Currently, the moment is appropriate for fresh clubs to surface from various regions of India, given the state of upheaval in the nation’s football landscape. At this point, newly instituted clubs have a great opportunity to establish their reputation and progress from the state leagues to the Indian Super League with relative ease, as long as they put in the necessary effort and commitment. Those who dare to take a chance and invest in Indian Football will reap the rewards when the impending breakthrough occurs.
Niesant Alvares, the Founder and CEO of West Lions United FC, is one such individual who has taken this risk and bet on the potential of Indian football. West Lions United is the first ever professional club from Gujarat’s Bhavnagar. Prior to their emergence, ARA FC from Ahmedabad was the last team from Gujarat to participate in Indian Football at any level, with their most recent appearance being in the 2022-23 season of the I-League Second Division.
Establishing a football club is a challenging tasked and more so for a 26-year-old, and it is interesting to know about the motivation behind Niesant’s decision. The President of West Lions explains, “Back when I was a kid, when someone asked me where I wanted to play, I would say Manchester United because a kid does not know about the state of Indian Football. It made me wonder what could be done from my end?“
“Even if one player can make it from here to the top European clubs, the country will be proud. There is a lot of talent in India, but we lack the direction. So that gave me a motivation, why can’t we do it? The federation is doing a lot with the Vision 2047, so why can’t we do it on an individual basis?“
“A five-year-old in Portugal and in India is not at all different. They are the same. Given the correct training, diet, nutrition, and pathway programs, I think Indian players can become world-class.”
The process of launching a football club involves a significant amount of red-tape and management procedures. Consequently, transforming the initial motivation into an official and structured club is a challenge. Niesant, who already has managerial experience having coached a Nepal T20 League team, said, “The Bhavnagar District Association was very helpful while setting up the club. Additionally, I found support from Gustavo Onaindia, a highly experienced manager who has coached various teams worldwide, including Spanish club Celta Vigo, where he served as an assistant coach. Gustavo now holds the position of our head coach. He knows our project and we talked a lot before hiring him.”
Before joining West Lions United, Gustavo Onaindia served as a manager for various clubs in South America, including Peru’s Deportivo Coopsol, Guatemalan club CD Suchitepéquez, Peru’s Sport Chavelines Juniors, and Panama’s CD Universitario. With his extensive experience in South American football, Onaindia’s presence will be very important in West Lions’ efforts to qualify for the I-League. Apart from this, West Lions United’s strong emphasis on youth development is clearly evident, as they have established a robust structure for scouting and nurturing potential talents.
“Hakim SSengendo is our Head of Youth Development and assistant coach. He had experience doing the same with Sudeva and Rajasthan United. Personally, along with Hakim, we conducted scouting to identify potential players. Our initial three signings were from Jamshedpur FC’s latest batch of players. Our senior team will consist of players aged between 18 and 24 years old, as our primary objective is to develop and provide them ample playing opportunities. We want to create a family, and not just a club.”
Hakim Ssengendo had served as Rajasthan United FC’s Head of Youth Development and their reserve team’s head-coach last season. Prior to that, in 2019, he spent two years as the U18 manager at Sudeva Delhi.
“We are going to play in the U21 Reliance Youth League and the GSFA Championship, so our players will get the opportunity to grow and develop together. If we do not take a bold move and put these young players on a senior level, they will not grow. They will make mistakes. But they’ll also mould into certain individuals when they go to play at a higher level of the sport in India or maybe in abroad.”
Bhavnagar, located approximately 170 kilometres away from Ahmedabad is the home of West Lions United. The decision to establish the club’s base in Bhavnagar is intriguing, considering that the place lacks any substantial football history. Niesant explains his choice, “There are many people playing football in Bhavnagar. Mulraj Sinh Chudasama, the honourary secretary of GSFA, has played a commendable role in promoting grassroots and development initiatives. Additionally, the region has never had a club before. So we decided, let’s grow together with Bhavnagar, let’s build together collectively.”
Niesant has ambitious plans for West Lions United, and he doesn’t shy away from revealing them. When asked about his immediate and long-term plans for the club, he explains, “Our priority is to give young players a chance to shine at the senior level. We want to win the GSFA League this year, and we are building a team for that. We are also paying close attention to the Reliance Youth League. We are being bold enough to say that we want to see ourselves in the top-four in the country. We should be able to qualify for the zonal finals.”
Since the AIFF initiated bids for direct entry into the I-League this year, Niesant considered the possibility of having West Lions take a direct leap into the league. However, as he explains, the opportunity did not materialize within the required time-frame.
“We wanted to participate in the I-League this year, and we even had an investor lined up for support. However, due to the limited time-frame, we couldn’t make it happen. Nevertheless, we remain optimistic about our chances to join the I-League next year, and we have solid backing from investors in place.”
It’s hard to get investors, especially for a club just starting off, and Niesant went throught the same struggles as well before securing one. The President of West Lions explains, “It is pretty hard. People will doubt you and there’s a lot going on in the background. All the stakeholders of Indian Football do a commendable job since it’s hard to find investors in Indian Football. However, if you have the right vision, you will get what you want. It does not matter if the club is new or old, the investors do not always look at money, they also look at your long term plans. Thankfully we have one such investor.”
West Lions’ vision suggests a determination to achieve growth and success in youth football apart from winning trophies. Niesant tells us more about the West Lions, providing insight into their recently established club’s purpose and direction.
“Our vision is to create world-class players who can make people believe in Indian Football. I believe that in the next five or ten years, Indian Football will be where it should be. I would always request my countrymen to support us and watch our matches. If you see the viewership of cricket here, just imagine what it can be for football. There’s a lot of scope in Indian Football and it comes down to us. Everyone has to contribute. It is obviously very trendy to support an European team and it’s alright. But we need to support our local clubs as well.”
“We need to support our national team because the next generation will be learning from us. Go to the market and ask for an Indian team jersey.”
Despite their relatively short presence in the Indian Football scene, West Lions United has already done a lot, and they have even bigger plans for the future. One of their upcoming ventures includes establishing an international academy in Australia. This academy aims to provide Indian prospects with the opportunity to travel to Australia, experience football in that country, and participate in their leagues.
“There are many talented Indian footballers residing abroad for various reasons like family or studies. Their potential remains untapped, and we aim to bridge this gap. We are working on establishing an Indian academy in Australia, making us the first club to have an international academy later this year.”
“While some academies in Europe offer opportunities to play in lower divisions, the benefits might be questionable. On the other hand, our Indian youngsters have the chance to play in higher leagues in Australia. During my time in Adelaide, I witnessed many youth players actively participating in Australian youth clubs. These opportunities, connections, and links can bring positive changes to the current state of Indian football. Our academy abroad will allow young talents to train and study there, explore opportunities in football, and then seek a pathway back to India, opening up a vast array of possibilities.”
West Lions United FC has been gaining admiration for their dedicated efforts in both grassroots and professional football. They are all set to participate in this year’s GSFA Club Championship, and their youngsters will also compete in the Reliance Youth League. A positive outcome in the GSFA Championship could open doors for them to qualify for the I-League based on merit, and eventually, fight for a spot in the Indian Super League.
Led by Niesant Alvares and supported by a talented management team that includes individuals like Gustavo Onaindia and Hakim Ssengendo, the club has ambitious plans for Indian Football. We extend our best wishes to them for their upcoming campaign and the challenges that they may encounter along the way.
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