Exclusive Interviews GoalBold Special

The Young and Blazing Rohan Sharma – A GoalBold Exclusive Interview

The game of football is a lot like the game of life. You have to tackle your problems, block your fears and score goals when you get the opportunity but patience is always the key. Indian Super League started with a motto of Let’s Football India but in all the glitz and glamour of the mega sporting event, the right way to develop the sport was still a mystery to many clubs. But a club called Delhi Dynamos found a gem of a director, Mr. Rohan Sharma.

From growing up in a small American town of East Hampton to running a Football Club in the heart of the 2nd most populous country in the world, it has been quite a journey for a young and dynamic man with a great developmental mindset. Rohan used to write articles about his favourite American Football team for four years which helped him appreciate the game from a different perspective. During his college days, he was involved in American Politics which helped him gain confidence in his speech. This also helped him hone his idea implementation skills and also to defend them with his work.

Indian Super League originated in 2013 and the first season was a success attendance-wise. People were attracted to this new league. Rohan completed his college and his father Dr. Anil Sharma, who himself is an owner of a successful investment company GMS, pushed him to take over an Investment project.

Strangely one day in 2014 I was on the US ESPN website and I saw a front-page article about the ISL. I was shocked, I had never heard about Indian football, let alone a league that was being profiled in western media. I came up with a proposal and we asked the league if we could start a team in my dad’s home state of Gujarat. At the time the league said they weren’t interested in having new teams.”

The Director of DDFC added “I was informed about DDFC being potentially for sale, so we jumped at the chance to be a part of this wonderful experience. I truly honestly believe that Indians can be great at football and there’s no better place to build football than the capital city! I have been extremely blessed.”

 Rohan took full charge of the club after last season ended and made big changes from its management to their squad. Things have not been easy for him, from getting the right people on board to finding the best development roadmap. The past few months have been extremely humbling and challenging.

There’s a lot of pressure on me to do well and try to build the club’s stature up to be the best club in India, but I love challenges and I love proving doubters wrong. I am fortunate to have such an amazing supportive staff and honestly the team is running much smoother than last year.” he said.

Rohan seemed really impressed with the work of CEO Ashish Shah and head of football development Aakash Narula and was all praise about both these men. Working with the finest men in football such as Florent Malouda and Gianluca Zambrotta had been an amazing experience for the DDFC chief and now he is more motivated to perform at the biggest stage on their own abilities without any big name backing them.

Personally, Rohan Sharma is a big Real Madrid fan and their star Luka Modric is his favourite player. Juventus legend Gigi Buffon, Clint Dempsey, Alex Morgan, Gareth Bale and Cristian Pulisic are the few on his personal favourite list.

Delhi wasn’t always this dull in terms of stadium attendance for football matches. Delhi has seen houseful matches during the Nehru Cup, which was once a major tournament on the Indian football calendar. Rohan never had the pleasure to watch the big event but feels tournament of such stature should return to cities where football isn’t the number one sport. He was on point when he mentioned that it is easy to sell out games in Kerala and Kolkata but that will not spread the sport.

We need to start hosting games in cities in India where football is not the number one sport. It’s very easy to sell out games in Kerala or Kolkata or in NorthEast, but we all know that’s already a saturated market. If we want football to be at the same level as Cricket, then we need games in Delhi or in states like Punjab and Rajasthan in order to get everyone excited” a thoughtful Sharma added.

Aspire Academy is being seen as a major game changer for developing the sport in the Northern region and especially in Delhi-NCR. While top Indian clubs have in the past failed to maintain their tie-ups, DDFC-Aspire Academy partnership came in when the league’s focus is more on Indians than on foreign stars.

There’s no limit to how far the partnership with Aspire Academy can go. As of now, we have a long-term agreement with Aspire that will run into the 2020s. Initially, I wanted to partner with a big club such as Real Madrid or Man City. We even got offers for partnerships from some extremely well-known clubs before we met with Aspire. Aspire is unique in the sense that the goal of this partnership is to develop players with Aspire so they can a.) Be a part of the Indian National team b.) Develop athletes for DDFC,” a confident Sharma added.

The one main reason that ISL was never seen as a major developmental project by the football critics is because these clubs hiding in the shadows during offseasons. Delhi Dynamos are not going to fall behind after the season ends and they have a plan lined up for their offseason which Sharma explained, “We will have two coaches coming from Aspire to train our youth teams and have select players from this group join the Aspire Elite Program in Qatar so they can train until they are 18 and come back to DDFC. Also during this time, we will focus on developing our youth centre so we have a proper residential academy with the help from Aspire.”

Delhi Dynamos surprised everyone when they chose not to retain anyone ‘again’. Delhi last season was the most devastating teams of the ISL scoring 27 goals in 14 league matches touching a ratio of almost 2 goals per match. When we asked Rohan about his management’s decision to do so, we got a detailed and point to point answer which goes like this,

“So this is the question I get the most and I’m going to break this down step by step:

  • Most teams have new teams minus one or two retained players.
  • The draft changed a lot of our plans. We had 3-4 Indian players we were planning to retain and more or less agreed to terms with.
  • You’ll notice this year there was a huge premium on Indian GKs. There are only 3 or 4 elite Indian Goalkeepers right now. Albino is one of them. Anyone who disagrees needs to watch his performance for Aizawl as well as games at Mumbai. We wanted Albino since the offseason started and we got who we wanted. Now by having Albino, we have more options with our foreigners. Not to mention we have Sukhdev who has so much potential as well as Arnab who can be a capable backup.
  • Our CTO, Coach Portugal, Aspire, and I thought it would be better to get the best RB in the country who just turned 25 rather than retain Anas who is 30 and prefers to play in Kerala. If we had retained Anas we would’ve lost Albino or Pritam and we preferred Pritam or Albino to Anas.
  • Regarding the foreigners, coach Portugal has his own system that fits a certain style of players. The 7 players we have fit our system perfectly. It would be hard to say if any of last year’s players minus Tebar and maybe Flo would be as effective on our system this year.
  • I like Marcelo he is a good classy player and I hope he does well in Pune except when he plays us, but we approached and couldn’t get a deal done. I have complete faith in Lumu and Guyon to fill that absence and I’m positive they will.
  • Regarding Kean Lewis, we have Chhangte whose upside is tremendous, Seityasen who is extremely respected and pacy, plus he’s already scored in our pre-season and Romeo who has devastating speed and if he plays like he did in 2015 he’s going to be scary.

We have signed 5 of our key younger players to a multiyear contract. But keep in mind the team and the league is still very new. But why I wanted younger Indian players is so the fans can grow with this squad. It is our aim starting now to have a settled squad. DDFC in the past was more foreign player dependent. This year we are making our Indians the focal point and having our foreigners sprinkled in to help out.”

This answer should end the no retention story for once and all.

ISL finally got the much talked about AFC recognition and a spot in the AFC Cup. On this reckoner, Rohan told GoalBold, “This was a good first step for the ISL to be recognized by AFC. But at the end of the day, we need to be able to qualify for the Asian Champions League (AFC Champions League) because it means more to play against the top teams in Asia.”

One of the biggest problems DDFC Chief is facing right now is the stadium issue. Resolving this issue, for now, isn’t on top of the priority list but DDFC management will try to find a solution to this problem in the near future.

He said, “For now, JLN is going to be our home for the time being. We will evaluate every year either way if there are better options. I want to build our own stadium but for now, we need to allocate our budget to developing our youth academies and residence centre.” Delhi saw a dip of 5% in terms of average attendance last season even after Delhi being unbeaten at their home ground. If the fall continues,e the major reason for this issue will be the stadium and the distance of the seats from the pitch.

That brings us to our last question of the interview where we asked Rohan where he sees the club 10 years down the line and his plans on seeing DDFC taking on EPL or La Liga clubs or even plans on starting a women’s team.

A hopeful Rohan answered “I always have one eye on the future because in sports you always need to think long term. The good news is we already have played against an EPL team. La Liga shouldn’t be too far off either. I’m hoping this year we can enrol a women’s team as well. But I have three goals. One is to produce an Indian Superstar who can play in the first division in EPL, La Liga, Serie A etc. The second is to become the first Indian club to win the AFC Champions Cup (AFC Champions League). That would be an honour no once could ever erase. Finally, I would want to prove to India that Delhi has better fans than Kerala or Kolkata. I’m tired of hearing the narrative that Delhi fans aren’t passionate about the game, I’m tired of hearing that we have low stadium attendance. I’m tired of hearing that Delhi has no sporting culture. I want to change this narrative. I’m hoping in 10 years we can accomplish 1 or 2 of these things and also be profitable or at least break even.”

He signed off by giving a heartwarming message to his Delhi Dynamos Ultras “First off thank you so much for believing in the club and coming to the games. I really love your support and your energy please brings it to every game. Whenever I see you guys organize spontaneously it’s really touching (shout-out to Delhi Dynamos Arena for doing a fan engagement at India Gate!) I also want to let you all know, that the club is in good hands. I know you are all concerned about the players and stuff, but trust me. Everyone in this club is in it because they love the club. It’s going to take some patience and trust, but believe me, the moves we have made is going to set us up so well for the future. Either way, we are all in this together, we are one family so let’s enjoy this ride together.”

We thank Mr. Rohan Sharma and Mr. Shikharr Chandra for their precious time and this wonderful opportunity to get a deep insight into the life of a young football club director! Hope the fans got to know more about their club and message from Rohan Sharma and DDFC is clear to the folks in Indian Football circuit.

Keep following GoalBold for many such interviews and exciting projects ahead in the coming season.

About the author

Vishal Chawria

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