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Ankush Arora, Project Head - LOC AFC Women's Asian Cup India 2022 (Interview)

Our interview with Ankush Arora - He has 10 years of work experience managing projects which include India's Professional Volleyball League, FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017, AFC U-16 Championships, 12th South Asian Games, and various other high profile infrastructure projects in the UAE.

Q) Having done your bachelor's from Delhi College of Engineering and after having worked as an engineer for a few years, how did that shift happen from being an engineer to a sports manager or how did that interest arise to get into the sports industry?


A) That’s a question I get asked very often from the time I shifted to sports. I have already practiced the answer to this question (he smiles). Growing up, I was always into sports, playing a lot of cricket & badminton as well as watching practically every sport on TV, but in the early 2000s, there weren’t many career options at least with regards to sports in India that we could choose from. So, I chose a traditional path of pursuing engineering and then worked as an engineer for four years.


The shift came in when I was watching the London Olympics on TV, and I was like this is the kind of project I want to be part of in my lifetime. The interest was always there to work in sports but this event made me think if I can potentially make a career switch and work in sports. Then after some research, I came to know about the AISTS program by IOC based out of Lausanne and got into it, and I have been lucky enough to work on some of the most exciting projects in Indian Sports in the last 6-7 years.

 

Q) During your time, there weren’t many colleges in India for sports management, and taking up a traditional or mainstream career option was a definite choice. But now with so many sports management colleges in India, it opens up a lot many opportunities for young guys to work in sports. What is your take on this?


A) If an athlete 15 years ago, went and said to someone that he/she wants to work in sports, not many would have taken it seriously. But now with so many colleges offering proper sports management courses, it becomes relatively easier for someone with an interest in sports to make a living through it. The best part is that sports has been recognized as an industry and with so many opportunities coming in the form of leagues/top-notch tournaments, the future of sports managers is really bright. However, the industry is still evolving and anyone who wants to venture into the industry should be prepared for a hard grind particularly at the start of their career.

 

Q) You have seen and delivered the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 from really close quarters. How do you see football in India evolving after the tournament and has it actually helped the AIFF in moving #IndianFootballForwardTogether?


A) Yes, definitely it has changed. First, let me talk about the infrastructure that was put in place for the tournament. All 6 stadiums going for a complete makeover for the tournament and most of the stadiums hosting ISL now, it was a great boost for young footballers who want to play for India.


It has also brought a change in the attitude of everyone involved in football.

"Before this World Cup, everybody knew India as a cricketing country, but this U-17 World Cup with record attendance and a few other records, changed the attitude of major organizations like FIFA and AFC on how they saw football in India."

All credit goes to Indian Football (AIFF) for the way they have changed the footballing structure and system in the country in the last few years.

 

Q) You have been part of the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) that delivered the FIFA U-17 World Cup. This being one of the biggest tournaments in India till date, what was your role, and how difficult was it to deliver the tournament from an operations point of view?


A) I was the Project Manager of the tournament, where I worked directly with the Tournament Director and Project Director and supported them in overall project management, stakeholder management, coordinating the Government of India matters, volunteer recruitment, and procurement.


Delivering a volunteer program was a difficult challenge as we got a tremendous response for the program wherein we received 10,000 applications within 24 hours.

"At the end we had 30,000 applications and to select 1500 volunteers out of them was a massive exercise in terms of volunteer recruitment. Furthermore, to train them and keep them motivated throughout the tournament to avoid any drop-outs was something you can never learn at any management institute."

On the procurement side, a lot of procurement was done through funds provided by Government of India and we had to be very careful with our planning to ensure that public money is spent efficiently. All our tenders were hence done with extreme detailing as well as transparency which resulted in cost efficient procurement and no disputes whatsoever which I believe was a huge success for us.

 

Q) With the FIFA U-17 World cup being a huge success, Indian football has nicely shifted its focus to Women’s football; and with India hosting the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup and AFC Women’s Asian Cup in 2022, how different is it going to be from the men’s tournament, both in terms of football development and from an operations point of view?


A) Operationally it’s going to be absolutely same, when it comes to delivering tournaments of this nature, FIFA & AFC have set standards and the delivery is not going to be any different.


Women’s football is on the rise in India and with the AFC Asian Women’s Cup and FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup coming to India in 2022, it will provide a massive boost for women’s football in the country.

 

Q) What are the most important things that you would like to list out when talking about the operations of a mega tournament, and who are the key members or stakeholders involved in the delivery of a tournament?


A) Key stakeholders involved apart from FIFA of course, is the Government of India and then at the local level, the host cities as we have to work in close coordination with all of them for overall delivery.


Talking about the operations during a tournament, it’s always a high-pressure environment. During complex situations, one has to be cool, calm, and composed and for sure you will achieve success. My advice to all those choosing operations in sports as their career would be to stay calm, composed, detail-oriented, and always go into the tournament with proper planning. Execution will happen automatically if you go in with a solid plan. It all looks very simple when someone sees it from the stands or on television, but the amount of hard work that happens at the back-end is not always visible.

"There is absolutely no room for error in live sports events delivery."
 

Q) Jumping into the sports education side of things, which I am sure many youngsters would be excited to know about. So, you have done your Master's from AISTS, which is one of the best institutes in the world for Sports Management, how easy or how difficult was it for you to get a role/job in the Indian sports industry, and was AISTS the only reason of you landing a job at FIFA or was it something else?


A) For me, as I was shifting from a civil manager to a sports manager, the AISTS program definitely helped me to get a better insight into the sports industry and how it works. It actually gave me exposure to all facets of the sports industry and also helped me connect with alumni from all over the world. It was because of someone from the alumni network only that I got connected to some of the key personnel of the LOC FIFA U-17 World Cup India 2017 including the Tournament Director. Luckily, for me they were kind enough to respond to my email as well as meet me to discuss about the role of Project Manager of the LOC considering my previous work experiences and education.

 

Q) What would you suggest to guys who want to go abroad for higher education but want to come back to India to make a living? Is going abroad actually worth it?


A) It’s not a certainty that if you go to Europe, the UK or the USA for your sports management degree, you will get a job. The opportunities in sports are actually limited, not only in India but anywhere you go. So you have to be realistic that you go abroad and you may not find a job. Getting a job is a combination of lot of factors which includes your work experience and clarity of what you want, being the most important ones. After that it is just about being persistent with your efforts. So my advice would be to have your goals set and have clarity on why you want to do Sports Management and then pursue your goals with complete dedication.


You are passionate about sports, it’s great, but how do you implement that in your professional career? Having a passion for sports and working in it are completely different things.

"Sport is like any other industry. It has all basic functions like marketing, media, operations, project management etc. My advice to all youngsters is to know your skill set and strength and make sure that you work on that specific part to succeed."

Else taking advice and talking to your seniors is the best thing you can do. You can know the experiences of those people who have already done what you want to do, correlate with their decisions, and yes, then you can surely make a wise decision.

 

Q) I have a tricky question for you here. Suppose you are a hiring manager or someone who is hiring for the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup 2022, and you have two guys shortlisted for the final round, one having a degree from the top sports management college of the world with zero work experience, and the other having an experience of 2 years in the sports industry with no formal sports education. Who would you go for?


A) If given a choice, I will hire both of them (he says humorously). It’s a difficult one to answer actually, but my choice would be to hire someone who has got some formal education in sports and with a little work experience because, at the end of the day, work experience matters a lot. Given the unpredictable & high pressure environment of major sports events, I would definitely prefer to choose someone with prior work experience.

 

Q) Final question: What has been your best memory in your entire sports management career?


A) It’s very hard to choose one moment from my entire career. I have been fortunate enough to work on these big events, like the South Asian Games & India’s first FIFA tournament. Starting India’s first professional volleyball league was really special as well and will always be close to my heart. Working now on India’s first FIFA tournament for women and the AFC Women’s Asian Cup 2022 is really exciting as well.


But if you still ask one moment, I will say it was managing the volunteer program in the FIFA U-17 World Cup. It is something I will always cherish as I got to experience first-hand the passion that people in India have to drive Indian sports forward. The kind of support and love we got from people from all walks of life who just wanted to support us in ensuring that India’s first major FIFA tournament is a grand success was something else.

"We had people from the age group of 18 to 72 who worked tirelessly for almost a month out of sheer love for the beautiful game of football and it always motivates me to do my best to take Indian sports forward in whatever capacity I can."
 

This interview was conducted by Sambit Mishra.

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