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Sunday, December 05, 2021

In ISL, ‘S’ also means Spain now

With 20-plus players & 7 coaches coming this season, India is second-most preferred nation for football giants.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi |
Updated: October 20, 2020 8:05:03 am
Carles Cuadrat is the head coach of Bengaluru FC. (ISL)

Between May 2019 and September 2020, 409 Spanish footballers played outside their country. The largest number of them, 49, headed to England. The second most popular destination? India. Thirty-eight Spanish players, according to CIES Football Observatory’s Atlas of Migration, came to India during this period. This season, almost one-third of the foreign players and seven out of 11 team managers are from Spain.

Since the first season of the ISL in 2014, 84 players from Spain have played in the league which took over from I-League as the country’s premier championship last year.

Chances are that a team managed by a Spaniard will become champions, not just because they are more in number and thus automatically tilting the odds in their favour but also because that has been the trend. In ISL’s short history, only twice have non-Spanish coaches won the league – former Italy international Marco Materazzi (2015) and Englishman John Gregory (2017-18), both with Chennaiyin.

It wasn’t always like this. In the pre-ISL era, when players from Africa were in such high demand, those who ran football clubs half-joked that Europeans would not be able to survive in the heat, conveniently ignoring the fact that it was difficult for any player to be at their best during games which started at 3 pm. “I believe Spain is one of the hottest European countries so they adapt better,” Hyderabad FC’s director of football Sujay Sharma says.

The winds of change, as is the case often in Indian football, first blew across Goa, where this season of the ISL will be held in a bio-secure environment. In December 2012, Sporting Clube de Goa appointed Oscar Bruzon, who worked as an academy coach in different Indian cities, as their manager in a bid to rescue their I-League season. Bruzon got with him a couple of Spanish players, marking a first in the Indian league, and they turned around Sporting Clube’s fortunes, not drastically but enough to earn respect across the board.

Little would have Sporting Clube known back then that their move, rooted in desperation, would mark a paradigm shift in the domestic game. When the ISL was launched in 2014, the focus in terms of recruitment shifted to players from Europe and South America. And as Spanish coaches entered the fray, doors opened for players from the region. It took time, however, for the Spanish pros to take India seriously. “Some years ago, when you talked about Indian football in Spain and other parts of Europe, people did not take it seriously. They thought it was a very exotic league where you go when you are old and want to earn easy money,” says Bengaluru FC manager Carles Cuadrat. “This is the information we got and in general, people were thinking only old players go and it’s not real football. Now, seven years later, there is a lot of respect for the players who are coming here.”

It took a few years to change the outlook. As the clubs did away with the marquee signing – a famous player who was looking for one last paycheck before hanging his boots – they began looking at young players who were not necessarily known names. “The teams learned how to streamline to the (recruitment) process and looked at how success was achieved in the previous years,” Sharma says.

As more and more Spaniards started having a profound impact on their respective clubs, the executives began to focus more and more on the second and third tier of Spanish football, where they could get good players within their budget. From 10 in the first season to 24 last term, the number of players with experience of playing in Spain began to increase every year.

This season, except Chennaiyin and East Bengal (both with non-Spanish coaches), each team has at least one player with experience of playing in Spain – some like FC Goa and Hyderabad have all six foreigners who have played there (each team has to follow the ‘6+1’ rule, the plus-one being a player from Asia).

Cuadrat says a typical player from Segunda and Segunda Division B would be well-trained in decision-making, technical abilities apart from being taught to be ‘respectful’. “We are producing a huge amount of professional players and coaches but there is not space for all of them,” Cuadrat, who led Bengaluru to the title in 2018-19, says. “There are limited teams in the first and second divisions. In the third division, Segunda B, you can find many professional teams but they give low salaries to players because they don’t have enough money coming in.”

India spotted that gap and began to aggressively poach not just Spanish but even players of other nationalities playing there. They have lured quality players like Ferran Corominas (FC Goa), Miku, Dimas Delgado (both Bengaluru), Edu Bedia, Igor Angulo (FC Goa), Aridane Santana (Hyderabad) and Victor Gomez (Kerala Blasters), among others.

They have played under the likes of Jose Francisco Molina (ATK) and Alberto Roca (Bengaluru), who got bigger and better opportunities back home after spending time in India and other parts of Asia. Molina is now the sporting director of Spanish football federation and Roca, who was appointed as Hyderabad’s manager this season, got a call from Barcelona manager Ronald Koeman to join his coaching staff. “All these players and coaches have a lot of respect in Spain so now everybody is thinking, something is happening in India and they are getting serious about football,” Cuadrat says. “I can definitely say that it was more difficult to get (good) players in 2017 than to get now. Now it’s full of players that want to come.”

The word spread in the Spanish football circles and players became more open to the offers. FC Goa’s new signing, Alberto Noguera, says he decided to come to India after getting good reviews from former FC Goa left-back Carlos Pena and Bedia. “They said a lot of good things. I trust them and that was enough for me to come,” Noguera says. “I know there are a lot of Spanish players, so that helped me to come as well as there will be better chemistry and make it easier to get used to everything.”

FC Goa’s new recruit Alberto Noguera in quarantine at the team hotel. He is one of the six Spanish players in Goa squad.

It’s still too early to judge if the players from the second and third tier of Spanish football and the coaches can substantially raise the standard of India’s domestic league. One way to understand the impact will be by seeing how well the teams fare in the continental competitions – ATK Mohun Bagan (coached by Antonio Habas) and Cuadrat’s Bengaluru will play in the AFC Cup while Juan Ferrando’s FC Goa, who have filled their foreign players’ quota with Spaniards, will become the first Indian side to play in the AFC Champions League.

It is also likely that before they get a chance to influence the Indian game, the clubs will find newer, cheaper catchment areas, with countries like Argentina already on the radar of a few.

For now, though, Indian football’s Spanish connection remains firm. So much so, that even if ‘S’ in the ISL could well the substituted for Spain, it won’t feel too out of place.

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