Remember 2019? Perhaps not. It was a different time. A different world. It was the best of times. At the very least more moderate times. Chennai City FC were champions of India. The last I-League champions to win a qualifier berth for the AFC Champions League. They beat Bengaluru FC in the Super Cup in a manner that thrilled the neutrals. Much before Mumbai City and Hyderabad FC, CCFC perfected the idea of foreign partnership in India. Pedro Manzi, Nestor Gordillo and Roberto Eslava cemented a successful Spanish midfielder trend that was at the time still exploratory. If you’d asked someone in 2019 what predictions they had for the I-League and Indian football over the next few years, Chennai City would have come up.
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Two years have passed by and suddenly, a team poised on the cusp of generational brilliance has dismantled, drifted away and is looking increasingly a marginal entity going into this strange new season of the I-League. In October last year, just as it seemed football was finding its feet in the darkness of the pandemic, Chennai City’s last and latest big news burst through — Akbar Nawas was gone.
It was always going to be tough to do what they did that season once again — especially with Nestor almost immediately shifted loyalties to the Indian Super League (ISL) and Manzi negotiating the much vaunted most expensive transfer from Indian football, to Japan for Albirex Niigata. It never worked out for either of them. Gordillo is on the sidelines at Hyderabad, and Manzi, having terminated his contract with Niigata — and eager to come back to India — is yet to find suitors.
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One of the toughest things about playing sport in the midst of a pandemic has been the logistics of ensuring everything goes according to plan. One sacking, one release, an emergency or even a change of plan flips things drastically. Swapping like for like is no longer an option. Any new signing comes with its own Covid baggage — tests, isolation, more tests, integration, game fitness, tests, trial and so on. And even if you start early success is no guarantee.
It is a truth Gokulam Kerala have confronted head on over the last few weeks, despite having theoretically prepared for it much earlier. Their newly appointed Italian coach, Vincenzo Alberto Annese, took the job in August, and by November had the core of his squad in shape, ready to go. When the IFA Shield came up Gokulam signed up, and despite the lack of safety protocols (they lost to Mohammedan 1-0 in the quarterfinals) have come out relatively unscathed into the new season.
Annese may consider himself relatively lucky, given time to imprint on his players a philosophy few of his colleagues can this season. But how much it has come through is tough to say. Competitive match time, as rare as it has been, hasn't shown anyone much. In a friendly played On January 5, his heavily rotated side lost to Sudeva Delhi FC 2-1. Another played with Churchill Brothers a few days prior was abandoned at 1-1. According to onlookers, a huge fracas was the cause of the abandonment. The Gokulam management, unhappy at Churchill’s aggressive off the ball physicality called the game off.
Chennai City’s preseason has been comparatively light on game time. It took the club till mid December to announce a new coach — Singapore’s Satyasagara replacing his countryman at the helm. Two weeks of pre-season at Sri Ramachandra Institute of Higher Education and Research was all he had before they travelled for the league. And in perhaps the clearest sign of how much CCFC miss those good times, they have signed players in the exact positions vacated by their Spanish trio for the season. Three Serbians to be precise: defender Elvedin Skrijelj, midfielder Vladimir Molerovic, and forward Demir Avdic. Serbian intrigue has replaced Spanish flair.
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Behind the scenes, gossip surrounds the club. Rumours of a merger (or is it a takeover) with Chennaiyin FC swirl constantly. FC Basel’s interests and intentions have been questioned too. Are they in it to win it or spin it? But all said and done, a club that had formed its own identity, shaken that tag of second best, has gone back to being just that, unsure and invisible.
When they take on each other in their season opener, they will come from opposite ends of pre-season planning. Gokulam has arguably the more settled outfit, with coherence and stability. About CCFC little is known. They drew against the Indian Arrows in a friendly but the game will be better remembered for the Arrows goal — a lightning quick sprint and cut back that was finished coolly into the top corner — and performance than it will for CCFC’s equaliser (a Molerovic pantly).
But perhaps that is the best thing about the I-League. Invisibility is what often wins you the crown. Three of the last four winners weren’t discussed as contenders till deep into the season. Pressure off, accelerator on.
Deepak Devrani, the defender who signed for Gokulam Kerala from TRAU said it succinctly and said it best. “No one can predict the I-League. This league has never been easy. And this year, it is truer than most.”
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