Slow to start and then the blast

Sandesh Jhingan (yellow jersey)... Emerging Player of the inaugural edition of-V. SREENIVASA MURTHY Sandesh Jhingan (yellow jersey)... Emerging Player of the inaugural edition of

For the time being, without any prominent international stars, the team could look weak but like last year, despite the few goals, it could be full of surprises, writes Stan Rayan.

Any foreign footballer who has his eyes on the Indian Super League would be delighted to see the number of vacancies in the Kerala Blasters FC. The Kochi-based team, jointly owned by the PVP Group and Sachin Tendulkar, has just signed up two overseas players, retaining Spanish attacking midfielder Victor Forcada ‘Pulga’ and English striker Chris Dagnall, a 29-year-old who had plied his trade in England’s League Two club Leyton Orient.

The Blasters, which finished runner-up in the inaugural edition of the ISL last year and which had stars like Canadian Iain Hume, who walked away with the league’s Best Player award, French centre-back Cedric Hengbart, Scottish midfielder Stephen Pearson, Nigerian playmaker Penn Orji and English World Cup player David James — the club’s marquee player and head coach — now appears to have an empty bag.

The team has let go of all its big international stars — Hume was grabbed by Atletico de Kolkata while Hengbart is now with NorthEast United FC — and now needs to sign foreign players in almost every position, including a goalkeeper.

“We have about six more slots to be filled up,” said Rajeev Kamineni, the Blasters’ secretary and a director with the PVP Group.

Blasters, which has handed the team’s reins to former England interim coach Peter Taylor, was in talks with Norway’s former Liverpool left-back John Arne Riise, who comes with some deadly free-kicks, as its marquee player, but Kamineni confirmed that a deal had not been struck yet. “We have made an offer to Riise but he has not come back yet. So, we are waiting for the confirmation,” he said.

Viren D’Silva, the KBFC general manager, who is looking into the team composition, is now in the U.S. and the picture will be clear by the end of July, said Kamineni.

The Blasters may appear to be slow off the mark but it had been in a similar position earlier. Stephen Pearson, currently playing for Scottish Premiership club Motherwell FC, was a last-minute inclusion in the ISL’s inaugural edition and went on to play a key role in the Blasters’ success, including scoring the extra-time goal against Chennaiyin FC which took the Kochi side to the final.

The Blasters did not pick up any Indian National team player from the recent ISL auction and the team’s assistant coach Trevor Morgan justified the decision saying that the Indian players would not be available for at least 30 per cent of the ISL season due to their international commitments.

However the Kerala side has managed to retain its big star, defender Sandesh Jhingan who was adjudged the ‘Emerging Player’ of the ISL last year, along with midfielders Isfaq Ahmed, Mehtab Hossain and defenders Gurwinder Singh, Saumik Dey and former Indian goalkeeper Sandip Nandy.

It has also signed Kerala-born Mohammed Rafi, the triumphant Atletico Kolkata striker, which should see more fans rushing to Kochi’s Nehru Stadium where some of the best crowds turned up for the ISL last year.

The Blasters has also picked up the Kerala-born, Bengaluru FC’s nippy forward, C. K. Vineeth, Goan midfielders Cavin Lobo, who was in action for Atletico Kolkata, and FC Goa’s seasoned campaigner Peter Carvalho along with Bengaluru FC defender Shankar Sampingiraj from the player draft.

For the time being, without any prominent international stars, the team could look weak but like last year, despite the few goals, it could be full of surprises.