Maurizio Sarri, named as new Chelsea manager, is owner Roman Abramovich’s latest gamble in quest for ‘perfect football’

On a summer day in 2003, the fax machine at Gianfranco Zola’s office buzzed with an unexpected message. It was a request, more like an ‘offer you can’t refuse’, from Russian billionaire and Chelsea football club’s new owner Roman Abramovich. He desired to retain Zola, who had left Chelsea in the summer for his hometown club Cagliari and was willing to pay £3 million as wages to the Italian, and another £1 million to Cagliari to buy out the contract.

 

As rumours go, the diminutive attacker, who was a key figure in Chelsea’s Champions League berth-clinching 2002-03 campaign, had played a huge role in convincing Abramovich to buy the debt-ridden London club. He wanted Zola in his Chelsea, and the team’s football to be modelled around the attacking guile that the Italian brought to the football field.

Zola rejected the offer to stay true to his promise to Cagliari but the fax message was a precursor to how Abramovich would function — he gets what he wants. Soon an army of international players was gathered at the Stamford Bridge. A roaring lion with a sceptre replaced the old laid-back lion on Chelsea’s crest. The intention was clear — to win but also win by playing attractive football.

Unfortunately for Abramovich, the king he chose to run his empire (after giving a season to Claudio Ranieri), Jose Mourinho, came from a different school of thought, where winning was all that mattered. Mourinho, in his first stint at Chelsea, instilled his DNA into the Chelsea team, making them winners, although not by playing the football Abramovich craved for. The marriage didn’t last long with Mourinho leaving the club in his third season with the Blues. A herd of managers (10 including two stints by Guus Hiddink) occupied the helm at Chelsea, won trophies aplenty, but alas, failed to deliver the football their Russian owner desired. Antonio Conte became the latest manager to be sacked by Chelsea on Friday.

Appointing Maurizio Sarri, the banker who turned into a football coach to help Empoli and Napoli scale new heights in the Italian leagues, is Abramovich’s latest attempt at bringing attractive football to Stamford Bridge. The bespectacled tactician, known for his smoking habits on the pitch, doesn’t come with the same reputation as Mourinho or Carlo Ancelotti, but his work at Napoli has earned him praise within the footballing world. The manager is notoriously famous for his work ethic, as is obvious from his desire to live at Chelsea’s training ground in Cobham, and encourages his team to play attacking football, often called ‘Sarri-ball’ or the vertical tiki-taka. “If I saw my team defending and counter-attacking after 30 minutes, I would get up and return to the bank because I would not be having fun,” the Italian said during the 2015-16 campaign with Napoli. The Sarri-ball is his solution the problem – a possession-based style with plenty of short, quick passes but with an emphasis on moving up the pitch quickly.

Maurizio Sarri was announced as the new Chelsea manager on Saturday. Image courtesy: Chelsea website

Maurizio Sarri was announced as the new Chelsea manager on Saturday. Image courtesy: Chelsea website

In simpler terms, it is the best of Spanish football and the best of German football integrated into one formation. Sarri’s Napoli liked to have the ball, but the objective was always to systematically move it forward unlike the Barcelona side who mastered the traditional tiki-taka, which involved horizontal passes that stretched the opposition team and made holes for key passes. Current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who implemented tiki-taka to perfection at Barcelona, was so impressed after facing Sarri’s Napoli in the Champions League in the 2017-18 season that he described the team as the best side he has faced in his career as a manager. While Sarri might not have titles to show for his time at Napoli and Empoli, he did beat title-winning Max Allegri to the Panchina d’Oro (award to given the best coach in Italian football) in the 2015-16 season.

Empoli’s Emperor

Sarri’s big break as a coach came in 2012, aged 53. He was hired by Empoli, then struggling in the lower ends of Serie B. A relegation survival would have been enough for Sarri to secure his job but the former banker ensured that the club reach the promotion play-offs in his first season.

In his second season, Empoli secured a promotion to top-division and in his third, the Florence-based team managed a respectable 15th position in Serie A with a shoe-string budget. It was not just the position that was impressive. Sarri’s Empoli were strong in defence – conceding the second least number of goals – and played a football that involved keeping possession of the ball.

His success at Empoli might have gone unnoticed by the media, but the football world had taken note of the late-blooming manager. According to various reports, Arrigo Sacchi, the legendary AC Milan coach, asked then AC Milan owner Silvio Berlusconi to sign Sarri as their manager. But Berlusconi hesitated and Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis came swooping in for the Sarri. The rest, as they say, is history, as Sarri introduced the famous Sarri-ball system and gave Juventus a tough battle in Serie A.

On a collision course

Things will not be easy for Sarri at Chelsea though. Unlike Napoli or Empoli, where players hadn’t tasted a lot of success, Chelsea are a club with a winning DNA. It remains to be seen if the players at the London club will accept Sarri’s demands of an attractive, fast-paced football, especially having a played a counter-attacking, defence-first football for most of their time in London.

Sarri won’t be the first attractive-football-playing manager their Russian billionaire manager has appointed. Remember what happened to Luiz Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas? Chelsea never bought into their ideology and eventually led to the sacking of the managers.

Chelsea are a club built on a tough defence. They have always been tough to crack but didn’t often play the most flamboyant of football. In fact, judging by the club’s history, it wouldn’t be Chelsea if they didn’t resist Sarri’s policies. To ensure a smooth functioning environment for Sarri, Chelsea will have to support him in the transfer market.

At Napoli, he played he deployed a 4-3-3, with two centre-backs who were comfortable with the ball, had great distribution and were athletic. While Andreas Christensen and Antonio Rudiger fit the description, Gary Cahill and David Luiz’s future will be in doubt. Chelsea have been linked with Juventus’ Daniele Rugani, a young centre-back whom Sarri managed at Empoli, while returning Kurt Zouma also offers a fresh option.

Similarly, his midfield trio included a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box player and a playmaker. In N’Golo Kante and Tiemoue Bakayoko, he has strong and athletic midfielders, but Cesc Fabregas might struggle in the advanced role. But with Ruben Loftus-Cheek set to be given a major role in Chelsea, and Jorginho all but confirmed, the midfield looks ready to play Sarri-ball.

Zola’s return

If rumours are true, Sarri will also be assisted by Zola. The former Chelsea player has a decent resume as a coach, having managed West Ham United, Watford and Birmingham City in England and is a favourite amongst Chelsea fans. He will also be able to act as a mediator between the players and the manager, thereby easing the transition. Zola’s agent has publicly expressed his client’s desire to work with “idol” Sarri and his appointment would mark the perfect end to a 15-year-long cycle that started with Abramovich sending a fax message asking Zola to join his empire. The question is whether the end of the cycle will produce the football that Abramovich craves for at Chelsea.

One thing is for sure, with Sarri’s appointment, the Premier League will become richer with another coach who has a distinct, positive approach to football. Imagine Sarri-ball, Guardiola’s tiki-taka, Klopp’s gegen-pressing, Unai Emery and Mourinho’s counter-attacks, and some good old English long-ball game in the Premier League next season.

Advertisements

The tides are changing – How organisations are coming together to promote sailing in India

Puducherry: “Surely this can’t be the right location,” I thought, as my cab took a sharp left into a small fishing harbour in the town of Puducherry. There were medium-sized fishing boats docked from one end to the other, all with Indian flags tied on top — a sharp reminder to how close we were to international waters. Fishermen were mending their nets, oblivious to the gravity of the event that had brought me to their haven.

This article first appeared in Firstpost

I was at the former French colony to attend the inaugural Pondicherry Sailing Regatta — an Indo-French bilateral sailing event, hosted by Bonjour India.

I was expecting something different though. Yachts, sailing boats, well-dressed people… I was told sailing was the water sports equivalent of golf — a sport the majority in a country like India can’t afford. The wooden house, at the western end of the dock, which acts as the office for the Pondicherry Sailing Association (PSA) was anything but opulent. Around the wooden house were participants, repairing their boats, before they docked it for the day. Nothing about the PSA office was like what I had envisioned a sailing club to be.

There began the deconstruction of my popular culture-inspired perception of sailing.

A battle with oneself

“The sport is about balance. The balance of the mind and body. It is not just a race to beat others. It is about discovering your way,” says Mael Garnier, who was part of the French sailing team in Puducherry for the Regatta. It wasn’t until later in the day when I was taken into the sea, on a fishing boat, to witness the sailing boats in action, that I understood what Garnier was talking about.

Sailors spend hours in the sea battling the constantly changing nature. According to Colonel SK Kanwar, a jury member for the Regatta, a good sailor is someone who can understand the nature of the water currents or the wind direction faster than his/her competitors. While a good understanding of the nature is a prerequisite, a sailor should also be at peace with his/her surroundings, considering the time spent alone in the sea.

https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/412504923&color=%23ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true

Listen: Colonel Kanwar explains the rules of Pondicherry Regatta

“There are two things that can happen — either you are ultra-competitive and you forget to pay attention to the nature. Or you are at ease; it is easy for that to happen when you are alone in a boat in the water, and you let the nature take you away from the destination. Sailing is a game of balance,” says Ivan Scolan, another member of the French sailing team in India.

The route map for the Puducherry Regatta

The route map for the Puducherry Regatta

The races are also designed to test sailors’ ability to navigate through nature’s obstacles. Often starting lines for the races are set opposite to the direction of the wind. The sailor has to rely on his/her understanding of the winds and the tides to navigate around the circuit.

“When the wind is in the opposite direction, sailors will try to create an angle with the wind and then navigate to the next check-point. What angle or what route they opt for will eventually have a say on the time. One needs to constantly make adjustments to the sail to come out on top,” explains Colonel Kanwar.

A sport, surprisingly, for all

“You can’t say sailing is cheap. But it is not expensive either,” explains Felix Pruvot, a former Olympian with the French national team, and coach of the French team taking part at the Puducherry Regatta. In France, according to Pruvot, small clubs ensure that people from all backgrounds have an opportunity to sail. “It is a part of our culture, so investing in sailing doesn’t look like we have wasted money,” adds Pruvot.

Watch: French sailing coach Felix Pruvot speaks on India’s potential as a sailing hub.

While it may be true in France, and other European regions, India is far from accepting sailing as a part of its culture. While sailing has always existed in certain parts — Mumbai, Chennai and Visakhapatnam have a history of sailing — it has never truly been a recognised sport or a leisure time activity in the country, partly due to the expensive nature of the sport. A beginner-level sailing boat costs between ₹1 and ₹2 lakh in India.

Surprisingly, though, India has taken part in sailing competitions six times at the Summer Olympics. This is largely due to the army and navy funded sports schools throughout the country. Some of the best sailing schools in the country are funded by the two. States like Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have also started investing in the sport — National Sailing School, Bhopal (founded in 2006) is arguably the country’s best academy and has been producing world class athletes in the last few years.

According to Anil Sharma, teacher at NSS Bhopal and coach to India’s top sailor Harshita Tomar, India is yet to discover true stars in sailing. “In Bhopal, we have summer coaching camps to identify potential sailors. But we don’t have access to the sea there. All our sailing classes are on the lake. Imagine if we can coach people who are actually used to the sea, who are familiar with the tides,” he points out.

Janaki Balachander, professional sailor and a trainer at the PSA, agrees. She was part of team from PSA that conducted a training class, an initiative by the tourism ministry of Tamil Nadu, for 55 kids from the local fishing community in 2017. “You should have seen how quickly the kids picked up. It took me way more time to learn sailing. It was like they were born to sail,” she says.

An ocean of opportunity

Contrary to popular beliefs, not all sailing competitions are conducted in the sea. Large lakes or inland water bodies also make challenging circuits for sailors due to the constantly shifting wind currents. “In the sea, the wind patterns are more predictable. It’s usually towards or away from the land. In lakes, that is not the case. There are constant changes and you need to be really prepared. But major sailing competitions are often in the sea so one needs to practice in coastal regions,” explains Pruvot.

India, fortunately, has a perfect mix both inland water bodies and the seas. But while the geography is conducive, a lot remains to be done to improve the perception of the sport. “Very few people know about sailing. Even when I say to my friends or relatives about sailing, everyone thinks it is swimming. Nobody understands what sailing is,” says Harshita Tomar, India’s top-rated sailor and the winner of the Laser 4.7 category at the Regatta.

Watch: Harshita Tomar speaks on what India needs to do improve our athletes.

Tomar, who will be representing India in the upcoming Asian Games, is hopeful that more people will take up the sport in the future. “In Madhya Pradesh, we get a lot of support from the state government. They take care of our fitness, nutrition etc. Hopefully we will see more states do the same,” she adds.

With 10 medals at stake, sailing is an integral part of the Summer Olympics and is a sport that needs to be taken more seriously in India. The country needs more schools like NSS Bhopal to pop up and that to be followed up by good government interventions such as providing subsidies for sailing boats. But with the likes of PSA actively looking for ways to reform the sport, it is only a matter of time that India sets anchor with the very best in the world of sailing.

(The writer was in Puducherry on invitation from Bonjour India)

Indian Media’s Love For Sensationalism Is Being Unfair To The Country’s Football Revolution

sunilchhetri 2

Exactly a year ago, Indian media houses were greeted with a positive press release from the country’s football federation. The mail conveyed that the Indian Under-17 team had beaten its Italian counterpart during the team’s exposure trip in Europe and scripted a “new chapter in Indian football”. The news, which was published by all major organisations and accentuated by celebrity ‘influencers’, sent the world of the internet into a frenzy.

 

With the Under-17 World Cup, India’s first FIFA tournament, only a few months away, this was the perfect news for the multitude of fans across the country. Suddenly the country started believing its team could compete with the very best in the world. Chest-thumping and mindless debates devoured the internet as the optimism levels hit the stratosphere.

Strangely though, as some nosy journalists later found out, the Italian football team website had no information about the match. A quick search confirmed that Italian starting line-up didn’t feature any known U-17 player from their past matches either. So who did the Indian football team defeat? The Indian Football Federation said they “didn’t know about it” and had assumed it was the national side because they wore the Italian jerseys. A Public Relations nightmare, as an AIFF staff would later admit (anonymously), putting unwanted pressure on a young Indian side while also giving a false sense of optimism to the fans.

For the Intercontinental Cup, that concluded on June 10th, the journalists were better equipped. They pointed out that the teams visiting India, including the lower ranked Chinese Taipei, were far from their strongest eleven. Yet, as is the strange pattern with news these days, these conversations got submerged in a wave of positive news about the Indian team. It started with Captain Sunil Chhetri’s plea — a video in which he calls for more support at the stadium after being disappointed with the audience turn-out in India’s match against Chinese Taipei. The video went viral with the likes of cricket captain Virat Kohli requesting fans to cloud the stadium in support of the Blue Tigers. The fans did arrive in hoards and India did win the tournament beating Kenya in the finals but Chhetri’s video had a far wider, and more importantly different, impact than he would have hoped for.

There was a shift in the narrative as media organisations felt the need to portray the Indian football team greater than what it actually is. Media outlets, responsible for sending out unbiased news, became fanboys of the Indian football movement. Suddenly there were statistics equating Chhetri to Lionel Messi, and the Indian team’s win record being compared to that of Germany’s.

To be fair Chhetri, who has been a fantastic servant for the Indian football team, tried to quell most of these praises by pointing out there is still a lot of work to be done for India and the need to play top Asian sides more often, but that never made it to the headlines.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

So what is the harm if sensationalism prevailed over sense in our coverage of the event? Especially when it was for a good cause – in this case garnering support for the Indian football team.

By portraying we are a better side than what the rank 97 would signify we risk a massive fallout when the going gets tough for the side. Instilling a false sense of hope does not do justice to a sport that is still in its nascent stages in the country. It happened with the Under-17 team – the interest in the team disappeared soon after the team failed to impress in the group stages of the World Cup. And it could well happen at the AFC Asian Cup where India will face strong opposition. It is imperative that the right details of our team is highlighted so that the ever-growing Indian football fans won’t be disappointed if the team struggles.

This is not to say we should be pessimistic. The Intercontinental Cup had its positives – the team showed great cohesion, dominated in the central midfield (an area of weakness), and was miserly defence. The success also put pressure on the authorities to send the U-23 team to the Asian Games, where the side will get to play against top sides. Not to forget AIFF’s strategy to improve India’s ranking by inviting Kenya and New Zealand, who were unlikely to send their main eleven.

It is unfair to criticise the team as well. They played their socks off and we have to acknowledge they are a developing side. It will take years of effort to have a system in place and this is exactly what the media should be focusing on. There is no quick fix to quality football. It took a decade of effort for Germany to rebuild a team to win the world cup. The current golden generation of Belgium football is also the fruit of a long-term plan. And these are nations who already had a footballing culture. In India, the effort would be larger and these international matches are small steps in the right directions. Indian Super League is slowly starting to find its identity, with teams starting to prefer clever homegrown signings over international marquee targets.

In an era where loud, brazen news is in demand, it is important that the reports and opinions on Indian football stick to a narrative that is honest to what is happening to the sport.