No love for ISL ‘circus’

On cloud nine... Mohun Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen is chaired by his players after the team’s title triumph.-K. MURALI KUMAR

“The AIFF now is ruled by a corporate house, which is virtually determining the future of Indian football. Football cannot be run as just a business interest of a particular corporation. Club football in India has a rich tradition and still enjoys huge support. No corporate franchisee can take over that,” says Mohun Bagan coach Sanjoy Sen, who recently helped the club to its first I-League crown, to Amitabha Das Sharma.

Sanjoy Sen has redefined the role of a coach in the volatile world of Kolkata football. Sen, a proponent of the simple passing game, helped Mohun Bagan — a team stacked with a bunch of youngsters and a few big ticket foreign stars — to its first I-League crown recently. It is a rare success for a club from Kolkata; the national league crown has eluded the Eastern clubs for 11 long years.

Indian clubs, especially the ones in Kolkata, have a propensity to embrace high profile foreign managers with glittering coaching resumes across continents. Sen, a direct antithesis, is understated and comes with a no-nonsense attitude. The 54-year-old had his first stint in the I-League with Prayag United SC (now United Sports SC) in 2010-11, after a long stint as an assistant to the then national youth team coach Colm Toal. Sen says his philosophy of coaching is to keep things simple and thereby extract the best out of his players.

Sen took over as the Mohun Bagan coach in the middle of the season, replacing the veteran Subhash Bhowmick, who did not have the Asian Football Confederation mandated coaching licence.

Sen took time to settle in, but was finally able to string together a cohesive fighting unit, a far cry from the disorderly house Bhowmick had left him with. The amiable manager, who has already set his sights for the next season, sat for this exclusive chat with Sportstar.

Question: Clubs have handed you the responsibility to coach only when there has been a crisis. Do you think this is a correct assessment?

Answer: I just try to do my job honestly and with full commitment. I try to get the best out of the available players and never look for excuses. Maybe that attracts the clubs and hence they approach me to take charge even in the middle of the season. This is not about proving anything to anyone. I just enjoy my work and remain attached to a team as long as I am given the space to enjoy my job.

Many in Indian football think that you have introduced a new art of coaching...

It is for people to judge whether I am different or not. This is the way I love to work. I take my work as a challenge and try to get it done in the best possible way. In Bengal, more so in Kolkata, people go after fame and not the faculty when picking out a coach or a player. They disregard merit for fame.

Someone who has played for Mohun Bagan or East Bengal thinks he has gained enough credentials to coach and there is no need to go through the grind and earn the adequate coaching licences. I want to destroy this myth (prevalent in India) that only the players from big clubs can succeed as managers.

Does this I-League title signal the resurgence of club football in Bengal?

This title definitely signals a resurgence of Bengal football. A club from Bengal had last won the tile 11 years back. We have the Indian Super League now, and it is trying to take away the cream of the players. Even in such circumstances, this title has generated spontaneous enthusiasm. The outburst of emotions is natural and comes from the hearts of the people who have always loved football. This is not a corporatised celebration, which followed the ISL (Atletico de Kolkata’s) triumph. The PR firms employed by the corporate bosses had created a cosmetic carnival there, hiring celebrities, film stars and other icons. At a time when ISL is trying to devour Indian football, the I-league victory and the frenzy surrounding it reiterates India’s rich football history and the sentiments attached with the Kolkata clubs.

Why have clubs from Kolkata failed to challenge the hegemony of teams from Goa and now even Bangalore for so long?

This is because the clubs and its officials gave too much attention to individuals, the so-called stars. A lot of high profile coaches have tried to win the League over the last 11 years, but have failed because they too — willingly or unwillingly — have only worshipped star players at the expense of the other players in the team. This created disharmony and I have tried to break this mentality of overindulgence and treated every player as an equal — there is no difference between Sony Norde or Ram Malik. Their performances matter to me and not the cults surrounding them.

Calm and composed... Sen refuses to get carried away by the I-League success and is already planning for the next season.-SANJOY GHOSH

Did you bring any tactical changes to the way Mohun Bagan played?

I had asked the club officials not to interfere in my methods and I am happy that they respected my request. I had made this request because I had heard about official interference earlier. I changed the training and conditioning programme after the first few games. The defensive organisation was also reworked and younger players were brought on the basis of their work in the training. We conceded the least number of goals (16 in 20 matches) in the I-League.

What is your coaching philosophy?

My philosophy is simple — keep the ball on the ground, play to the best of your ability and always concentrate on your fitness. You play a good passing game and quickly regain the ball if you make a mistake. We need our own system in place instead of copying something else, like Barcelona’s ‘Tiki-Taka’. The game loses its charm if the ball is always floating in the air. I was a defender but I love attacking football.

I love the way Arsene Wenger has worked with Arsenal, the way he has nurtured young talents and dished out beautiful football. He has never believed in stars and his team always play an effective brand of passing football, where one player is there to retrieve the ball if his colleague makes a mistake. I always try to learn from the mistakes and have immensely benefited from my stint with Colm Toal between 2007 and 2010.

In comparison to the ISL, where does the I-League stand in the fast changing scenario of Indian football?

To me ISL is a product that a sports management company is trying to sell. People are buying it currently because they are enjoying the packaging sold to them. We have to see how long this business will last. The I-League is a more difficult competition. You can win the ISL by winning just five games, as was the case with Atletico.

The spectators were drawn in by the glamour of the international stars, and most of these stars were past their prime. People trooped in like they go to a circus. But it was a big occasion for the young Indian players, as they got the chance to share a dressing room with World Cup stars like Zico, Robert Pires, (Joan) Capdevila and (Alessandro) del Piero. Club football in India has a rich tradition and still enjoys huge support. No corporate franchisee can take over that.

Do you think the ISL and the I-League can survive independently?

It all depends on the All India Football Federation. Sadly, the AIFF now is ruled by a corporate house, which is virtually determining the future of Indian football. Football cannot be run as just a business interest of a particular corporation, which may lose its appetite after five or 10 years. Look at the likes of Mahindra United or JCT Mills.

They came for the development of football but suddenly decided to wind up. The I-League has clubs, which enjoy huge community support. ISL clubs are yet to create such an identity.