John Abraham: From Bollywood star to the football boardroom at NorthEast United

By James CroninBBC Sport in India
Bollywood actor John Abraham gives a thumbs up at a news conference for the Indian Super League
John Abraham played professionally in the Indian A-Division as a youngster

High-profile club ownership is nothing new to the football world.

But what about when your owner happens to be a movie star with about 18 million social media followers, who started the club from scratch and is involved in its day-to-day affairs?

Meet John Abraham, the Bollywood star who dreamed of playing for his country as a young boy, and who is now investing far more than just his money to build a football legacy in his home country.

'A film deal one day, a transfer deal the next'

Abraham, 46, is one of India's highest-profile celebrities, having starred in about 50 films, and produced and directed a collection of his own with great success.

But 'The Hulk of Bollywood', as he was once dubbed, was not always destined for movie fame. As a young boy growing up in Bombay, he was dreaming of another route to stardom - on the pitch, rather than the screen.

His ambition of playing for India did not quite work out, and he describes himself as an "accidental actor" when charting his rise to fame in the film industry.

When he was offered the chance to get involved with the formation of the Indian Super League (ISL), it was an opportunity he could not refuse and he founded a club of his own.

Despite chances to invest in his hometown team, Mumbai, Abraham saw an opportunity to build a club in one of the country's football hotbeds, the north east. In doing so, he created one of the only clubs in world football to represent an entire region - uniting eight states - rather than a town or city.

The appropriately named NorthEast United FCexternal-link was formed in 2013 and has now completed five seasons in the ISL, this year qualifying for the play-offs for the first time.

"On one day I'm making a deal for a film with Netflix or Amazon, and on another I'm making a deal with a club for a player," says Abraham, who runs the club with his wife, Priya, who is also the chairwoman.

"I love the acting of course, but I also find the sport world more exciting, and more dynamic.

"I would like to distinguish myself from other owners because I'm involved day to day in what happens with the club.

"Actors are sometimes used as showcases to bring in crowds - but that's not how I see myself.

"We know the positions of our team, who has injuries - everything down to a tee that is happening with our club.

"We sometimes argue with the coach, and the coach argues with the players - but I always believe this is constructive because if you don't argue you're not invested in the club."

Bollywood actors John Abraham and Shruti Haasan during the on-location shoot of title song of Welcome Back at Imperial Palace, Goregaon
Abraham on the set of Hindi-language film Welcome Back with Indian actress Shruti Haasan

'I don't even go to our games'

While some fans in England have become used to absentee owners, Abraham is a central figure at his club.

So it is particularly surprising when he reveals he actively chooses not to watch his team play.

"I'm very superstitious, so I don't go to our games," he explains.

"When I went for the first game, we were 1-0 down. I left the football field and we scored a goal instantly. From then on I decided not to watch the matches."

If Abraham chooses to live vicariously on game day by calling Priya for regular updates, he more than makes up for it when it comes to transfer windows and team selection.

"If there's a player we want, the coach knows it's going to be difficult if he speaks with Priya," he says.

"So what's the easy option? He usually calls me and tells me how much we need them, and often I get carried away.

"Priya will ask the manager who gave permission for this, and I sometimes have to face the fire.

"Sometimes I make irrational decisions - but that's part of the process."

NorthEast United FC are currently fourth in the Indian Super League
NorthEast United FC have qualified for the Indian Super League play-offs for the first time

'Running a club is like producing two high-budget films'

Abraham's investment in the club is clearly more than financial, but when you look at the numbers NorthEast United are distinct from their ISL rivals.

"All these clubs are owned by billion-dollar corporate houses," he says. "We're the only club run by individuals and it's run by honest passion.

"We're all losing money. To be doing it, either we're rationally passionate or we're just passionately stupid."

Abraham is quick to acknowledge his wife's pivotal role in the club's success, and says it is her input that enables him to be committed to his different careers.

"I couldn't do it without Priya," he says. "She's far more qualified than me for the task and the entire finances and governance of the club is managed by her.

"It's a giant task she has undertaken and an incredible amount of work goes into every detail."

Priya clearly gets the merging worlds of film and sport.

"We face just as many battles off the field as on it," she says. "It's like any good drama - we have suffered on lots of levels, worked hard to get where we are and are now excited for what comes next."

Abraham adds: "Running a football club for a season is like producing two high-budget Bollywood films in a year.

"It's just like a film. In a film, I enjoy the process but, at the end of the day, the film could fail when it releases.

"That's how a game is. You do everything you can do, but sometimes you lose.

"But when you win, or when the film succeeds, it's the most euphoric feeling in the world."

Bollywood actor John Abraham and his wife Priya Runchal
Abraham and his wife Priya married in 2014

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