Midway through the inaugural National Football League 1996-97 season, things looked bleak for JCT. The club had logged a single point from two matches and two of their biggest stars – Bhaichung Bhutia and IM Vijayan – were looking lost for form.
Chief coach Sukhwinder Singh was upset, but had, so far, kept his cool. There was no visible change in JCT’s display when their game against East Bengal began. Twenty minutes into the outing, Sukhwinder signalled one of the substitute strikers to warm up. The plan was simple – to replace a member of the forward line.
Those who were present at Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium that afternoon on January 23, were witness to a sudden change it brought to JCT’s attitude on the pitch. The substitute never stepped in. Bhutia and Vijayan looked like they were playing the match of their lives. JCT blanked East Bengal 2-0. The man of the match award went to Bhutia.
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“My aim was to send a clear message. No one is indispensable, however big a star he is. That’s precisely the reason why I asked a substitute to warm up. It was like a warning bell,” Sukhwinder told this correspondent later.
JCT won the title that season. Sukhwinder was adjudged the best coach. It was a time when Indian coaches were calling the shots in domestic football. PK Banerjee in East Bengal, Syed Nayeemuddin in Mohun Bagan, Derek D’Souza in Mahindra, Bimal Ghosh in Air India and so on. The next few years saw the emergence of more Indian coaches like Armando Colaco, Subash Bhowmick, Subrata Bhattacharya etc. They all had one thing in common. They were strong personalities, extremely confident and having distinctive styles.
The scenario has changed in the years since. Foreign coaches clearly dictate terms in Indian football these days. Local coaches are considered a fringe lot. This despite the fact that the country has nearly 5000 licensed coaches, starting from Pro to D license, thanks to the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) continuous efforts on that front.
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Things seem to have finally come to a head, when the Association of Indian Football Coaches (AIFC) wrote a letter to the AIFF, literally requesting reservations for Indian coaches in the I-League and second division league.
The letter said: “For I-League and I-League second division it be made mandatory for all clubs to have Indian head coaches holding minimum AFC A license. This will not only provide more opportunities for our Indian coaches (AFC Pro and A license), but also motivate the upcoming coaches to pursue coaching and upgrade themselves.”
Sources say the AIFF hardly took notice of the letter. They can’t be blamed, really. Football is not a sport where the quota system can be implemented. It is all about healthy competition. Always. Moreover, the parent body can’t dictate terms to clubs on appointment of coaches.
Indian coaches on the other hand can always say they are being influenced by certain post-2014 trends. ISL franchises had to work under outside directives regarding appointment of coaches. Indians were “barred” from becoming head coaches. Even the foreign coaches’ resumes had to be “cleared” from certain quarters before appointments. It was a draconian rule that was changed only recently.
But then, two wrongs don’t make a right. To keep seats reserved for Indian coaches is a far-fetched idea, feels Subash Bhowmick, the only coach to win NFL and I-League titles with two different clubs.
“I support the demand out of sheer sympathy, nothing else. I understand so many Indian coaches are looking for jobs in the market. It would definitely help them. Otherwise, I consider it an impractical idea,” Bhowmick said.
If the letter from the coaches’ association is to be believed, there are currently 184 A license coaches in India and 16 Pro license holders. Not all of these 200 top bracket coaches have found employment. Many of them could be hugely underemployed.
But can all of them be described as victims of the general policy of the clubs to give preference to foreign coaches? Perhaps not. In the unfinished 2019-2020 season, several I-League clubs had Indian coaches. But did any of them turn out to be extraordinary in the last few seasons? This is a matter of debate.
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Recently, the AIFF said it would send a bunch of Indian coaches to Germany or the Netherlands for advanced training. The plan is to have an Indian coach for the national team in the next few years. It is indeed a noble plan, but these coaches will have to prove themselves at the club level first before they can replace people like Igor Stimac.
Prasanta Banerjee, a former India footballer and a member of the technical committee said: “Special quota for Indian coaches is an absurd idea, though I feel Indian coaches need to be encouraged. Otherwise, no one would come forward to take up coaching.
“You can’t straightaway demand reservations for Indian coaches. Things have to have logical conclusions. And for that, there have to be discussions. Changing rules overnight won’t solve a problem,” he said.
Banerjee is right. Football is not about money, but merit. It is not about quantity, but quality. In the past, some of the national team’s best results had come under Indian coaches. From SA Rahim to Sukhwinder Singh. The current crop will have to prove they are better than highly paid, imported coaches. Even if they have limited opportunities.
AIFC has cited examples of countries like Japan, Korea and Australia, where local coaches dominate the show in top leagues. Certainly. But their merit in all probability has paved the way, not their passports.
If top leagues need to be taken into consideration, then the proposed “all Indian” rule should be implemented first in the ISL. Question should be raised why India’s champion team replaced their two successful Indian head coaches with foreigners this season. But again, a club always has their own reasoning which can’t be challenged.
Barring a couple of established names, Indian football, it is often said, badly lacks credible faces. It is no better in the coaching arena, either. Opportunities may be fewer. But they have to be grabbed. To expect things to be offered on a platter would hardly help anyone.
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