Dempo has a clear goal – to return to the I-League. Last year’s attempt didn’t quite work out, and this season feels crucial. After finishing in the top three in the inaugural I-League 3, the Goan club has put themselves closer to realising their goal of returning to the top. Finishing outside the top five means another year in the division possibly, further ado in that dream.
So there could be pressure on the club to perform and escape the uncertainty of lower divisions. However, the club’s CEO Pradhyum Reddy doesn’t seem to think so. “I don’t think about it,” he says. “I don’t think you need a certain amount of pressure and I think we learned from the mistakes of last season and made some corrections there,” he further said.
A club that has made up its mind to get back to the top surely has set up some guidelines for itself on how to do so.
“In terms of the plan, we’ve already started putting the plan in place with the plan of qualifying. So if you think about it, last year the team played in the Goa Pro League as well as the second division (I-League 2) and couldn’t compete on both fronts. We won the Goa Pro League but ended up falling short, subsequently in the third division.“
“So the focus this year was 100% commitment towards the qualifying process. The Goa Pro League has been played by basically the Under-23 team. Our average age is 19-and-a-half years for the boys playing in the GPL and until December, they were unbeaten and still a win away from being top of the table. The long-term plan is to have the kids from the academy compete in the Goa Pro League and have the first team compete at a higher level.”
“This way boys who graduate from the academy have at least two to three years of professional football experience playing in the Goa Pro League and will ready themselves to play in the I-League. Or we can get them out to an ISL team or another I-League team. That’s also a possibility because realistically every year you can’t induct all your players from your academy into your senior team.”
Club football in India has changed a lot since the inception of the Indian Super League. Its inclusion and prioritization is the very reason why Dempo alongside Sporting and Salgaocar are not in the mix anymore. In 2016, the trio pulled out of the I-League in protest of the tournament getting relegated as the second division.
“Yes, the landscape has changed in Indian football. At that time, Dempo was a top team in the top tier and therefore got to compete in Asia. It’s very, very, very difficult for I-League teams to play in Asia nowadays. You know, it’s mainly for the top teams in the ISL, and even the Asian spots have reduced. We will try and be as competitive as possible and play at as high a level. That could be a little bit further down the line. I think we shouldn’t look too far ahead. The first stage is to get into the I-League,” emphasized Reddy.
Sporting Club de Goa were crowned the champions of the I-League 3. Their head coach Armando Colaco mentioned that their goal is to be in the Top-5 and build for next year with more players. Now this was said by a team that won the Third division ahead of Dempo. Questioning the compared transfer activities and ambitions, Reddy emphasized that his club has been more ambitious than their rivals on the transfer front, and that could define the strength.
“The priority for any promoted team normally is to try and stay in that league. That’s where you see it I think Sporting haven’t gone as aggressively as we have in the transfer market in January and signed as many players. You’d have to sign and strengthen your team to stay in the division. I think the common goal for both of us is to get into the I-League.”
“However, if you look at the strength of the teams in the league, both the Goa teams have a very good chance to go through. So I think the most attractive thing is the fact that the club has a clear vision of where they want to be and how they want to get there.”
We also briefly talked about Dempo head coach Samir Naik who has been coaching the club since 2019. Under his tutelage, the club became the Goan champions after a decade-long wait. “I think you’ve got to give him full credit here. You win back-to-back titles in the Goa Pro League. Which he’s done and that’s, you know, judging it on Goa Pro League performance that’s up there. But I think there’s a huge difference between Pro League and the next division,” Reddy commented.
In 2011, Pradhyum Reddy helped Shillong Lajong get promoted to the I-League after winning the Second Division. After a season, he was moved to the Youth Developmental Team as the Technical Director. He put up a system where the youth team would play in the State League while the senior team would play in the National League. That has bore fruits. He wants the same at Dempo and indicates that’s what attracted him to take up the role.
“It always attracts me that a club have this kind of goal. In Shillong Lajong, we had a very good team there. We initiated a very good youth development program. I put systems in place over there where the youth would play the Shillong Premier League and the senior team would focus on the I-League. Look at it ten years later now, a lot of Lajong boys are playing in ISL and I-League. It will continue to do so. Because you’ve put good foundations there.”
“Similarly, you know, you look at the work at BFC in terms of scouting, you know, being smart about how you go about your work about your recruitment. Those are things you look to bring to Dempo.“
“Again, I think at FC Pune City we had a very, very good youth program where we promoted a lot of those players into the senior team at the right time. Either directly in, like the likes of Ashique (Kuruniyan) and others who came straight into the ISL and others who we felt we had on long-term contracts and we loaned them out to the I-League or to Arrows like Sahil Panwar, Ashish Rai, and others who came straight into the ISL.”
“Gaurav Bora went to I-League and won it with Chennai City and then came into the ISL. So you look at the best ways of nurturing your talent that might not be necessarily ready immediately And that’s why it’s very very pleasing to see the likes of Ashique and Ashish Rai doing well both for their new clubs and their country.“
“Ten years down the line that’s what you want to see. You want to see Dempo Academy players emulating the likes of Liston Colaco,“ he concluded.
Dempo as a club also boasts of having a sound infrastructure which could give their youth further exposure. As an established club, they find it assuring that the infrastructure will help them avoid any hassle.
“Most ISL clubs don’t have the kind of infrastructure that Dempo have. We’re looking to build upon that so that we become one of the few places in India that has multiple fields. So you can have proper pre-season. You can invite other ISL and I-League teams to have their pre-season at your facilities as well. So you get good competition, and you get good exposure for your players. That helps in developing both your coaches as well as players. There also are some coach development programs that I’ve initiated after coming on board. Hopefully, we just improve the overall level of the ecosystem in Goa.”
Since 2022-23, AIFF has abolished overseas players from third division and below. The change was lauded by the fraternity as the dearth of quality footballers affects the overall quality of the football in India. Clubs who are looking to climb their way through the divisions will certainly have to keep domestic players in focus, as that’s the only option.
“It’s a great idea that there are no foreign players allowed in the lower divisions. It allows for Indian players to come through. especially young players and especially Indian strikers, center-backs, and number 10s. But we can’t go into the I-League thinking to play with an all-Indian squad just because we have an academy.”
“We can’t go down that route because we’ve seen the likes of Sudeva and others try and it costs you in the end. So I think it’s about finding that right balance about getting good quality foreign players that can strengthen your team and young players,” Sudeva are one of Dempo’s opponents in the ongoing I-League 2 campaign.
For a state of 1.57 million people, Goa has quite a few footballing brands across the region. That is coupled with the fact that Dempo is still a lower division club. And with all the uncertainties that lie in Indian Football, it could divide the market in terms of sponsorships and viewership.
“It’s good to see that in a way, Indian football has grown to new markets,” says Pradhyum. “New players have been discovered and unearthed. And maybe with the new Salgaocar team that’s coming up next year, you can start to see a lot more opportunities for players from Goa getting the chance to play at the top flight. It’s definitely going to be good for Goan Football and for the whole ecosystem,” he opined.
“Over the years, traditionally, Goan clubs have struggled to create that sort of fan base in terms of numbers showing up at the stadiums. And obviously that has an effect in terms of your attraction of sponsors, etc. So, it is something we’ll definitely have to work on and look at creative ways of being a little bit different. I don’t think you’re competing necessarily with the likes of a Churchill or an FC Goa to get there. So, you’ve got to strive your own little path. The likes of Shillong Lajong and NEROCA have found the ways to coexist in the same setup as the financial giants.”
For stability and sustainability, football clubs need to rely on their own facilities and infrastructure. Most of the Indian clubs rely on public properties and are hence, tossed around like a volleyball. That includes some clubs with high financial stature. Pradhyum Reddy says that Dempo will look to build further on the club’s existing infrastructure once they get into the I-League.
“Yeah, I think so If we get into the I-League, the idea is to try and have one’s own facility because I think that’s one thing that’s missing with clubs in India. You look now at Sreenidi. They’ve got their own small purpose-built stadium. We will look to emulate something like that whereby you can play your own matches at your home stadium and not rely on a public stadium that’s not in your control. Most of the ISL clubs lack that infrastructure.”
“That way you can generate better crowd support, get better sponsorships, and control everything a little bit better. Revenue as well. So, that is the plan. Once we get to the I-League, we’ll look at all those options,” we ended the conversation.
Dempo in the I-League 2
Dempo have started their campaign in the I-League 2. They drew 2-2 against Maharashtra Oranje away from home on Sunday (January 20). Considered as a promotion favorite, they will look to stand up to the name and expectations. Their next game is on Sunday (January 27) against Bengaluru United at home.
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