Despite being often neglected by not only the All India Football Federation but even by broadcasters and corporate sponsors, the I-League has provided drama on the final day of the last three seasons, crowning three different unheralded teams as champions.
After Aizawl FC in 2016-17 and Minerva Punjab the season after, Chennai City FC — playing its home games in Coimbatore because of the steep rental charges of the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Chennai — surprised many by winning the I-League, playing an attractive, attacking brand of football that resulted in 48 goals in 20 matches. Its average of 2.4 strikes per game was far higher than other recent champions — Minerva (1.33 goals per game in 2017-18), Aizawl (1.33 goals in 2016-17), Bengaluru FC (1.5 goals in 2015-16), Mohun Bagan (1.65 goals in 2014-15) and Bengaluru (1.75 goals in 2013-14).
In fact, Chennai City’s 2.4 is the best in a decade — Churchill Brothers in 2008-09 was marginally ahead at 2.41 goals in 22 matches.
This is a remarkable turnaround considering Chennai City escaped relegation on the penultimate day of the 2017-18 season, scoring less than a goal per match (0.83). But the reversal didn’t materialise overnight — it was a process that was set in motion during the team’s fight to avoid the drop last season.
Foreign coach Akbar Nawas was brought in as the team’s technical advisor for the final four matches of 2017-18. “We had a plan and a vision for the following year,” says club owner Rohit Ramesh. “I made it clear that we need to ensure opportunities for local players and then do the best. The style of play was up to the coach. The target was to improve on the eighth position and see if we can make it to the top six.”
Nawas and his team exceeded his expectations by a mile.
The Singaporean wanted his team to play possession-oriented football, building attacks from the back and dominating the ball in the opposition half. The approach was a far cry from the days of V. Soundararajan.
The club also had a void to fill as Michael Soosairaj, who was voted the best midfielder in the I-League for 2017-18, was sold to ISL club Jamshedpur FC for a big profit. Chennai City needed to recruit players who could carry out Nawas’ vision, so he and then-assistant Jordi Vila stayed behind at the end of the season and scouted for local players from the Chennai Football Association Senior Division League.
The duo earmarked players for a trial before signing 10 new Tamil Nadu footballers for the 2018-19 season. From the latest recruits, Ajith Kumar (20 matches), Pravitto Raju (11), M. Regin (8) and Sriram Bhupathi (6) would go on to become key figures over the campaign. Edwin Vanspaul, Alexander Romario and Gaurav Bora, players from last season, showcased a vast improvement under Nawas. Vanspaul, playing in his first full season as a right-back, dovetailed well with Romario on the right wing and provided six assists.
But what made Chennai City a force to reckon with over the course of the season was its recruitment of foreign players Pedro Manzi, Sandro Rodriguez, Nestor Gordillo and Roberto Eslava from the lower tiers of Spanish football, all scouted by Nawas and Vila themselves.
The influence of the attackers Manzi, Gordillo and Rodriguez cannot be overstated enough. The Spanish trio was directly involved in 44 of the 48 goals scored by Chennai City. Manzi finished as the top goal-scorer in the league with 21 goals in 18 matches, netting four hat-tricks. There was no dearth of service for the striker with creative midfielders Gordillo and Rodriguez providing nine and six assists, respectively. Former Indian goalkeeper Henry Menezes feels the foreign players in the Chennai City ranks helped elevate the level of the Indian players. “They had the right ingredients to win the I-League and the foreigners played an important part. The Indian players started to adapt to their style and I think Akbar is a good man manager. That’s why whenever he called upon the Indian players they supported him well.
“Regin started the season well and Ajith Kumar was a nice find at left-back. These players added to the strength of the team. Sriram was like a holding player in front of the defence and cutting off balls in the middle before feeding the creative players up front. You can see the players in Romario and Vanspaul now compared to last season,” says the former general manager of Mumbai City FC.
According to Vanspaul, Nawas made the Chennai City players aware that they weren’t playing to their full potential last season. “The change in approach was difficult initially considering how we were used to playing. But once the pre-season got underway for the following season, we were in rhythm with his demands. The credit must go to the coach for what we achieved and how we did it,” says the defender.
Nawas’ man management impact has rightly been appreciated. On the first day of training in Coimbatore on August 1, 2018, he began infusing the players with confidence to believe in their abilities and to play the football he wants. After Vila left for Major League Soccer side New York City FC before the season began, Nawas brought in fellow Singaporean Bala Vimaran as his new right-hand man. Vimaran, who has roots in Thanjavur, helped the local players interpret Nawas’ philosophy on the pitch. Nawas went so far as to hold one-to-one interactions with his players during the title run, ensuring their personal lives were in order, too.
A coach is as good as the players he has at his disposal and Nawas duly shifted focus to the 25-member squad in the aftermath of the final day win.
Under Nawas, who had outlined a three-step process when he signed for the club, the learning never stops. “The three-step process is never over,” he says. “It’s a credit to the players for achieving the title in the first year, but the process isn’t over yet. Next year we need to improve on how we can concede lesser goals, create more chances and being effective in our possession play. If we had an average possession of 60 percent this season, we need to see if we can hold 60 percent possession in the opponent’s half next season!”
- Indian sports wrap, February 26
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