A day before the Indian Super League final, Bengaluru FC coach Carles Cuadrat recalled a meeting at a café in Spain with FC Goa coach Sergio Lobera. At that point in time, Cuadrat had been offered the head coach’s role at the club, but wasn’t sure if he should take it. He sought some advice from his ‘good old friend.’
The pair go back a long way, back to the time when they were budding footballers who graduated from Barcelona’s fabled youth academy, and have known each other ever since.
“I asked Sergio if I should take the job,” Cuadrat recalled. “He already had experience in ISL, and he said that I should take it. He said that it matches my style and I would fit in.”
And it was apt that the two friends faced off in the final, with Cuadrat’s team walking away with the glory after a tight contest. The similarities between the two coaches are remarkable. They set their teams up with a similar style of play – attack-minded build-up with a focus on ball possession. And in their first season in India as opponents, they led their teams to an identical tally in the league stage – 10 wins, four losses, four draws to aggregate 34 points each.
Coincidentally, both also led teams that had reached the final of India’s marquee league before their tenure, but had failed to with the title. And on the night of the final at the Mumbai Football Arena, as expected, both teams cancelled each other out. But just when it seemed that the evenly-poised match would go to the cruellest of deciders, the penalty shootout, it was a Mumbai-born player who leapt highest to score the only goal of the match.
Late in the 117th minute of play, just three minutes short of the shootout, Bengaluru FC’s dead ball specialist Dimas Delgado floated in an out-swinging corner and Rahul Bheke, from 16 yards out, flicked a header that sailed into the far top corner of the goal. The Blues would hold on for the last few minutes to secure their first ever ISL title with a 1-0 win.
There were no teams more deserving to make it to the summit clash. Ranked one and two in the league stage – Bengaluru FC taking the top spot based only on head-to-head results – the two teams have also been among the most consistent since their inception (Bengaluru in 2013, Goa a year later).
The new ISL winners had won two I-League titles before making the shift to the ISL, and FC Goa have made it to the playoffs in four of their five seasons. With that consistency, there was much anticipation for the final. But the initial exchanges were cagey and bogged down in the midfield. Inroads into each other’s defences did come though, but it was a while before either Gurpreet Singh Sandhu in the Blues goal or Naveen Kumar under the Goa bar could be tested.
Bengaluru can be trend-setters
If doubts persisted about the quality of I-League teams tussling in the Indian Super League, Bengaluru FC dispelled it by landing the title in their second tryst with the glitzy league. Led by the charismatic Sunil Chhetri, they proved that splashing money or arraying line-ups with superstars past their prime is not a sure-shot method for winning titles, thus inspiring other I-League clubs to take the ISL plunge. In that sense, they are trend-setters, and you shouldn’t be surprised if more I-League clubs take a cue. In any case, no teams should have underestimated the collective prowess of Bengaluru, who had won at least one silverware every season since 2013, including the 2016 I-League title.
In the 14th minute, Ahmed Jahouh, from inside the Goa half, launched a diagonal ball for the speedy Jackichand Singh to run onto. The winger measured an accurate cross to the unmarked Ferran ‘Coro’ Corominas in the box. The Spanish striker had netted 34 goals in two seasons and is the highest goalscorer in the history of the ISL. But he fluffed the chance with a mis-hit left-footed volley.
In the second half, Bengaluru FC’s marksman Nicolas ‘Miku’ Fedor sent an almost identical volley from inside the six-yard box into the stands. Miku got the best chance in the 81st minute, when he pounced on the ball during a scramble in the Goa box and toe-poked his shot onto the frame of the goal. But as both sets of attackers failed, eventually it was a Mumbai-born defender in the Bengaluru ranks who had the most telling shot at goal.
It was a goal from an unlikely source, yet one that gave the ISL a new champion, a deserving champion.