Sunny “Gurpreet” Singh entered Indian football scene in 2018 when he bought a stake in the Minerva Punjab Football Club. He soon made a full move into it with a buyout and thus started his innings as a key stakeholder in Indian football in 2020. Minerva FC and Academy was rebranded RoundGlass Punjab and Academy. However, before he could put in place all his plans for both the football club and academy, Covid kicked in and resulted in a full and partial shutdowns in the next two years. Undeterred by the delay, he has put his plans in place for the club from Punjab, which plays in the I-League.
Sunny, an Indian-American entrepreneur, is not looking for wins from his first team in the I-League; he is looking at developmental teams from his academy to be the high-quality supply chain to the main team. Singh is investing in infrastructure, including top coaches and support staff to ensure the change comes through scientifically and at par with foreign teams. He has a 20-year plan. He has also opened tennis and hockey academies in Punjab—the latter due to the strong connect with the sport at home; his father is a former hockey coach.
In an interaction with theweek.in, Singh acknowledged the journey was tough, and that football administration left a lot to be desired in India. He, however, reiterated his commitment to the club and academy. He also shared his thoughts on the standard of football in I-League and ISL. Excerpts:
Q/ How do you sum up your experience since taking over the team?
A/ It's a mixed bag because we had the Covid pandemic for almost two seasons. The academy could not function one year, and the second year, it was a stop-start affair because of Covid. We couldn't bring the team together. Even the I-League saw a compressed season. So, it is, in a way, the second true season of the academy. That said, from the academy's perspective, we have the first team playing in the I-League, we have the A-team, the reserve team, U-18, U-15 and U-13 teams. We came fifth in the I-League and the way we look at it, we have developed our youth. First team is a by-product of the developmental team. So, we don't focus on developing the first team; we focus on how much the youth teams can play in the first team. Last year, 5-7 of them were playing there.
Q/ How has the experience of working in Indian football ecosystem been?
A/ It's pretty bad. Infrastructure is not there in Punjab. We have had a terrible time trying to get the infrastructure there. I live in the US; every two minutes I can see a football field or tennis court. All of Punjab, I think, does not have football fields that I can find within 10-minute driving distance from my house. In Punjab, we are starving for infrastructure.
We have to have a competitive level of football and when you can't have the infrastructure, you can't get the rightly-trained performance coaches, injury management and physiologists. And, if you don't have a long-term approach, you cannot build sports. We want to change that.
Q/ Is it very frustrating at times?
A/ It's frustrating, but my take is, it is what it is; we can either be frustrated and give up or this is par for the course. It will take some time to get better and, hopefully, we can also get better and be the instrument of change. We can either complain this is not right or we can be part of change. We want to inspire people to change, set the bar high. But we are not shying away or walking away from it.
Q/ You bought a football team, but you could have bought an IPL team. What convinced you to get into football here?
A/ I went with football because my son is into it. He wanted to play and, in the process, we got into it quickly. I got into hockey because my father is a former international hockey coach – this was my way of acknowledging his work.
Q/ As a team owner, what's stopping football in India from growing and evolving the way it should be?
A/ I think the primary way India should look at football is youth development. ISL is great but it is entertainment; I-League is a very amateurish league, how can you uplift that? Quality is not good.
I think football needs powers that be to come together and sit down and see how do you put together a programme that cultivates the youth. Bring in foreign players in ISL but youth power is key. We have a framework in India, but are we making it pan-India?
Q/ As a team owner, how do you overcome the challenges?
A/ We have a 20-year phase I programme. We have 150-plus kids, looking at youth development. We are focused on long-term development, UEFA-certified coaches, technically qualified staff, strong team for strength and conditioning, sports science food and nutrition.
Q/ What is your time frame for things to improve; to see RoundGlass become a champion side?
A/ We would love to be number one in I-League, and get promoted to ISL. But that, for me, is by-product of our programme. I am not focused on how to top I-League and get to ISL. My focus is to make it a strong team in country, and, in the process, win the I-League.
Q/ You have branched into other sports, too, like tennis and hockey.
A/ Football will always be the primary focus. It's just that we want to build infrastructure in sports and make India the powerhouse in hockey again. We should be a force to reckon with.