. And this is something that we cannot do with the majority shareholder of the franchise.”

The first season without the Atletico Madrid connection turned out to be an unmitigated disaster for the Kolkata club who went on to finish second from bottom with just 16 points from their eighteen matches.

Elsewhere in Delhi, the Dynamos’ alliance with Feyenoord saw them hire Dutch-Belgian coach Harm van Veldhoven ahead of the inaugural season. Several players with experience of playing in the Dutch league such as Hans Mulder, Stijn Houben, Mads Junker and Morten Skoubu were signed on for the season. Juventus legend Alessandro del Piero was roped in as the marquee player.

The club even turned out in a dark orange jersey which signified their alliance with the Eredivisie club. The Dynamos missed out on qualification to the playoffs by finishing fifth. Ahead of the start of the second season, the partnership with the Dutch club was dissolved for reasons not specified.

The club formed a technical partnership with the Doha-based Aspire Academy last year which has sees an interchange of coaches while also providing an opportunity for Delhi players to train at the world-class facilities in Doha.

FC Pune City, meanwhile, formed a partnership with ACF Fiorentina before the start of the inaugural edition which saw the Italian club buy a 15 per cent stake in the franchise. The partnership also saw the Italians provide the entire coaching staff with former Napoli and Bologna coach Franco Colomba roped in as the manager. Former Juventus striker David Trezeguet arrived as a marquee player.

The club endured a lowly sixth place finish in the first season with Colomba being let go of his duties. The club’s CEO Gaurav Modwel said that the two clubs were happy with their partnership which was initially signed as a one-year deal to continue.

The Italian team continued to be associated with the Stallions for one more year before pulling out. Since then, the team made it to the playoff stage for the first time only last season under Serbian coach Ranko Popovic.

Last season, the CEO of Manchester City and the City Football Group Ferran Soriano paid a visit to Jamshedpur FC at the invitation of the owners.

While success has arrived on the pitch for ISL-foreign clubs partnerships like in the case of Atletico de Kolkata, it didn’t end well in terms of the actual expectations for both parties.

The Dynamos-Feyenoord connection packed up within a year while Fiorentina’s involvement with Pune was active for the first two years only.

India is still an alien frontier for these foreign clubs and many will want to wait and watch before deciding to take the plunge.

While the ATK-Atletico Madrid partnership serves as a testament to the potential of such deals if done right, it also serves as cautionary tale for other clubs looking to jump into the Indian market given the way it culminated.

A truly stable and long-lasting partnership is yet to be found and it might take a few more years for that to happen at this rate.