The Interview: Neel Shah
The former MLS director of fan development has lived since 2009 in India. His new book is Awakening the Blue Tigers: India's Quest for Football's Holy Grail.
There is probably nobody who is as equally versed in the development of soccer in the United States and in India as Neel Shah. As the World Cup starts, India has a desire to reach the men’s and women’s World Cup finals for the first—and a history in the sport of soccer that might be more significant than you realize. We talk about all of it in a compelling conversation.
The entirety of the written interview below is reserved for paid subscribers. As always, you can still get the entire free audio version of my podcast when it publishes Thursday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you like to go for your pods.
It’s time for another segment of Book Talk, and our guest is Neel Shah. He's a former director of fan development for Major League Soccer whose terrific new book is Awakening the Blue Tigers: India's Quest for Football's Holy Grail, co-written with Gaurav Gala with a foreword by Ferran Soriano, the CEO of Manchester City and NYCFC. Neel has been living in India since 2009. Neel, congratulations on your book, and thanks for coming on the show.
Thank you so much, Grant, for having me. I appreciate it.
Lots to talk about here, but before we get to your work in India, I want to get into your background in the U.S. and in MLS. What is that background?
Like many others, I grew up playing soccer in the eighties. I grew up in Southern California. I’m of Indian origin but born and raised in California, and went through the whole club system, U.S. youth soccer, ODP, and hit that stage where I realized I’m not going to be a professional. It was 1996 or so, and this happened to be the same year MLS started.
So I thought if I'm going to make soccer a part of my life, even into my non-playing days, what better place to be than MLS? For the next six years, I put a lot of effort into getting prepared for that interview, which happened in New York City in 2002. I got the job, and got to be part of MLS's let's say the early years of its growth phase, where we got to see the expansion that was happening in the early days with a Real Salt Lake or Chivas USA.
“We have 48 teams in the 2026 World Cup. We don’t know how many spots that actually means for Asia, but I do feel like that is going to be a help for India to get one of those spots.” — Neel Shah
I got to go through the ups and downs of some of the challenges that MLS faced in its early seasons of building relevance in local markets, and also got to see a lot of the fruits of the planning that the early architects of MLS put in place. I got to experience a lot of that, and also the David Beckham impact and everything else. It was just such a cool time to be part of the league at that time, because I got to experience it firsthand with a small group of us as well, which really, I got to wear multiple hats at that time.
What does a director of fan development for MLS do?
I imagine in 2022 it’s different than what a guy in 2002 and 2003 was doing. Early days, I was working with David Wright, who's in a senior position at U.S. Soccer now. Him and I, we broke up the potential fan community into three different buckets. One was the youth soccer community; one was the 18 to 24s, who were passionate about soccer, mostly European soccer, but had an opportunity to become fans of MLS; and then the Latin American community as well. Since we had limited budgets, we were really spending time taking money from partners like, at the time, Sierra Mist or Panasonic and Radio Shack, and building programs like Futbolito, or Dribble, Pass and Score. We created a pubs network with Budweiser, and then we started working with the universities, the soccer coaches at universities, to get more kids interested in soccer, and in the summer camps that they had run.
So those early days were all about leveraging partner resources to go out and build more fans. As the years went by, our budgets got bigger, so I had more money to go out and work with local clubs to incentivize them to build relationships with the community that had nothing to do with ticket sales, but had to do with meaningful, emotional connect, and meaningful dialogue with the club. I found that to be a lot more engaging, just because it was a lot less partner-focused and a lot more relationship-focused. It evolved over the years working with supporters groups and so on, but ultimately it was about building programs and partnerships to bring the extended soccer community into MLS's fold.
In 2009, you did something fascinating, you moved full-time to India. What led to that? Why did you want to do it?
GrantWahl.com is reader-supported. Free and paid subscriptions are available. This is how I make a living, and quality journalism requires resources. The best way to support me and my work is by taking out a paid subscription now. All posts during the World Cup will be behind the paywall.
It seemed like a very odd decision. Now 13 years later, it still seems odd, actually. It was a fantastic decision, I feel like the best one in my life. I had never been to India in 2007, and I remember just seeing Sunil Gulati around and just peppering him with questions about India, and telling him, "I feel like I want to do something there, I just don't know what." I had never even been to India, and I kind of had no plan. I was just a young kid, very excited, and just rambling. Finally in 2007, I just got a ticket and backpacked around during my winter break. Because of the relationships that I had in the soccer industry, I was able to meet with the federation, people at Nike, Adidas, and others, while still backpacking, going to my family villages and so on.
I left the country at that time feeling like there's something really special in this country, not just from a soccer perspective, but from a personal growth and development perspective. So 2008, same thing, I went back with 300 soccer balls. A friend was writing a book for ESPN about the power of sport, and he said, "Can you just donate these around the country and record the impact on you and the people you're connecting with?" I did, and I realized on that trip, there was so much power and passion for football at the grassroots level. When I was giving a ball to a child in Tamil Nadu, they would get as excited as if I was giving it to somebody in Buenos Aires. It was all there.
I also went to a Federation Cup final, Mohun Bagan versus Dempo, in Salt Lake Stadium, it's in Kolkata. 80,000 people were there, and it was as vibrant as I would've seen in so many parts of the world. So I thought, "At the top there's potential, I'm seeing it, and I'm feeling potential at the bottom." It was the dialogue between the top and the bottom, and the sustainability, and the ecosystem's ability to thrive and sustain itself that was missing. I felt like in the U.S. I had experienced so much of that. I thought, "I'm uniquely positioned to move to this country, and try my best to bring a little bit of what I've learned over to India, but also to learn and grow in the process." I thought it would be a couple of years, and I just was captivated by the warmth and potential and just adventure in this country, and I just stayed.
It's an amazing story, and you're right, you are uniquely situated I think, as someone who's been so involved in the development of soccer in the United States, and then going to India. How do you think they compare, the U.S. and India, in soccer? How do they contrast as still-developing soccer countries?
I think about this often. At the forefront, I’d say given my experience in soccer in America, where I was there in the U.S. in '94 and the World Cup came. I was in the stadium when the U.S. beat China in the 1999 World Cup, with the historic win and Brandi Chastain's iconic moment. I was watching when we made it to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup and watched the growth of MLS. I was also there at times where people said, "Soccer's never going to grow, it's never going to make it." Watching the MetroStars play inside of Giants Stadium with NFL lines, and you'd have my friends going, "Neel, you're the director of fan development, what are you doing all day at work?"
I'm like, "Oh my God, I'm embarrassed here."
So it was, in those days going, "How are we going to do this? Are we really going to be a league that we're all proud to be a part of?" And seeing what's happening at this recent MLS Cup is a perfect example of where the league is at. In India, it's no different. It's a cricket country by all purposes, it's in their blood, it's in the religion. But I understand that growth and development, it takes time. Because I saw the U.S. growth and development, where it's almost gone from a place where nobody really thinks it's going to make it, and it's gone to what it is today, I felt like India can do it even faster. When a country of 1.4 billion really gets excited about something, miracles can happen. We've seen this in other sectors, like the IT industry and Bollywood and so on.
On one hand, these are two countries where soccer is not the number one sport, and the stakeholders have to get together to really work hard to make it relevant in the country. Two is that the passion for the sport exists in the country. Even when MLS wasn't the most popular for soccer fans, there was still some pockets of passion for European soccer. In India, I find that kids in Mumbai or Bangalore or Chennai or Delhi know as much about European soccer as people in Europe. I find the passion as palpable as I would when I'm sitting in Manchester or London for their local clubs. So that's there. The biggest difference, honestly, Grant, in the U.S. the structure is so much more set, whether it's U.S. Youth Soccer, AYSO, U.S. Club Soccer, and the university system.
Even when MLS came in, it was a long-term plan that most stakeholders were behind. In India, it's such a large country, it's 36 state associations, and as I said 1.4 billion people, with a lot of challenges beyond sports development that exist in the country. When you have that, it's very difficult to centralize leadership. So you have to go down to the state associations, and they're not well-funded, not very professional. When the states are weak, it's very difficult to see the pathway and the growth of the game in a way that's really meaningful, and we really need to empower the states. Because of cricket's rise, and the Indian Premier League, which has become one of the most profitable leagues in the world, most Indian investors who invest in soccer want to see the cricket success overnight. The people in MLS who invested early, like Lamar Hunt and Phillip Anschutz and Robert Kraft, they understood that these things take time.
So they were willing to get behind the long term plan. But in India, I've seen that that patience is not there. Because the patience is not there, you see a lot of money invested and a lot of people pulling out, which is actually hurting the system more than helping. That's been one of my biggest messages to people here since I've been here, just standing on my soapbox, telling as many people as I can, long-term growth and sustainability is our goal here. Everything we do, we should focus on sustainability impact first, and the rest will come. And I can say that because of my MLS and U.S. Soccer experience, but unfortunately not a lot of people were blessed with that opportunity to grow up in the way that I did.
In addition to writing your book, what are you doing professionally over there?
Over the last 13 years of being here, most of my time was in the soccer industry. For a long time, I was with a company called Libero Sports. It was a soccer consulting company with investors from the U.S. where we would actually help set up the businesses and market entry strategies for international clubs like Barcelona, Liverpool and even Bayern Munich. It helped them really start to maximize the opportunity here in India, because there were so many fans of their clubs in the country, but they weren't able to really understand how to actually connect with them in a way that was workable and long-lasting. So I was doing that and working with a lot of Indian soccer stakeholders.
Then, I became a CEO of a professional team, which is a dream, to run a club. It was in Pune, it was in the I-League, our professional league. I also ran the Liverpool Academy as part of that project. But one of the things I noticed was that what was missing in India was not necessarily more money in Indian sports, it was missing professionals. My time at MLS taught me that if you have professional people in the right positions in the sports industry, you'll see growth at a much greater pace. And when you have people who don't have that acumen, they could have passion, but they don't have business acumen, it's harder to see that growth. So what we decided to do, myself and an investor, is set up India's first industry-designed sports management post-grad program, basically a master's program. We set it up in 2018, it's called the Global Institute of Sports Business. It's incredible, because we have about 30 students a year who go through this 15-month rigorous course. The University of Massachusetts-Amherst, which is the number one program in the world, send over their faculty.
They teach here, we have a great working relationship with them, and our partner is the Premier League. They give our students a lot of consultancy projects, not for them, but for their clubs as well. They're constantly looking at how Chelsea, Arsenal and others can build their brand and business in India. Our students go to England and get to see what it's like to work in the Premier League, and Premier League clubs as well. At the end of this journey, they end up getting jobs somewhere in the industry.
I am the associate dean of that program. On the side, I head up business for the parent company India On Track, and our clients are the Premier League and La Liga, and even Major League Baseball, as we help build the culture of baseball for MLB in this country. We do a lot of that kind of work as well.
That's fascinating. Wearing a lot of hats and doing a lot of different work. It's very interesting. I do want to ask about the history a little bit. What happened with India and the 1950 World Cup, and what was the impact of that in your opinion?
I'm sure you know your history, in 1947 India became a country, was able to break off from being run by the British and had their own democracy and democratic state basically. Even by 1948, India had started traveling around Europe to play a bunch of soccer games, and was in the 1948 Olympics in London and had a thrilling 2-1 loss to France. A lot of people started to notice the Indian national soccer team, and traveled around Europe to play a bunch of friendlies, even beat Ajax 5-1 in a friendly match. The FIFA organizers, the World Cup organizers, wanted to bring in what they called the country of Gandhi to Brazil to play in the World Cup, and they invited them. A couple of other teams in Asia dropped out, so they had this direct entry to go over to Brazil and compete.
What was interesting is that in 1950 a lot of the press that was happening in England was filtering into India, because there was still that hangover. In 1950, the World Cup wasn't the primary soccer tournament in the world for the British in their minds and their perception. Indians also felt the same way, so right off the bat, they weren't really overly kicked about it. Two is that the Olympics was very important, so they were focused on that. Three is that the Asian Games was going to be hosted in Delhi in 1951, and India really wanted to get gold in that tournament. So rather than sending a team all the way to South America, it was quite a haul, they decided to say, "We don't want to do this right now. We'll thankfully and respectfully decline your invitation to the FIFA World Cup, so that we can focus on the Asian games in Delhi," which they won gold, and they'll focus on the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, which they got fourth place in.
The All India Football Federation, in a way, was right, but they didn't realize that by saying no to FIFA in the 1950 World Cup led to many decades of not even getting to qualify for other World Cups, which really set the country back.
It's really good, I think, to establish that there is a history of soccer in India, and even success. I sometimes remind people about that in the United States as well. There are some similarities in that whole 40-year period when the U.S. men didn't qualify for the World Cup, from 1950 to 1990, part of the that time was because U.S. Soccer was prioritizing the Olympics, and the U.S. actually qualified for the Olympics. It's so hard to imagine now, because we think of Olympic men's soccer as something quite a bit smaller than the World Cup.
In terms of India and qualifying for the men's World Cup, when do you think that could happen? How close is India?
One of the reasons we wrote the book is because this comes up in every single pub banter session to every soccer conference I've ever been to. Even my in-laws, who are in Delhi, every time I'm at a family gathering, they ask me this question. So I wrote the book as an answer to that question, which is basically I'm not 100% sure. I can't tell you what the year will be. I can tell you what we need to do to get there. To be honest, to try to bring a little bit more detail to that, we have 48 teams in the 2026 World Cup. We don't know how many spots that actually means for Asia, but I do feel like that is going to be a help for India to get one of those spots.
The other part of it is we are actually really far away, though, in terms of our systems. Our academies are pretty far behind the other Asian countries, and they seem to be getting stronger and stronger, whereas ours are taking time. Our professional landscape, league landscape, is still finding its feet. There are two leagues that are looking at figuring out a way to kind of combine. Our grassroots and youth league system is pretty far away, too. So I would love to throw out a number, 2034, and say, "That's going to happen," but a lot of different things need to happen to make that happen. The exciting thing is we believe the women will make it to the senior World Cup before the men do.
The women's game is more neglected in India than the men's, unfortunately, but the competitive landscape in Asia for women's soccer at the national level is not as strong as it is for the men's. So for the Indian national men's team to make it as one of the top four, five, or six in Asia, it's quite a journey, especially throwing in the Middle East teams as well, and Australia. You talk about the women's team, they continually win SAFF, which is the South Asian football federation, and they can be competitive with many of the competitive teams in Asia. Maybe not Japan right now, but they can go up against others and still hold their own. I do feel like there will be ways for the women's team to qualify before the men. Our women's World Cup team won in '99 in the U.S., and you saw what that did just for the perception of soccer in America.
I would be more than excited for the women to make it before the men, not just for soccer, but for women's empowerment and respect in this country, which is something that so many women face as a part of just being sometimes considered the wrong sex over here, which is not true at all, of course.
I was going to ask you about that as well, with women's soccer over there, just access-wise, what's that like? Is that growing, just the ability for women to play the sport?
It's pretty dire at the lower levels, really. There are school teams, there would be some youth programs here and there. Where you're seeing the most movement is a new league they started a couple of years ago, the federation called the IWL, the Indian Women's League. It's more of a short-form league that they're looking to extend over time. So at least it's giving these women football players an opportunity to play in a competitive tournament at a national level.
That being said, the pay is not enough to make this a full-time career at this point. So it’s pretty difficult to keep managing this for a lot of these women. Where we've seen the most impact actually, which is also what we talk about in the book, there are individuals who've gone to different parts of India and set up these non-profit programs that are, I feel like, having a transformational impact on those communities.
There's an American guy from Minnesota, a hockey player named Franz Gastler, he showed up in a village called Huta Village, fell in love with that village, and created a girl's soccer program that a lot of his friends started funding. I've been to that village many times, he started in 2009, those girls in Jharkand have been able to go to Donosti Cup in Spain, go to the America's Cup in Minnesota, they've gone out to DC, they've won the Laureus Sports Award, got an award from Arsene Wenger.
There are many of these around the country, and I spent a lot of my time in India traveling around and visiting them to understand them better. So what I've been sharing with people who want to see women's soccer grow is not just, "Wait for the federation to do it," it might take a long time. But let’s start empowering these really, I call them heroes in the sticks, who are working day and night for the betterment of women's soccer from the ground up.
And in the meantime, the academies and the league structure will get there. FIFA, AFC is all trying to help us out, but let's really get those people the support that they deserve and need to do more with the energy and passion they have for this space.
There's a good chapter on the women's game in your book. I did want to ask about China and India and soccer development. I did a story when I went to China right before the 2002 men's World Cup, when Bore Milutinovic had gotten them to their World Cup, their first one on the men's side. They have not gotten back, China, since then. I do think people, when they think about the two biggest countries in the world population-wise, India and China, there's a feeling that in men's soccer at least China has made some real missteps over the last 20 years. My question would be, one, is there a rivalry between the two countries as they develop soccer wise? And are there any lessons to be drawn from what's happened in China in men's soccer over the last two decades?
From a rivalry perspective, unfortunately, not yet. We haven't played enough matches against them, we've not had any way to build that rivalry on the soccer side. On the political side, 100%. In the military side, there's a lot of challenges with China. We share certain borders with them. From my experience, I haven't studied Chinese soccer as in depth as I understand Indian soccer, but what I've understood is that when the president of China many years ago said he wanted 50,000 turf soccer fields in the country by a particular year, I had been in China speaking at a conference around that time, and I started noticing a lot of people are moving to make that happen.
What I noticed in India, when the Prime Minister says anything even close to that, "Let's support soccer. The U-17 World Cup is here, let's do something," to go from the top in Delhi to all these 36 state associations and to mobilize funds in a way that's making sure it's getting to the right places and people are moving in the right ways, is far slower and more challenging in India than a communist country like China.
From a growth and development perspective, I imagine China would see a lot more success in the pace and velocity of their investments going to the right places because of how the country is structured. The learning, though, is what they did with the Chinese Super League. The transfer fees that started coming in, the money that was being spent, the way that they were running, they all of a sudden tried to bypass sustainability and structuring and establishing a good foundation, a healthy foundation for that league before jumping to try to compete with the likes of the Premier League.
That's when the government stepped in and started putting all these penalties and fines and really trying to slow that down. In that process a lot of money would be leaked out to agents, to players, to translators, and I feel like it would've impacted Chinese soccer by a lot, because it would've been difficult for those core national team players to get the kind of environment that would help them thrive, I feel.
In India, we tried to do something kind of similar with the Indian Super League. While we weren't bringing in Oscar and others, we were bringing in Del Piero, and Pires, and Zico as a coach, Marco Mastriani as a coach, and Roberto Carlos, and so on. While it brought a lot of excitement and attention to the league for a couple of years, it also wasn't very sustainable, because the players were at the tail end of their careers. You're spending millions of dollars on them to not just pay them, but their translators, their wives, their girlfriends, the five-star hotels. It's a two and a half, three month league, and a lot of money is just going, and they don't come back the next year. They're not necessarily making the Indian players better.
I really speak about this a lot. I feel, and I'm biased, the MLS model is incredibly intelligent in terms of bringing in the marquee players at a time when we had proper soccer specific stadiums, at a time where we had decent homegrown players that could play around a David Beckham or Thierry Henry, at a time where the officials running the clubs and the league understood the game a lot more than maybe they would've in 2001 or 1999, when everything was brand new to everyone. The Chinese Super League, but definitely ISL, tried to do a lot really fast. Some of it worked, but a lot of it leaked a lot of money that could have gone back into the development of the game.
Just to wrap up, I guess I would ask about what you view as your personal future. You visited India for the first time just in the 2000s, and in the last 13 years you've lived in India full-time. Do you see yourself staying in India full-time long term, or do you plan on coming back to the U.S. at some point?
I just realized that you've been to India before I was first ever in India. You were saying you were here in 2006, which is unbelievable. I feel very blessed, and anybody who knows me and spends a lot of time with me, would get that when I speak. I have this beautiful opportunity to connect the east and the west through sports and education. A lot of the work I've done since I got to India was to try to connect Europe, and eventually, even U.S.-based sports companies, and tell the India story to them, and bring them back over here in a way that they can impact this country and get rewards as well.
Now I'm doing it through education, giving my students global best practices here in India, but also helping students in the U.S. understand, and the UK and Australia, the Indian sports landscape, because there are a lot of opportunities here.
Six and a half years ago, I got married to a girl here in India, Avantika.
Thank you. I also went from being a nomad who had no family in this country to a person who has a huge set of in-laws and extended family in Delhi. So India feels like home. I do get to spend a lot of time in Europe and America visiting family and teaching and connecting with the sports communities there. For now, my parents will not love to hear this, because they're sitting in California, but I see India as a longer-term home, but a lot of trips and time spent in the U.S. and in a bit in England to keep pounding the pavement that people should be investing and thinking about connecting with India across all industries. Because it’s such a beautiful, vibrant, and high-potential country.
Neel Shah's new book is Awakening the Blue Tigers: India's Quest for Football's Holy Grail, co-written with Gaurav Gala. Neel, congratulations. Thanks so much for coming on the show.
Thanks so much Grant, and keep up the great work. I love everything you're doing.
Check out the GrantWahl.com merch store now, featuring artwork from Dan Leydon.