IndianFootball.Com - Harsh Piramal - Pune FC



IndianFootball.Com Interview

HARSH PIRAMAL

Pune is a city of great institutions. From the headquarters of the Indian Army's Southern Command, to numerous colleges and campuses of India's software companies and BPO's and the modern expressway that connects it to Mumbai, Pune is at the forefront of today's modern India.
And now, Pune has one more institution that it can look forward to, Pune Football Club. The newly formed football club by the Ashok Piramal Group, plans to revolutionlise the way football is played, watched and followed. The signing of Stewart Hall as coach and Cyd Gray from Trinidad & Tobago's World Cup squad are confirmation of their intent.
IndianFootball.Com's Harmit Singh Kamboe was able to catch up with Harsh Piramal, a Director with the Ashok Piramal Group, the founders of Pune FC for a detailed interview. Enjoy!

THE INTERVIEW

Harmit: First of congratulations and best wishes for your new club! We hope it gives us Indian football fans everything we have been starved for and more. Please tell us about the Ashok Piramal Group, who founded it, when was it founded, the different businesses it operates in and how me as a consumer may be aware of it or have come into contact with your company?

Harsh: Thanks a lot. The entire board of directors is very excited about the launch of Pune Football Club, and want to make the club an integral part of the social fabric of Pune and its surrounding areas.
Our business was founded by my great-grandfather, Seth Piramal Chaturbhhuj, in 1934 when he took over the Morarjee Goculdas Mills. Today, the Ashok Piramal Group operates in three business verticals: textiles and apparel, real estate, and auto components.
You might have come into contact with our products several times without being aware of it. Morarjee Textiles supplies fabric to and manufactures shirts for several top Indian brands including Zodiac, Louis Phillipe, Allen Solly, Levi's and the like. In our real estate business Peninsula Land, you may have bought a home in one of our developments under the brand name 'Ashok', or had a meeting in an office in one of our corporate parks under the brand name 'Peninsula'. The auto parts from our company PMP Components are embedded in Maruti, Mahindra and Tata vehicles. Until recently, we used to own Piramyd Retail, which had several department stores and supermarkets including in Pune, but that business has been divested.

Harmit: Please tell us about how and why the Piramal Group had a football team quite some years ago? What was the motivation for that and the background to involvement in football at that time and how the team came to ceased to exist?

Harsh: We actually ran a pretty good football team in the 1970s and early 80s in Morarjee Mills, as Morarjee Textiles was known then. However, the gradual shifting out of the textiles industry from Mumbai meant that these ancillary activities also had to stop.

Harmit: Why is the Piramal Group interested in football today? Do you believe that Indian corporates are now awakening to sports other than Cricket? Do you see investing in football of today as a sound financial investment?

Harsh: Well, me and my brothers, Rajeev and Nandan, have been fanatical football, and particularly Liverpool, fans for over 20 years now. Just to give you an example, we used to religiously listen to the BBC World Service news every Saturday night for the latest results, and we subscribed to a membership of the British Council in Mumbai only in order to read the football reports in the British papers!
Remember, this was before the days of the Internet or satellite TV. We have always dreamt of owning a football club and promoting the sport. When the opportunity to start a club at the highest level in our country came up, it was the realisation of our dream and an opportunity that could not be missed. So we have got together with some like-minded friends - Rohan Gavaskar, Kunal Chandra, Harsh Mehta and Pankaj Kanodia - and launched Pune Football Club. Of course, we have had the full backing of my mother Mrs. Urvi Piramal, who is the Chairman of the group and the club.
I strongly believe that football will be the next big sport in India. I don't think that it will match cricket for some time, but it will be a huge sport in 10 years. I do think that some corporates are waking up to this fact, but except cricket of course, the evolution of any sport into a large commercial industry is still in its infancy today.
Investing in a football club is not a sound financial investment! But then, this venture is first and foremost about promoting football, not about a return on investment.

Harmit: Your club has been named Pune Football Club. Any specific reason for naming your club simply Pune FC?

Harsh: Absolutely. The reason is that we don't want the club to be a corporate brand-building venture. We want it to be a club of the people. We want the club to give every football loving citizen in Pune and its surrounding cities an outlet to enjoy and support the game. Most of the biggest clubs in the world, be it Liverpool, Barcelona or Milan, are simply named after the city they were born in and today are an integral symbol of the city's identity and heritage. We want the same for Pune Football Club. In fact, even the club's logo has been designed keeping this in mind. It features a "ghorpad", or monitor lizard, which was used by Chhatrapati Shivaji to scale cliffs, conquer forts and defeat enemies. Similarly, we hope that the logo will inspire both the players and the team's fans to take Pune Football Club to the top of Indian and Asian football.

Harmit: Please tell us why Pune was chosen as a base for the team. So far Pune isn't known as a football city in India nor even in Maharashtra, but what can Pune expect in return in terms of football outreach programs?

Harsh: Pune is on its way to football fame in India, just like Kolkata or Goa. Do you know that there are over 100 clubs registered with the Pune District Football Association? Our research showed that football is the number 1 sport for young people in Pune. There are tournaments played in and around Pune which attract hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of fans. Moreover, the area's economy has been growing rapidly in recent years thanks to investment by BPOs, IT, auto components and engineering companies. This growth has meant the influx of young educated professionals to Pune, which has resulted in a very favourable demographic in the city. These factors provide a tremendous launch pad for Pune Football Club.
We already have under-15 and under-19 teams at the club, which are open to any kid with the talent and aptitude for the sport. I was amazed that a thousand kids turned up for our initial trials; this shows the tremendous enthusiasm for the game in Pune. We will be holding trials periodically to encourage more kids to play the game. However, this is just the beginning and there will be many more community outreach activities as the club progresses.

Harmit: Little is known about football infrastructure in Pune. Do you have a stadium readily available for your new club?

Harsh: Football infrastructure in Pune is limited. We are currently using existing grounds for training and playing matches. However we hope to have our own infrastructure up and running in the medium term.

Harmit: Please tell us about the selection of the coach and other key training staff? What factors were taken into consideration when making these choices?

Harsh: First and foremost, we wanted thoroughly professional staff to be running the club. Secondly, we wanted people with demonstrated capabilities in their areas of expertise, so that they will be able to bring a cutting-edge to the team. So we have selected the coaching team accordingly.
Stewart Hall, who is our head coach, is a UEFA Pro Coaching Licence holder (which is the top coaching licence in the world) and former director of the Youth Academy at Birmingham FC, which is a Premier League club. He was also a consultant with the English FA. Our general manager is B. Ashok Kumar, who was manager of the Indian Bank football team when it won the Tamil Nadu State League for seven consecutive years.

Harmit: With the first player transfer window over, how do you plan to build a competitive squad? Will you follow the established practice of picking star players during the transfer window or will you sign some up and coming players and develop them over a couple of season?

Harsh: Given that we received the proposal to form a club in late July, the time we actually got to put the team in place was very limited. Nevertheless, we have assembled a young, talented and highly motivated squad, which we feel will be competitive from the word go. Over the years, we will put a lot of stress on developing players from our junior teams and absorb those who make the cut into the senior team. In addition to that, we will sign established names so as to have a good mix of players and to continuously improve the level of the squad.

Harmit: What kind of physical infrastructure is planned for the team? Where will they train, will you build a gym or get them memberships to an existing gym, will the team members live in a closed community close to the training ground or will they live where they can find accommodation as individuals?

Harsh: We have already put some infrastructure in place for the team. We have a tie up with Solaris Gym, who have been very proactive and enthusiastic in offering their facilities for our players' weight training and gym regime. Besides, the Pune Police and the Bombay Sappers have also been very supportive in offering their training grounds for our training sessions and practice matches. As I mentioned earlier, we will be developing our own stadium and training facilities as soon as possible.
As far as the players go, we have made accommodation arrangments together for the team, so that the players live under one roof and bond as a team. Even our coach, general manager and most of the coaching staff live nearby. We believe in treating our players like professionals and taking care of them so that they are free to perform where it matters - on the pitch.

Harmit: What will your club do to translate the high viewership of European League games on television to actual attendance for your games? Is there anything specific planned to make the games more attractive for women and an option as a family outing?

Harsh: European League games on television can only generate initial interest in the game. It is completely up to the clubs, along with the All India Football Federation, to translate this interest into attendance at Indian club games. On our part, we will use a variety of media to market matches being played by Pune FC at a high decibel level in Pune and surrounding cities.
It is also one of our priorities to get families interested in the game. For this, we need to create a safe and clean environment where the entire family can enjoy the game. Initially, we aim to create this safe and clean environment at whichever ground we play our matches at, along with food and beverage amenities, clean toilets and organised seating. When we build our own facilities, we aim to take the amenities offered to levels never before seen in India. This is the only sustainable path to generating genuine support and interest for the game. As far as women go, if the family is attracted to football as spending an evening out together and the environment is clean, safe and comfortable, then from whatever I have observed in Europe I'm confident that women will be more than happy to come along and even support the game.

Harmit: What are some of the realistic expectations that you have set for the club in terms of footballing success both near term and long term?

Harsh: For the first season, we have only one aim - promotion to I-League 1. I think that this is very realistic given that we have a talented young team and excellent coaching staff. In the next 4-5 years, we want to be established as one of the top 2 or 3 Indian clubs. Our long term goal, in the next 7-8 years, is to be competing strongly in the tier of Asian football where Indian clubs compete.

Harmit: What are the top five things (or more) that will make a dramatic impact in quality of football in India.

Harsh: In my view, the first thing that our country needs is a well dispersed youth football infrastructure and practices - this means all top clubs developing their youth teams seriously, and new footballing academies being established. The better the infrastructure is, the more the kids who will be attracted to play the game. This in turn will produce more players and the overall quality of talent will go up.
Secondly, we need more human talent trained at the highest level to coach our players. All our coaches should be fully aware of the latest trends in coaching techniques, playing strategy, physical development, dietary requirements and the like. We need to invite more top-level foreign coaches to hold clinics in India, and make it mandatory for all club coaches to attend these clinics. If we keep up with international trends and have a robust youth development system, I do believe that the quality of football in India can improve.
But I have one caution here - if you're looking for a dramatic impact in the quality of football in India in the next 3 or even 5 years, it's not going to happen. Improving the quality of football depends on having quality players. Now developing players starts from the time they are 9 or 10 years old and lasts till they turn 17 or 18, so the process is a long one. Only through a sustained effort over 7-8 years will we see a dramatic improvement in the quality of football.
Thirdly, we need basic football infrastructure - stadiums, well organised clubs, academies. The current state of our stadia is light years away from international standards.
Lastly, we need to make football a viable way to earn a good living so that more kids are attracted to it. Look at the number of kids Cricket attracts. Making football viable can only be done by having an organised football league structure and by sharing TV revenues with clubs. All these factors feed into each other and we need to work on all these fronts.
The encouraging news is that the AIFF is taking several steps to organise the game better and laying down conditions on clubs, like making it mandatory for them to put up their own stadia and to have youth teams.

Harmit: What do you think about IndianFootball.Com and its work?

Harsh: I am a regular visitor to your website. News on Indian football is diffuse and scarce, and I have not seen a more comprehensive website dedicated to it. It definitely is the best single source of information related to Indian football.

Harmit: Many, many thanks for all your work for the betterment of Indian football and for the time taken to give us this interview!

the interview was conducted by Harmit Singh Kamboe (January 2008)

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