2008 WAS A LONG NIGHT at Buenos Aires’ Hotel Castelar for Bhaswar Goswami and Dharamdutt Pandey, but they were determined to get the legendary Diego Maradona to visit Kolkata.

Nearly four years later, in a conversation with Fortune India, the two recall the omens. A member of Parliament who was supposed to accompany them had missed his flight. A salesman at Shaukin, a traditional clothing store in Kolkata’s Gariahat area, had laughed when they purchased a dhuti-panjabi set for Maradona. Worse, Maradona had just been appointed coach of the Argentine team, which meant a five-day delay in their meeting.

“We had negotiated a $1 million (Rs 5.2 crore, at today’s exchange rate) fee, but would have agreed to $1.5 million,” says Pandey. Crazy moves typify the two owners of Celebrity Management Group (CMG). Who else would touch Maradona’s feet on arrival? Who would return to Gariahat and trade a cellphone picture of Maradona with the Shaukin box for the price of the outfit? But there has to be a method to the madness when you bet on Indian football.

“The stature of the event was huge,” says Pandey. “I don’t think any sensible person would have agreed.”

“Pandey, if we were sensible, we couldn’t have pulled it off,” says Goswami. Read that as evidence of their chutzpah.

Disappointment is common in this sport; India languishes at the bottom of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) rankings, a dismal 165. Cricket, the most popular sport by far, outdoes football both in finances involved and fans. It’s not just that cricket has three formats for potential advertisers vs. the lone format of football. Kolkata’s Yuba Bharati Krirangan (YBK) is India’s largest stadium but doesn’t meet FIFA’s criteria. Frequent power cuts and lack of comfortable seating, basic amenities such as food and drink, and proper sanitation deter audiences. The latest blackout occurred last November during a Kolkata derby clash between the East Bengal and Mohun Bagan clubs, before nearly 1 lakh spectators. “Neither a state association nor the All India Football Federation (AIFF) can afford the right infrastructure,” says a helpless Subrata Dutta, senior vice-president, AIFF. “The government has to come forward, even if it is a public-private partnership.”

from Far left: Goswami and  pandey with Diego Maradona.
from Far left: Goswami and  pandey with Diego Maradona.

Football also suffers a lack of corporate support: Teams in the I-League, the country’s premier competition, such as Mahindra United (which enjoyed the patronage of the Mahindra Group) and JCT (supported by JCT Mills) were disbanded. The league has no title sponsor and has struggled to find a telecast partner. Matches are played under the blazing sun given the shortage of floodlit stadiums. I-League clubs have no revenue model, so almost the entire funds for a season are diverted to player purchases.

A revenue comparison between the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the AIFF is embarrassing. Suffice it to say the BCCI announced aid of Rs 25 crore for the AIFF in 2009 to help improve the condition of football in India. Yudhajit Dutta, managing director of sports management agency Purple People Entertainment (PPE), says cricket is run professionally, which is why corporates back it more than football. “Football needs to become much more organised and, like the top footballing nations, it needs the support of the government.”

But there are signs of improvement. Data from TAM Sports, a division of TAM, the TV ratings agency, reveal that in the first half of 2011 the number of football viewers in the country was 121 million, compared to 195 million for cricket. “In fact, the number of fans of Barclays Premier League clubs may well be more in India than in Britain,” says AIFF’s Dutta. The takeover of English club Blackburn Rovers by the Venkateshwara Hatcheries Group in 2010 provided corporates and fans alike with new hope. Pepsi’s ‘Change the game’ (from cricket to football) commercial signals the company’s interest in the game, and Germany’s Bayern Munich has made official visits to India, which may pave the way for trips by other foreign clubs.

“In 10 years, football should definitely be the big sport in India,” says PPE’s Dutta. “Cricket these days is overvalued and sponsors are backing out of events such as the Indian Premier League. Also, in April, BCCI was forced to sell the TV and Internet rights together.”

Goswami, 43, and Pandey, 38, were on the ball early. Apart from organising Maradona’s official tour in 2008, they ensured the first-ever FIFA international friendly matches in India and Bangladesh featuring Lionel Messi in 2011; created the ambitious franchise-based Premier League Soccer (PLS) involving millions of dollars, former international football stars, and a blueprint for developing the sport at the grassroots this year; and are currently negotiating terms for an Indian stopover by Italian club Inter Milan this summer.

With Lionel Messi; Messi in action at Kolkata’s Yuba Bharati Krirangan.
With Lionel Messi; Messi in action at Kolkata’s Yuba Bharati Krirangan.

Yes, questions have emerged over the launch (and sustainability) of PLS. There have also been allegations relating to the sources of finance of CMG’s big-ticket ventures. (CMG’s offices have been raided three times by income tax authorities—the last time immediately after the Argentina-Venezuela match in Kolkata). “We are funded by our thoughts, concepts, ideas, and passion to do something different,” says Goswami. Their ambitions go beyond being underdogs trying to make a quick buck through football.

“Somebody had to start the process,” says AIFF’s Dutta. “CMG has shown courage in bringing Messi and Maradona here, and launching PLS. You have to applaud that.”

The PLS, in particular, has earned the respect of Praful Patel, the AIFF president and Union minister of heavy industries and public enterprises. “It is a good initiative and we want other states also to encourage the league,” he said at an AIFF meeting.

“No one thought events like these could be pulled off,” adds Prince Rufus, operations manager for Mohun Bagan. “Despite the AIFF being around for 80 years, India’s first FIFA international friendly match was organised by CMG. It was quite a craze and as it increases, the stepmotherly attitude of corporates and even the public is sure to change.”

Anilava Chattopadhyaya, director, Greymind Communications, which owns PLS’s Haldia franchise, remembers a business trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh, with Goswami and Pandey. As their flight taxied in, they spotted a few private jets. “Bhaswar had the window seat. He said to me, ‘Guru, we have to get one of those’. It’s not impossible because they dream big and execute fearlessly. They are dream chasers and the best thing about them is their courage.”

THERE WAS LITTLE TO CHEER about West Bengal under the Communists (the Communist Party of India (Marxist) came to power in 1977). Industries were fading, unemployment was rampant, and entrepreneurial spirit was low. Bengalis found solace in football and so did Goswami and Pandey. (They spent only their toddler years in the pre-Communist era.) Both lived in Howrah and met for the first time as teenagers at a cricket tournament organised by Pandey and his friends.

With degrees in commerce, Goswami joined Sterling Resorts, the vacation ownership and leisure hospitality company, soon after graduating in 1993 and Pandey followed him six months later. Goswami informed Pandey of a vacancy at Sterling, and Pandey reciprocated by teaching Goswami English.

It’s not about educational qualifications or sophistication, argue Goswami and Pandey, but passion and a strong native intelligence. This explains why only one other employee has a college degree among the Rs 50 crore company’s 11-member staff. “We couldn’t afford graduates when we started,” says Goswami. “We knew six or seven people from our locality. Not only have they stayed loyal, they are some of the best at implementation and production. Not even a Master’s degree holder could be better.”

After Sterling, Pandey had a stint at Titan Industries before he and Goswami set up CMG in 1998. That meant moving to Kolkata. It was difficult for the small-towners. “Howrah was still kind of a village at the time,” says Pandey. To come to the city, they had to plan for days. Although Goswami had spent three years in City College Kolkata, life at the enterprise level was a whole new ball game. They were hardly acquainted with people and places in the big city.

HQ at the time was a modest 200 sq. ft. space, where they shared a chamber. (They still do in their new, equally modest, 500 sq. ft. office in New Sahapur Colony, New Alipore.) “We were never taught business or how to go about it,” says Goswami. “It was not in our blood. We come from modest backgrounds: Pandey’s dad was in the railways and my parents were government employees.”

They began with organising exhibitions and fairs. “When we named our company, it was inspired by our idol, the sports management behemoth International Management Group (IMG). That is why we are C-M-G,” says Goswami. The ‘celebrity’ they targeted was Indian football ace Bhaichung Bhutia, who was playing for East Bengal then.

But while their plans for Bhutia took shape, the footballer decided to ply his trade with JCT in Phagwara, Punjab. “That was around 1996. We were not in a position to follow him up north, be there, have an office, etc. We hadn’t even started.” It was just the first hurdle for CMG.

In their quest for survival till Bhutia returned to Kolkata, they continued organising exhibitions, “a form of event that requires the least investment”. But for the cash registers to ring, they realised the need to stick to the proven money-spinner: Bollywood. Even if that meant near arrest. Their debut event—a Shah Rukh Khan concert in Siliguri, West Bengal—was a disaster. “Event management is all about crisis management, I still maintain,” says Goswami. Police permissions had fallen through due to glitches in the contract signed with Khan’s office. Their naïveté as event managers was further exposed as tickets had already been printed and sold. An emergency refunding exercise and gradual repayment of loans to vendors couldn’t cushion the extreme humiliation and embarrassment. Therefore, turnover for the first year was between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 7 lakh.

Their big break came in November 2000, when they successfully organised the first live show of then new Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan in Kolkata. After Roshan, for another one year, musical shows were the staple. Across the entire eastern region, they did concerts featuring Asha Bhosle, Karisma Kapoor, Govinda, A.R. Rahman, as well as the premieres of the runaway hit movie Dil Chahta Hai. They also brought Rosgocirk, the Russian state circus, to eastern India.

Then, in August 2002, CMG took a team of the West Bengal’s patriotically named football association, the Indian Football Association (IFA), on an “exposure tour” to South Africa. The company paid for the entire trip from their concert profits. Having won IFA’s faith, they organised the Yamaha Libero Cup the following year under its aegis. The Kolkata audience loved the concept of football and entertainment. Not only did demographics change with younger spectators at the event, the economics were smart. Four top city clubs would play three matches—two semi-finals and a final—on a single day. “With the combined supporter base, we were guaranteed a sellout crowd of around 80,000,” says Goswami. “Even if the clubs lost the semis, many fans stayed to watch the one-and-a-half hour performance of a popular Bengali band just before the final.”

The success of such events also had the ministers of the ruling government warming up to them. While seeking permissions for venues, they often crossed paths with Samik Lahiri, the CPI(M) MP from Kolkata’s Diamond Harbour constituency, and with the late Subhas Chakraborty, the minister for transport, sports and youth affairs. It was Lahiri who had missed his flight from Kolkata but had made it to Buenos Aires via Frankfurt a day later. CMG had promised that it would get Maradona to inaugurate the Indian Football School that Lahiri ran in Maheshtala.

Both political heavyweights were critical in getting sponsors for the Maradona tour. Lahiri was later accused of spending crores from the state exchequer to get Maradona to Maheshtala. (The charges have yet to be proved but he lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2009.) CMG bore just 25% of the costs, and hefty sponsorships, ticket sales, and TV rights accounted for the bulk of cost recoveries. For example, exclusive TV rights were sold to Kolkata TV for Rs 1 crore and for Maradona’s welcoming event nearly 80,000 fans paid Rs 150 each to throng the stadium.

THEY HAD FELT THE ‘Hand of God’. “Once we got Maradona, we felt we could do anything,” says Goswami. After Argentina’s past, it was time for the present.

“Goswami and Pandey know the pulse of the people,” says Mohun Bagan’s Rufus. “Everyone wants to watch Lionel Messi, but watching him play abroad would cost lakhs. It was quite an achievement for CMG to bring him to Kolkata.”

Negotiating with Sebastian de Monte, Maradona’s agent, was comfier, admit Goswami and Pandey. Talks with the Argentine Football Association (AFA) kicked off in June 2010, but it took almost 200 e-mails to convince the team to come. The twin carrots that CMG offered were opening up AFA’s merchandising options in a new market, and better marketability of Argentina’s national league here in future.

“There were a lot of cynics in the media who believed it couldn’t happen,” recalls Utpal K. Ganguli, the IFA secretary. “They thought Argentina’s first team wouldn’t come, Messi wouldn’t come, or wouldn’t play, or only play briefly.” Messi debuted as captain against Venezuela and played the full 90 minutes, but such was the negativity around the event that Goswami and Pandey spent most of the match day at a tea stall outside the stadium waiting for it to end.

By this point, the Trinamool Congress had assumed power in the state and, with the police, added more obstacles. The two were summoned at night to Writers’ Building (the state government HQ) when the sale of tickets began online on Bookmyshow.com. “The chief minister claimed we were selling tickets illegally ‘on the Internet’, since it was before the stadium counters had begun selling,” says a befuddled Pandey. “We wish we had held it in a different city,” Goswami told a newspaper.

Policemen harassed them for tickets. The day before the match, they were told policemen would be present at every gate of the YBK for a headcount to detect any illegal ticket sales. To avoid the blockades this would cause, the two requested that men be positioned on the 34 ramps leading to the stadium. The additional cost for more personnel was borne by CMG. Fortune India could not confirm these claims.

Goswami and pandey in their new Alipore office.
Goswami and pandey in their new Alipore office.

Seventy thousand filled the stadium. The first block of tickets which sold out were the highest priced at Rs 5,120. Ticket sales brought in Rs 9.5 crore. That’s impressive, considering that the ticket sales for all eight Kolkata Knight Riders home matches at the Eden Gardens during an IPL season is estimated at Rs 14.5 crore. “The price was a bold decision,” says Goswami. “But we were convinced about what we were offering: the world’s best player, at his peak, playing in India. It rarely happens.” Ticket sales, sponsorships, and TV rights to about 150 countries resulted in revenue of nearly Rs 20 crore from the Kolkata match. The boys had entered the big league.

There are more instances of Goswami and Pandey’s marketing chutzpah. When they organised the National Games in Jharkhand, all finances were parked in the event and could only be retrieved from the state government in February 2011, after the job was done. Finances were strained, especially with the Argentina match fees at $1 million-plus, and other potential hosts loomed. “In January we told the authorities we wanted to buy the rights for two matches instead of the one agreed on,” says Goswami. “That helped us buy time and we managed to defer the advance payments for the two games till another month. They readily agreed.”

When the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) asked for rights to host the second match (Argentina versus Nigeria), there was no looking back. CMG not only received the profits from the sale, Bangladesh would be a ready market for future events. “We signed with the BFF at the price we were supposed to pay,” says Pandey. “But our profit was the international TV rights for the Bangladesh game.”

CMG believes in creating an “exceptional product”. “It’ll sell itself,” says Goswami. “Rather than spending vast amounts of time and money on marketing, we would pump it into the product to make it a really good one. And that is what we have done always.”

That’s how CMG absorbed the risk of the Maradona tour and the Argentina-Venezuela game (both 100% CMG ventures). Goswami and Pandey admit to taking loans but are quick to remind me that their current bank borrowing is just Rs 1.5 crore. “We first take up the project and then we start selling it and generating revenue,” says Pandey. “Generally, people don’t take those chances.”

BUT HAVE THE visits of Maradona and Messi helped the development of the game here?” AIFF’s Dutta asks. He’s a fine one to ask, since the Federation’s Rs 700-crore 15-year deal with IMG-Reliance back in 2010 remains a non-starter. Which is why the franchise-based PLS, based entirely out of West Bengal and conceptualised by CMG and the IFA, could be a gamechanger. IFA and CMG’s agreement is for 30 years.

While I-League players are forbidden to join the PLS, CMG’s focus is on the next generation of Indian players. The net has been cast wide, beyond the districts of West Bengal, the catchment areas of the six franchises. The owners hope that the knowledge transfer from teaming up with quality foreign talent and internationally-acclaimed coaches will help the game’s grassroots development. CMG is even looking at ploughing back profits into the infrastructure of stadiums. Each franchise will also need to have its own youth academy and run Under-13, Under-16, and Under-19 coaching camps throughout the year.

While the coming years will prove or disprove CMG’s claims, what has caught public imagination is its big coup: convincing former international stars such as Hernan Crespo (Argentina), Fabio Cannavaro (Italy), and Robert Pires (France) to be part of the PLS. They are among the PLS’s six ‘icon’ players. (Goswami and Pandey have yet to meet the players themselves but convinced the players’ agents at a lengthy meeting in London.)

“It’s great that the likes of Cannavaro and Crespo are coming, but what’s more important is the way the tournament is organised,” said Indian national team and Mohun Bagan player Sunil Chhetri a few months ago. “If it is organised in a better way, it should help in the overall and long-term development of Indian football.”

Base prices between $500,000 and $800,000 were the perfect hook for the overseas icon players. Ashish Kumar Sarkar, chairman, Aajay Consultants, which owns the Bengal Tuskers (Siliguri) franchise, explains why India was a big draw for even the international non-icon players and coaches. “The annual salary for Santino Quaranta, one of the non-icon overseas players we bought, was $115,000 while playing in the U.S.’ Major League Soccer. We bought him for $250,000,” says Sarkar. “After the auction in Kolkata’s Taj Bengal, Goswami told me, ‘If you paid him $150,000 he wouldn’t come all the way from the U.S. to Siliguri to play.’ So that’s why we had his base price fixed at $200,000. Even Cannavaro, our icon player, is getting almost $830,000 for 40 days. It is tempting money.”

The sale of franchises totalled Rs 79.75 crore, with Uro Infra Realty India coughing up Rs 25.12 crore for a period of 10 years for the most expensive franchise, Barasat Euro Musketeers. Former Argentina striker Crespo was the most expensive at $840,000, also bagged by Barasat.

But the tournament, initially scheduled for a March 2012 launch, has faced rough weather. There have been allegations that CMG met team owners before the auction to ‘fix’ the sale of franchises; questions raised about the business interests of the franchise owners (especially microfinance); reservations expressed by the AIFF about the authenticity of the PLS teams, and its requests to FIFA to suspend team owners from the Transfer Matching System for recruiting foreign players. This last problem was solved by IFA registering them as valid clubs. And the latest, but not a new, headache: the non-cooperation of the West Bengal government and the underpreparedness of the venues.

PLS is now due to start in November. “PLS has been postponed because of poor fields,” says Sarkar. “That is the only way the government can intervene. So, it has shown its true colours.”

CMG claims three states have offered venues—Kerala, Delhi, and Maharashtra. AIFF and IMG-Reliance too have plans for a new I-League, with 14 ‘trump card’ international players, who can be auctioned to the existing I-League clubs. “But it’ll still be a me-too product,” says IFA’s Ganguli.

“We always tried to do something unique and effective for Indian football,” says Goswami. They dream of contributing to India’s qualifying for the FIFA World Cup while they’re still alive. “We cannot be erased from India’s footballing history,” adds Goswami. “Even if things come to a standstill, when one writes about the time the world’s best and the current best played in India, our names will be there. But we believe we have just started.”

The course of Indian football turned in 1911 when Mohun Bagan became the first Indian team to win the IFA Shield, defeating East Yorkshire Regiment 2-1. The Empire, an evening paper, wrote: “Those 11 players are not only a glory to themselves and to their club and to the great nation to which they belong—they are a glory to the game itself.” More than a century later, it may require just two Bengalis to provide Indian football with its next watershed moment. The inspiration is certainly there—both Goswami and Pandey are diehard Mohun Bagan supporters.

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