Indian Super League: Kerala Blasters impress in Nelo Vingada debut but still struggle to score

The second half of the Hero Indian Super League started with a bunch of positives for two-time finalists Kerala Blasters, with new coach Nelo Vingada tweaking the system to offer more attacking freedom to his players. Unfortunately for the home side, the freedom only translated into chances and not goals, as they played out an entertaining 1-1 draw against ATK.

Here are three talking points from the first match of the second half of the fifth season of Indian Super League

1) Old habits die hard

Vingada has begun his stint at Kerala Blasters with the same structure he used while he was the manager of NorthEast United in 2016 – a 4-1-4-1 formation with Nikola Krcmarevic playing the shielding role in the midfield. Luckily for the coach, the team he inherited were used to playing a similar system, which meant very little tinkering was required.

The difference was that in David James’ side, the onus was on the front-two, often played by Matej Poplatnik and Slavisa Stojanovic, to score the goals while the wingers whipped in crosses. Against ATK, Vingada’s Kerala had just one target man in Poplatnik, while Stojanovic occupied a deeper position in the midfield. Blasters’ plan was to play to play the ball into Poplatnik’s feet, who would then look for runners from the midfield with a first-time pass. Midfielders took turns to support their primary striker, depending largely on the zone of play. Seiminlen Doungel (Len) was a constant threat cutting in from the left wing, while young Sahal Abdul Samad had another outstanding game, orchestrating everything from the midfield. Prasanth, playing in the right wing, worked tirelessly as Vingada’s side dominated most parts of the match. The defence looked well-balanced too and had the game in control throughout the match.

While the system looked promising and chances were created in galore, Kerala were haunted by the same ghost from the past when it came to actually converting those chances. Len, Prasanth and Stojanovic missed sitters while Poplatnik and Sahal also made goalkeeper Arindam Bhattacharya skip heart beats with their attempts. On another day, the score could have been 4-1 in favour of the home team. But we’ve been saying this about Kerala a lot, right?

The new coach is confident about ending the goal-scoring woes though Kerala, who have just scored 13 goals in as many matches, have very little support in the bench who are proven goal-scorers.

2) Building for the future

With the January transfer window open, Kerala Blasters were expected to add some players to their squad after a disastrous first half of the ISL campaign. But the opposite has happened, with experienced players moving away from the club, while youngsters were signed as a replacement. Vingada had even confirmed to journalists that the decision to loan Holicharan Narzary wasn’t his but the management’s. The January transfer plan actually goes in sync with what they did in the summer too, by signing the likes of 2017 Under-17 World Cup stars Dheeraj Singh and Mohammad Rakip. So what is Kerala thinking?

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A place in the playoffs is realistically unachievable for the Kerala team, so they are instead focusing on building a strong Indian core in the team. The young Indian players, especially Sahal and Len, have shown how game-time in top-level football can be a catalyst in the growth of footballers. Rakip and Dheeraj have been playing a lot too, which means the ISL franchise is prepared to wait a season or two, to unlock the potential in the Indian players in their ranks. A lot of teams promote young players to sell them in the future but Blasters seem to be cultivating stars to make their own future brighter. It is a bold strategy but Floyd Pinto and the Indian Arrows have shown in the recent past in the I-League that consistency and belief can go a long way in getting the best out of young players.

With CK Vineeth and Narzary gone, youngsters Boaringdao Bodo, Nongdamba Naorem, Jithin MS and co, will all be hopeful of playing for the senior team in the near future, especially with Vingada confirming in the post-match press conference that it is very unlikely his club will be making any more signings in the window.

3) Where is the Manjappada?

A new manager and a new year aren’t, unfortunately, good enough reasons for the Blasters faithful to make a return to their home. The home support against ATK, although loud and appreciative of the team’s good work on the field, was still underwhelming. Only 4582 fans turned up for the match in a 45000+ capacity stadium.

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The Manjappada (Yellow Army) are arguably the largest football fan-base in the country but their stand-off with the Kerala management, largely due to the team’s decisions to not sign ‘quality players’ and play a ‘boring brand of football’, has affected the stadium attendances badly.

Hopefully, Vingada’s appointment and the positive football against ATK will bring the crowd back. Football certainly needs Kerala!

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Interview: Simon Sundararaj — India’s forgotten football star from the 1960 Olympics

“They play the 4-3-3 (formation) a lot these days,” says Simon Sundararaj, pointing to a large TV placed opposite to the sofa where he is sitting, as I made my way into his house in Thanjavur. A quick shake of the hands, a brief introduction from my side, and we jump back into football. He had been watching a replug of Real Madrid’s La Liga match against Leganes. But his ‘they’ had a larger implication, beyond Real Madrid.

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“In my time, we played the 4-2-4, a formation that was made popular by the great Brazilian and Hungary teams in the 1950s. We played it in 1960 Olympic Games too,” he explains after I casually ask him what formation he preferred in his playing and coaching days. We had been talking about football in our two phone conversations prior to the meeting. He was pleasantly surprised by the interest I showed in his playing style.

Football formation, to put it bluntly, is the pursuit of distributing players evenly across a field that is designed to accommodate 22 humans, and still leave the perfect amount of space to be exploited. Add an extra player in both teams, the pitch is crowded. Subtract one, there is too much space. Over the years, coaches have tinkered with formations to hit the right balance. But there has never been one answer. Teams dominate for a certain period until a new coach and a new side under him/her finds a flaw in the existing system, develops a new style, and then set the trend for the subsequent years.

For Sundararaj, the star for the Indian national football team in the 1960 Summer Olympics and coach for Kerala state team in 1973, when they first won the Santosh Trophy, the pursuit was no different.

“The (4-2-4) formation, something I used a lot in my career as a manager, was simple,” explains Sundararaj. “It allowed the same number of players in both the halves, unlike strategies you see today, which have more focus on defence. It was the best formation for attacking football. Even though most teams were playing the 4-2-4, especially after Brazil’s success in 1958 with Pele, Vava, Garrincha and Zagallo, I think, playing in front, it was in the 1970 Olympics, the formation really caught my eye.”

A tryst with destiny

India played the 1960 Olympics with the same formation, with Sundararaj occupying the same position (inside forward) that Pele went on to immortalise. In the Games, the last time India ever qualified for the international tournament, the country produced resolute displays including a 1-1 draw against France and a 2-1 loss against a Hungary side in their prime, which made Sir Stanley Rous, then in charge of Olympic football, call India the best team from Asia.

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The 1960 Rome Olympics football team

Sundararaj announced himself internationally in the tournament, scoring a 30-yard screamer against Peru, which remains India’s last goal in an international tournament of that stature.

But by 1970, the year Brazil won their third World Cup and perfected the 4-2-4, sometimes even shifting to an attacking 3-2-5, Sundararaj had given up on a promising playing career, stunted by a cartilage injury in 1961 that prevented him from playing for India in the 1962 Asian Games (a tournament India went on to win), to focus more on coaching.

“It was a great time to be coaching. It was around the time total football was emerging in Holland. Brazil was playing outstanding, attacking football, and in India, we had some really good footballers. So I wasn’t unhappy,” he remembers. He doesn’t want to brood over his shortened playing career, dismissing all suggestions of a lack of support, by saying “that’s how things were back then”.

Sundararaj hadn’t really thought about a career in coaching. In the late 60s, when he was working for the Southern Railways, he was given a directive to attend coaching classes at the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Punjab. Sundararaj merely followed the orders and shifted base to Patiala where he secured his coaching certificates. “I went to Punjab at a time when Major Dhyan Chand was coaching at the NIS,” he fondly remembers.

The golden years of Kerala football

Even though Sundararaj is the first Tamil Nadu footballer to feature in the Indian national football team (Krishnamurthy from Thanjavur had also played for India but represented Bengal in the nationals after shifting his base to join East Bengal), it is in Kerala, the neighbouring state, where he spent most of his professional career. After securing his coaching license at the NIS, Sundararaj quit his job in the Railways, to join as a ‘wing coach’ for NIS in Thiruvananthapuram. After a brief stint at the state capital, which according to the coach, was marred with politics, he shifted to Kochi, where he joined Fertilisers and Chemicals Travancore Limited (FACT) as a football team coach.

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Photo Courtesy: Victor Manjila

“It was a time when Kerala was peaking in football. All the public sector companies had excellent football teams and there were competitions across the state. Premier Tyres, FACT, Port Trust in Ernakulam district itself. Then there was Kerala Police in Thiruvananthapuram, We are talking about great teams here. Premier Tyres, for example, had India’s top two goalkeepers, Sethumadhavan and Victor Manjila playing for them at the same time,” recollects Sundararaj.

It was during his early days at FACT that Sundararaj was offered the opportunity to coach to the Kerala football team. The state had been given an opportunity to host its fifth Santosh trophy, with Ernakulam set to be the venue.

“Senior players had a big say in Kerala football. They dictated things and in some ways, prevented younger footballers. For the first time in Kerala’s history, I held an open trial and identified the Santosh trophy team from around 150 players who had turned up for the camps. A lot of these senior players missed out as we selected younger players”, he recollects.

Kerala went on to clinch the Santosh trophy which proved to be an inspiration for a generation of quality footballers who emerged from the state.

“It was a season that changed our outlook towards football,” remembered Victor Manjila, former Indian Goalkeeper and part of Kerala’s 1973 Santosh Trophy winning team, when I met him later in Thrissur. “Simon Sir taught us that discipline was key in a footballer’s life. (Late) NJ Jose, who was Kerala’s standout performer in the previous Santosh Trophy, turned up a week late for the coaching camp. Simon Sir sent him back. Even though was a talented player, it didn’t matter for Simon Sir because for him no individual was bigger than the team.”

Sundararaj continued coaching for FACT and retired from the company in 1997, and after briefly coaching FC Kochin, India’s first professional football club, he moved back to Thanjavur.

Another forgotten legend

“I sold my ancestral house. We were getting too old to maintain it. A flat means it is convenient,” he says, pointing outside the window. It was drizzling — the season’s first rain according to Sundararaj. He goes on to explain how Thanjavur is dependent on rain, as the economy was largely agriculture-dependent, and how a lot of food, including that for neighbouring states like Kerala, was produced in the region.

“Made in Thanjavur, consumed in Kerala,” he says.

The line resonates.

“I chose to play football because it was fun. My uncle played for the Tanjore United sports club and I just picked up the habit from here. I was lucky enough to reach the Indian national team but my objective was always to have fun,” he says, also stressing on how Thanjavur was a hub for sporting activities, especially football and hockey, back then.

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Tanjore United football club

His answer when I ask him his favourite football coach of all time is somewhat in sync with this pursuit of fun in football than the ideology he followed as a manager — where the system was more important than the method. “What Tele Santana did with his Brazilian teams will forever be how I would want football to be played,” he remarks.

Many remember Brazil’s defeat against Italy in the 1982 World Cup as the day “football died”. Where system defeated freedom. Santana’s Selecao, needing just a draw against Italy, opted for a fearless, attacking approach and paid the ultimate price by getting knocked out of the tournament. A contrast to what Sunderaraj achieved with Kerala in the 1973 Santosh Trophy final — where a system overpowered a strong Railways team.

READ: Italy 3-2 Brazil, 1982: the day naivety, not football itself, died (The Guardian)

But in that contradiction, perhaps, lay the beauty of Sunderaraj’s footballing mind — a purist who could appreciate it all.

He gave everything for the game. But the game, he reminds, didn’t give him or other footballers from his generation a lot in return. “We retire and they forget. We only live in the public imagination only till we are playing. A lot of my national team colleagues had a tough time after they retired. Zulfiqar (Mohammed Zulfiqaruddin), who played in the 1956 Games, told in an interview that he had no money to get his children married off. Yousuf Khan, who played in the 1960 Rome Olympics with me, needed help from friends to buy medicines as he battled Parkinson’s. I only learned about this after he passed away,” he remembers.

The struggles players faced post-retirement prevented them from passing on the footballing knowledge to subsequent generations, which according to Sundararaj, is the major reason why India is struggling in football, while France, the team they held to a 1-1 draw in 1960, is winning the World Cup.

“I know the government is providing support to a lot of athletes, like giving pension to veteran players. But as an Olympian, I cannot go and approach the All India Association or the State Association and ask for some pension. My dignity won’t allow me to do that. Instead of them coming here and asking whether I need some help, why should I go there,” he says.

Sundararaj, who will turn 80 in November, still harbours hope of seeing India in top tournaments. “Milkha Singh, in an interview, said he hopes to see an Indian in the final of an Olympics track event before he dies. Similarly, I hope to see Indian football team in the Olympics or the World Cup before I die,” says Sundararaj.

Incidentally, Milkha Singh’s history-making run happened in the same Games Sundararaj scripted history for Indian football — a fair indication of how much the respective sports have progressed in around 60 years.

The article was written in October 2018. Mohammed Zulfiqaruddin, mentioned in the piece, passed away in January this year.