As someone from the post-War generation, Antonio Iriondo quotes Mahatma Gandhi’s preaching on non-violence as the guiding principle in his life. In a prolonged career in Spain, Iriondo has managed teams such as Rayo Vallecano, CD San Fernando and Rayo Majadahonda — clubs that are not very big, but perhaps that makes him the right coach to understand the dynamics of guiding a modest side to the higher rungs of success.
As head coach of Jamshedpur FC, Iriondo is trying to book the team’s first play-off berth in the Indian Super League (ISL). The team owned by Tata Steel has changed coaches in the first two seasons after not achieving much success, placing 66-year-old Iriondo under constant scrutiny and pressure.
“My job as a coach is to educate players about how to take decisions according to situations on the field and not to guide them about where to pass and how to pass,” says Iriondo in an interview with Sportstar .
What is the first impression of the kind of football that is being played in the ISL vis-à-vis the standard of Indian football?
We have just started the season and have played just a few matches. So it is not easy to say about the level of the competition. It will become apparent only when we see how the teams or our opponents react to our style of play.
What I found after coming here is that there are a lot of players with individual skills. Some have good technique, some are very fast, but what is important for me is how they combine as a team. Indian players do not have much references and I am judging them as I see them individually. Even people here have the tendency of labelling players individually and do not give much importance to a team.
It is mostly about big names in world football, where you have the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Kylian Mbappe always being sought out by big clubs for success...
Clearly speaking, it is the fans the world over who are more focused on creating stars out of the players. Yes, Messi is a very good player, but if you consider Barcelona, he is not bigger than the team. He is making the team better with his talent, but essentially it is the team.
Barcelona has developed a way of playing that was taken to a different level by a player like Johan Cruyff and then they made further improvement under coach Pep Guardiola. And Messi added more value to that particular football philosophy that signifies Barcelona’s way of playing. And Barcelona may be thinking of ways to preserve that style after Messi retires.
Do you think this applies even to Indian clubs? Do they need to have their own style of play to be able to make a mark as a team in the national or continental standards?
There are different ways of playing and that makes football richer as a sport. There are different options and approaches to football, and what a team should really try is the way it is comfortable with. Copying others does not really help. Barcelona has its style and so has Real Madrid. Teams like FC Goa, Bengaluru FC and Jamshedpur FC here are trying to find their styles.
What I am trying as a coach is to make the players understand the game while also trying to improve their knowledge about the game. It is about giving them all the information and making them capable of taking their own decisions on the field and not about telling them where to pass and how to pass. I think it is quite a difficult job but if I am looking at improving the team then this is the way out.
How are you looking to do this difficult job of educating the players about a distinct style of play?
What I am attempting here is trying to bring out the best in the players, especially the Indian players. I say this because at the end of the day, we are human beings playing football and not just football players. I am always looking for players who do not just stop at being obedient, I am looking at players who understand things and make their own decisions.
There are two ways to it. One, I do not want to limit their ability or their knowledge. I do not want from other people what I do not want for myself. The second reason is about individuality. Football has more than 120 years of history and every week you have more than a thousand matches, both professional and amateur, happening around the world.
With so much happening for so long, you cannot find two exactly similar players. So, one small change in the detail can change the whole game. That is why I cannot teach them specific playing ways, but I would prepare my players to take the right decision according to the situation in every match they play.
For that to happen, the first thing is to break the internal barriers in the mind because people generally are taught to obey and not think since their childhood. Given this situation, we are focusing on a learning system and we are focusing on the mistakes as they are important processes of learning. The process of learning is like steps where the player has to climb one at a time. Our job as the coach is to determine that the height of a step is not too difficult for a player to climb.
Before taking up your job as the head coach of Jamshedpur FC, what was your idea about Indian football and what tasks did you set for yourself?
The only thing I could make of Indian football was through some occasional videos that made their way to Spain and also through my daughter who spent eight months in India doing some training. I heard a lot of wonderful things about Indian people from her. And when I was young the philosophy of Gandhi inspired me a lot.
In what way did Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings influence you?
Gandhi could make out the dichotomy of a modern society which was living in a permanent state of competition and war. He could make out that human beings were fighting for everything, their jobs and also for food. But his observations presented the opposite side, from the side of peace. His preaching about non-violence is what attracted me. We all have a non-violent side in us, but there are hardly any references about how to practise it. Gandhi through his actions opened that path to us.
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