Premier Sports League and the changing urban football landscape in India

For Prithvi Bajaj, 28, football has always been about community. “The nature of football is such that it’s social,” he says. “You can’t play it alone and you can’t play it with people you don’t like, you can’t play it with people who throw reckless challenges. Football asks a certain level of integrity when you play it.”

Over the last two years, Bajaj has been behind an urban football experiment called Premier Sports League (PSL). Upon returning to India after completing his higher education in the UK, he noticed there was a lack of a football framework which allowed people to play the sport on weekends in an organized manner. Today, over four thousand players take to the pitch through a period of forty weeks annually in Delhi/NCR under the PSL banner. With integrity.

Under the watchful eyes of qualified referees, cameras recording their every pass, move, feint and goal, players who play in the PSL are ‘weekend warriors’ as Bajaj, the owner of the league describes them. “Monday to Friday I’m an accountant, lawyer, doctor,” Bajaj says, speaking about the players in the league. “But on Saturday I’m a goalkeeper, and on Sunday I’m a striker. Why can’t I grow my sports ‘career’, like I’m growing my professional career without having to give it the same kind of effort?”

Prithvi Bajaj, the man behind Premier Sports League

A one time registration fee per team guarantees customized jerseys, full match recordings, a highlights package, team sheets, refreshments, and a prize with a trophy along with it for the eventual winners of the league. While all of this contributes to the appeal of the league, for many, they are not the determining factors behind playing in it. It is about leaving behind a legacy.

Just ask Nishant Sharma of Crossfire FC, who celebrated his brace this season with an emotional message for his hospitalized grandmother in front of the cameras. Or Rishabh Sharma of Camden Rovers FC, who was on the cusp of signing for an I-League club a couple of seasons back and maintains his fitness with peak performances every weekend in the PSL.

The league, which started with only six teams has twelve teams now, with more being added every season. Bajaj speaks about the time he realized that the league had the potential to go on to become something big. “We wanted to have a sense of legacy and history to each team. If you ask me the definition of a team, the people in the team change each year but it’s the shirt which continues to stay, even at a professional level club,” he says.

“So I was wondering why can I not leave a legacy as a football player, or to a shirt, just in the region I belong to? Or a part of the city? That’s about giving history.”

Slowly, documenting the developments in every match started helping. Rivalries started emerging between teams based on their previous meetings, and players started getting motivated to play better for individual or team accolades.

Bajaj continues. “Now people started tracking their team’s history, and we started getting hits from people who were not even playing in the league. Friends, family, extended family started to track the progress of the teams and it was a surprise to us. It was all powered through technology.”

But the most important part that the PSL is playing is in changing the football landscape in urban India. It is slowly becoming an important player in the two pronged way that football is currently growing in India. If the All India Football Federation, with its elite academies are developing young talent and the ISL is bringing professionalism at the top level in Indian football, leagues like the PSL are making sure that it is sustainable from the grassroots. It is helping in creating a footballing culture that is not divorced from players potentially going on to pursuing the sport at the professional level. It is exactly what the country’s sporting ecosystem needs to make sure the transition to professional football feels more organic. After all, players as young as 16, (Prajal Tushir) and even above the age of 40 (Robert Logie) feature every weekend. There’s something for everyone involved.

Rishabh Sharma of Camden Rovers FC, the defending champions

Which begs the question. Can the PSL become India’s version of ‘non-league’ football? A footballing bedrock on which young players can cut their teeth and be inspired to achieve greater things in the sport, or a weekend release for older professionals aiding in maintaining an active lifestyle? Bajaj’s plans for expansion are firmly in place.

“An upgrade in terms of the data and the media that we provide to the players each year is planned,” he says. “Each season will be step up from what it used to be before, till we reach a point where we say we cannot really do any better. I don’t really see that happening to be honest! Each city in India will have its own PSL, and each city would have its own PSL culture. I see that in the next 18-24 months where there will be a national championship, where the top teams from each city will play against the other. We’re still figuring out how to get there, but that is the ultimate vision,” he signs off.

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