FC Pune City has endured a mixed few months heading into the latest season of the Indian Super League (ISL). ISL winning coach Antonio Lopez Habas was at the centre of the club’s player recruitment where it purchased some of the best foreign imports from the previous seasons and a few promising Indian players. With a first-ever playoff berth around, the manager parted ways with the club after differences in opinion with the board of directors.
Incoming manager Ranko Popovic helped himself and his side to two wins in two friendlies against I-League giants East Bengal FC and Mohun Bagan, a 4-1 thrashing of the latter earlier in the week. Among the goal-scorers was midfielder Isaac Vanmalsawma, 21, who was picked up by the Stallions for a price of Rs. 15 lakh in the domestic draft in July.
With the likes of Marcelinho, the 2016 Golden Boot winner, and established striker Emiliano Alfaro in the ranks, Isaac is keen not to shirk his responsibility. “I want to be one among the players if I get to play, to be as one of the players under the spotlight,” the India international tells Sportstar.
Isaac realises that his time on the pitch could be limited due to the strong squad assembled. “No, no (pressure) at all. The most important thing is to get game time. Whenever I get a chance to play I want to prove myself,” he said.
The Mizoram-born player is also relishing the prospect of brushing shoulders with and against top players from around the world in the coming months. The young attacking midfielder has been taking lessons from Spanish midfield lynchpin Marcos Tebar during the pre-season camp. “I asked him how to receive the ball in the space and how to have a good body position while in an offensive position.”
The former Shillong Lajong graduate also had praise for his new coach Popovic for helping him settle into the new club. “He is friendly to everyone and helps the players on and off the field.”
Pune picked up another player from Mizoram during the off season, who was born not far away from Isaac’s hometown, Lunglei. Lalchhuanmawia Fanai, better known as Chhuantea, was bought for Rs. 45 lakh to add weight to an inexperienced defensive fold at the Maharashtra based club.
Fanai did not have professional training in his early days and it had not been a straight trajectory to top level football for him. Having started his career as a left winger, his coach at Punjab-based side JCT FC deployed him at left full-back during a game in 2009. Talking of the transition, he tells Sportstar , “It was not easy at first to adjust. It’s a very different position. I had to learn a lot about defending and now I am comfortable in that position.”
Fanai, 28, has not looked back since then. He has represented Lajong and Bengaluru FC, where he won his first league title in 2016. His exploits at BFC earned him his first India cap and an ISL contract with Mumbai City FC on loan. An opportunity to play in the ISL for a second year running was derailed after picking up a knee injury which required surgery.
With the new season kicking off on November 17, the onus of organising a relatively young backline will be on Fanai and new recruit Marco Lopez. “We have had a good pre-season so far where we conceded only twice. We are working on combinations to help us as a team. They might look like young players but they are shaping up well. It's not an easy competition. We have to give our 100% against these teams,” Fanai says.
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