It’s that time of the year when most of us, footballers, feel like jugglers and ironically, there’s a ball involved! We’re at the business end of one competition (Indian Super League), have only just started another (the AFC Cup) and will soon play a third (the Super Cup). So, the next time you think a footballer is overpaid, think again!
But on a serious note, coaches and players are often thrown the question, how difficult is it to juggle competitions, and I feel we don’t do justice to the situation by giving rather simple answers to the query. Pacing yourself as a team between competitions is a very difficult proposition and it is one of the biggest challenges in a club’s quest to add to the trophy cabinet.
I have been very fortunate to be part of a Bengaluru FC squad that is always looking to compete for titles in India and Asia, and the fact that we have won a major trophy every year since the team’s inception in 2013, says everything you need to know about BFC’s ambitions. But like I mentioned, it takes the coming together of so many factors to differentiate between competing for silverware and simply turning up to make the numbers.
To use Bengaluru as an example, we’ve played very consistently to qualify for the play-off stages of the ISL, with three games to spare. Ideally, we could afford to take our foot off the pedal slightly, but then we had the AFC Cup preliminary and play-off stages to deal with. It involved trips to Bhutan and the Maldives (completely different weather conditions!) and two home legs before we could book a ticket to the group stages of a competition we fell in love with the day we first competed in it.
I, along with a few other boys, didn’t have to make the trips or come off the bench in these four games, and that brings me to a very important aspect of a team that’s challenging for multiple titles — a solid squad. You have to give your coach a selection dilemma every weekend. It’s the kind of headache coaches love because it also gives them confidence at the end of it that the squad they roll out is capable of getting the job done. You need the kind of players who may not have had too many chances for most parts of the season, but will step up and deliver when they are expected to.
The football calendar is never an easy one, and there are two things you can do about it — moan or get down to planning and pacing the season well. Of course, there are so many aspects that are not in your control through the course of the season, but there is a lot that can be done to make sure you are giving yourself the best shot at succeeding.
I find it amusing when people make competing in India and Asia sound like a bit of a problem. This is something we signed up for; it’s something we want to do. Yes, it is tough. But no, it isn’t a problem. It’s a challenge that teams have to be ambitious about.
The luxury of rotating a squad also heavily depends on the fitness levels of the team, and that is a very vital aspect in determining how well you can plan your season. As the season wears on, you can see the toll it takes on players, and the lack of fresh feet and heads can often decide where and how you end your season.
Last season we (Bengaluru FC) were struggling in the I-League and we ended up fourth. There were a lot of factors that were responsible for our poor showing, but we knew fitness wasn’t one of them. We regrouped and headed to Cuttack in the summer for the Federation Cup, battled hard in temperatures that crossed 40 degrees often and went on to win the competition. We then came back and beat Maziya Sports Club from Maldives at home to book a place in the knock-out stages of the AFC Cup.
This is our first season in the ISL, and the format can be very cruel. We’ve been the best team in the League and the points and performances are proof of it. However, the semifinal is a two-legged knock-out affair and then there’s the final that gives the team finishing fourth in the League, as much a chance as us, to win the cup. But this is where the team’s ability to switch gears and pace itself well for tournaments will come in handy. It’s going to be a big test for us and only time will tell how well we face it.
Like I said, there are many factors that come together in determining how successfully you handle a season with multiple competitions, but an important part of it will always be about how bad you want to win everything you are competing for!
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