In the press interactions before the I-League officially kicked off in October last year, Pedro Manzi, Chennai City FC’s Spanish forward, had boldly proclaimed — several times to various journalists — that his team would win the I-league title. Fair enough, everyone thought. It is important for every team to go into the season with the kind of confidence Manzi was displaying. If you didn’t believe then you may as well not turn up. No no, Manzi would insist. His team were going to win the title.
At which point of time perhaps you politely backed away, switching your recorder off. After all, this was Chennai City we were talking about. A team which scored 15 goals in 18 games the previous season. A team which barely avoided the drop (on the last day of the 2017-18 season no less) having won just four games. In fact, in their history of participation in the I-League, Chennai City had only ever won eight games in total.
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But Manzi knew something no one else did. And we should’ve been listening.
Eight wins in their history, but, in this one single brain scrambling season, Chennai City have almost doubled that tally. This season alone, they won 13 times. They scored a total of 15 goals in 2017-18. Manzi alone has finished with 21 now, joint top of the charts with Churchill Brothers’ Willis Plaza. What had changed? Nothing at all. And almost everything.
Before a ball had been kicked Chennai had already lost their sensation from last season. Michael Soosairaj abandoned them for the riches of the Indian Super League (ISL). No matter. Chennai rebuilt from the ground up. First came the building they would ply their trade in of course. Chennai City FC would play from Coimbatore — 500 km from the town they were named after, even if the stadium carried the same name. The other Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Emptier. Paltrier. With concrete stands where bucket seats used to be.
Their signings followed the same principles. Cheaper, smaller, more under the radar. Effective though. Sandro Rodriquez came from the third division in the Canary Islands, while Roberto Eslava arrived from Salamanca. Nelson Gordillo was bought from third-tier Cornella, a team in the autonomous community of Catalonia, and Manzi from a fourth-division team in Spain. Local players were signed on from the Chennai Football Association’s Senior Division League. Misfits, mercenaries and maiden voyagers. Manzi was ready to lift the title. Coach Akbar Nawas’ aspirations were of a more human nature. “Mid table,” he said.
All that understatement went out of the window soon enough. They kicked off blowing past the Arrows 4-1. Then won four of their next five. Two dull draws followed. When they finally did lose, they lost to the other fairy tale team, Real Kashmir — the only ones they failed to beat all season, losing both times they faced them. However, even those were narrow losses, marked more by the chances they missed than the one Kashmir put away.
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By December, Chennai were flying at the top of the table. Their high pressing, possession style was being ogled at across the league, and if there were highlight packages for I-league games, Chennai featured in them prominently.
They were scoring in twos and threes (nine games, perhaps a record, where they scored three or more goals), but they were conceding too. For a while it didn’t matter. But then, a draw against NEROCA at the Khuman Lampak stretched the lead thin, and suddenly the porous defense started adding up.
East Bengal knocked Kashmir out of the title race in the game played in Delhi. The gap at the top was down to four but East Bengal had a game in hand. They went to Minerva and won there. One point between them now, but Chennai still held all the cards. All they had to do was get three points, from the final two fixtures. They went to Churchill then, to try and get some, but they couldn’t.
Churchill could have relegated Chennai last season. But they didn’t. They could’ve ruined Chennai’s season this time around. And they almost did. Chennai lost despite scoring, the first time this had happened this season. It was a see-saw. Chennai scored, they scored. Manzi scored one. Plaza scored two. This had never happened. You could appreciate their nerves being on edge. If they bottled it now, at home against Minerva, this game would be held accountable. Or that disaster of a draw at NEROCA. One that Akbar Nawas termed ‘worse than a loss’.
Three minutes into the final fixture of the season, and Chennai were sunk again. Roland Bilala connected perfectly with a Mahmoud Alamnah freekick, and Minerva were up by a goal. On the other side of the Palakkad pass, East Bengal were still level. And the title was going to Kolkata. To the Red and Gold for the first time in eons. Channels were switched. If the title was going Red and Gold then that was unmissable too.
East Bengal were winning the title at half time too. From being five points down in early February, somehow, East Bengal looked like winning it by two. 45 minutes to play. And then, Pedro Manzi struck. Akashdeep Singh’s nonchalance had gifted Chennai a penalty. And Manzi told the goalkeeper where he was going to put it. And for the 21st time, he put the ball in the back of the net (by the end of the game, if it wasn’t for a pesky crossbar, he could’ve had a hat-trick). And Chennai were back on track.
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A few minutes later, in the other game, Kerala did Chennai a favour,and scored against East Bengal. From then on, it was alway going one way. It may not have been a cruise, and if Minerva had managed to score in the 86th minute — with a shot that should’ve at the least hit the target — a lot of nerves would’ve shredded. In the end though, Gaurav Bora’s heroic cameo made sure it looked that way. Chennai were through. With their ninth three goal game of the season.
Three years, three new champions. Three first time champions. East Bengal and Mohun Bagan could be off to the rich league next season. Bengaluru FC have already jumped ship. But none of them had done what these three had. And no one should forget these three displays of brilliant football. Aizawl FC’s triumph was all attacking verve, and Khalid Jamil’s heart. Minerva Punjab’s was defensive grit and battle. Chennai City looked in cruise mode for most of the season, and when needed, they flicked the switch to ‘sport’. This was great football, that deserved filled stadiums and banners and better television broadcasting.
By the end of the game on March 9, word had gotten around town. A steady trickle of fans had ensued. The game had begun with a mere few in their stands, and ended with a few hundreds. The drums were beating and the dances were heating.
A lot of the players won’t be around next time around, but Chennai City’s partnership with FC Basel means that no matter where they are, some of these foundations will stay. Akbar Nawas, the coach who has stayed away from too much of the talk, but will undoubtedly have people looking at him, knows the reality that faces his team now. At the conclusion of every I-League season for the past three seasons, this has been the one constant. No matter who the champions, the divisive nature of the two leagues has meant that next season they may not be playing in the top division of India.
Nawas’ plea to be included wasn’t in the belligerent or combative tone his predecessors’ had been. It was perhaps the most pragmatic one heard in Indian football for a while.
“I hope we are there next season. It is not for me to comment. I think there should be a unified league with 20 teams. The national team would benefit more. Every professional player should play at least 45 games a season,” he said. But is the AIFF listening?
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In truth, no one was. Not at the final whistle yesterday. For now, celebrations were due. Chennai were champions.
A team from the south, three years young. First Manzi was found and hoisted in the air. Then Nawas. Finally, and without prejudice the team went and found Rohit Ramesh, the unassuming fan-turned owner, who had done much without actually saying too much. He was given the same honour.
Up he went, caught by the players, lowered down and then up again. Down and up. Much like his football club had.
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