Ivan Vukomanovic is a “geographic freak” by his admission. He loves to jump into his car and head to less-explored spots. His passion for travel and fascination for history has taken him across the lengths and breadths of Europe and the Serbian has now embarked on a journey to India to take charge of Kerala Blasters.
He is the club’s 11th manager in eight seasons. He’s aware of the sort of merry-go-around system at the club where coaches have been replaced periodically but insists that he’s had a “good feeling” about joining the Kochi-based club.
“It’s like when you meet someone in your life, your friend or a girlfriend, and you get that feeling...like a good feeling. I did not have that with some interviews but I had the best feeling with Kerala Blasters. The very first time we met and chatted, I had a very positive feeling. They presented a good project and they are good people. Some of the other offers I got had more money, but I am not a coach that is attracted by that - I am drawn to nice projects and I believe in good people. I feel Kerala Blasters has a great environment with a huge fan base - that attracted me to the club,” says the 44-year-old.
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“I noticed that the club had one of the youngest squads in the league and I wanted to be a part of the team’s development. I want to develop the boys, not only to perform well on the pitch but also to help them grow in character and mentality,” he adds.
His initial observations are that the nation, dubbed the “sleeping giant of Asian football” needs to pay more attention to youth development.
“Since we arrived in India, I have to admit that I am positively surprised by what we have seen. We are surprised by the quality and potential of talent. I think if we speak honestly, I try to be realistic, you need infrastructure to develop and go to a higher level but the lack of youth development leaves a huge gap. In comparison with other nations, it creates a huge gap for players that later arrive on the senior level, or here at the ISL level.
It’s like sending a first-year medical student to the operation hall and telling him a patient is dying and that he needs to conduct a heart transplant. It’s quite impossible in such a situation. A lack of youth development creates a huge gap for players who come on to the senior level and can struggle with certain aspects.”
Former SC East Bengal coach Robbie Fowler had attracted criticism last year when he said a few of the Indian players in his squad looked like they hadn’t been coached before. Vukomanovic feels he was just comparing the status of Indian football to that of the global standard.
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“I don’t want anyone to understand it in the wrong way but we as foreigners compare with the situations that we faced in our past. I have lived in Belgium for 16 years, which is now the world’s number one and develops its young players. The players move to higher levels and become better after making transfers to top clubs. Everyone makes a profit, the clubs get money from the transfer and the national team also benefits because they come back better after playing in higher leagues.
“As Robbie said, the need is to focus on developing young players between the age of 14-19, which is the most crucial for a footballer. If they don’t get correct work at that age, then they will never be ready for the higher level. They will struggle when they come to the senior level and play in the ISL or national team. If you give them a long 5-6 month break and then call them to the national team without giving them proper education in the past, they will never be ready to perform. The national team will always suffer and never be capable of making big results,” he says
“The ISL organisers and the Federation should connect those dots to complete the chain and help prepare young players for the highest level. I am sure very soon India will have a very good national team that can go on to the highest level like the World Cup. India has huge potential and talent and can easily do it. They have shown it in other sports. I am positively surprised by what we have seen and I am optimistic…this is the way ahead. If not, then we will have a generation of players that will be wasted. You will have one talent and maybe every 10-15 years you will have one (Sunil) Chhetri. But on a huge level, you want to achieve something. I am certain of it and this is a process that has to be followed,” he adds.
A defender during his playing days, his coaching philosophy is simple — score goals. “I want to play attack attack attack. I think that is a great way of playing football. We always speak and say you have to play for the result. Every coach has a preferred style, approach or formation, but every tactic is good. As a coach, you need to recognise the potential of the team. If I see certain boys have potential (to excel in attack), then our job is to develop them to a higher level — to provide them higher scoring opportunities and attacking options. I want to give them an opportunity to play attacking football because then they will get better and enjoy their football,” he says. He conceded that playing offensively increases the risk of being hit on the counter, but adds, “This is football.”
A tale of Vidic and Pochettino
Reminiscing on his playing days, Vukomanovic reveals his special bond with Serbian and Manchester United legend Nemanja Vidic. “You have to know, I used to play with former Manchester United captain Vidic. We are from the same town, we know each other since our childhood. We played together in defence at Red Star Belgrade. He is four years younger and was the next generation of youngsters coming to our first squad. He made his debut in the UCL qualification round and we played together in defence - it was his first game. Our coach told me that he will stay with us for another six months to improve and look, he went on to become one of the best defenders in Europe,” he fondly recalls.
“When he was in Manchester, I used to support them a lot, especially under Sir Alex Ferguson. We make it a point to catch up whenever we are in town. He knows I’m here in India now,” he adds.
Vukomanovic then sealed a move from Red Star Belgrade to Bordeaux in France, where he would be roommates with current Paris Saint-Germain manager Mauricio Pochettino. “I played one season in France and my roommate was Pochettino. I was in Bordeaux, he came from PSG. We shared the room for one season and then he went to Espanyol and then later got into coaching. It’s been 20 years now and we’re still in touch. We exchange messages all the time and stay in touch. I had met him in Belgrade when he had come with Tottenham Hotspur to face Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League,” he says.
At the time of this interview, Pochettino was strongly linked to the vacant managerial position role at Manchester United. Before he could be asked anything about it, Vukomanovic quips: “I cannot tell what he said about the Manchester job (winks). Knowing him, everything is possible!”
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Vukomanovic has also crossed paths with tennis ace Novak Djokovic and often dines at the latter’s restaurant in Belgium. But for now, he yearns to travel to Kochi and watch his team play in front of its vociferous home crowd.
“We have a lot of fun here, there’s lots of laughter in the camp. I have to admit, life in the bubble is something I had not experienced earlier. It’s like luxury imprisonment — we go to train, play and come back. But it’s fun, we had tournaments in table tennis, darts, chess and PlayStation. It’s fun and the spirits are always high in the camp. Hopefully, this (pandemic) is over soon and we can be back in Kochi playing in front of our fans,” he says.