Some of these rifts have also eventually led to players being released by clubs and tacticians being sacked.
Indian football has seen a soar in popularity since the turn of the new century when a vast push for the development of the sport saw a rise in infrastructure and opportunities. Thanks to better TV deals, sponsorships and more mainstream media attention, Indian footballers have become household names over the past few decades.
With attention, there comes a pressure to perform. Often to thrive under the pressure, coaches and players can have a clash of ideologies. Indian football has seen its fair share of controversies in recent years – especially those revolving around coaches and players clashing against each other.
Here are the five player-coach feuds to remember in contemporary Indian football.
5. Ansumana Kromah & Mario Rivera
Under a lot of trouble from a poor first-half of the season, East Bengal were forced to rope in Ansumana Kromah in the January transfer window in 2018-19 season to sort out their attacking problems. Mario Rivera was also brought on as Alejandro Menendez’s replacement and it’s safe to say Kromah wasn’t his priority. Their relationship became strained after the first few weeks, with the player laying some stunning accusations at the Spaniard.
The Liberian striker made allegations that Rivera was partial towards criticizing him all the time and even threatened to drop him from games if he couldn’t perform at a certain level. Kromah suggested that Rivera didn’t treat his teammates the same way, indicating issues of discrimination.
The Spanish tactician didn’t hold back, as quoted by Goal saying, “I am happy with all my players. When you change a player in half-time it is normal that he will be unhappy. But when the team scores four goals in 30 minutes after the substitution, the player must be happy because the team won. If he is not happy then he has a problem and might not be a good teammate. But if he is not happy you have to ask him.”
Soon after that, Kromah was released by East Bengal.
4. Dimitar Berbatov & David James
Kerala Blasters produced a real scoop in the 2017-18 ISL season when they signed former Manchester United striker Dimitar Berbatov to boost their title hopes. What started like a dream, however, soon transitioned into a nightmare. The Blasters never got going in the season, having a very inconsistent campaign riddled with problems. The peak of the problem, it seemed, was brewing between head coach David James and Dimitar Berbatov.
The Bulgarian ace seemed frustrated under the Englishman’s system, being slotted in different positions he wasn’t familiar with. After the ISL season ended, Berbatov dropped a bomb on James’ mismanagement at the Blasters in an Instagram post which included hashtags, “Chip the ball to the strikers, chest, and we take it from there. WTF who plays like this,” as a jibe to his manager’s tactics. He also added other hashtags #Worstwannabecoachever and #Worsttacticaladvice, publicly voicing his issues with James’ style. It was clear the two just didn’t get along, with the Bulgarian striker not returning to India after that campaign.
3. Sandesh Jhingan & Rene Meulensteen
Sandesh Jhingan was the captain of Kerala Blasters when Rene Meulensteen took over for the 2017-18. However, their relationship wasn’t as productive as every Blasters fans would’ve hoped for. Jhingan, along with many other players, could not get accustomed to his tactics and grew weary of it as results kept going against them.
Meulensteen was eventually sacked mid-way through the season, but soon after, revealed a stunning series of accusations against his captain in an interview with Goal. “One of the most important factors (for the sacking) and I think everybody needs to know this – after the game against FC Goa, where we lost 5-2, I found out that the captain Sandesh Jhingan had been up partying and drinking until 4 AM in the morning. Do you call that being a good professional? If you call that being a good captain, then I think that is a poor practice.”
Jhingan was quick to rubbish all this, judging his former coach a liar in an interview with Sportskeeda, saying, “I wanted to reply because people still have doubts. I will tell you my story. The night before the Goa game (20th January), CK Vineeth called me up saying that he needs to speak to me. I was chilling in my room, he came in and asked me if I have seen the news?
“He said some news has come up about you and CK asked me not to react. Then he showed me the article, I read it for the first time and laughed it off. This is such a big lie and CK knew this but he told me this news was trending.”
This caused a lot controversies due to the level of accusations, but it was clear in the end that Jhingan and Meulensteen just couldn’t get along with each other at Kerala.
2. Sunil Chhetri & Stephen Constantine
Sunil Chhetri has been the Golden Boy of Indian football for over a decade and he was a big favourite of Stephen Constantine during his recent tenure as the coach of the national team. However, their relationship reportedly soured up towards the end of the Englishman’s reign. There were complaints from many about frustrating regarding Constantine’s defensive, old-age tactics and Chhetri was at the fore-front of bearing the players’ annoyance at it.
Constantine obviously didn’t take it well, stripping Chhetri of the national team captaincy and handing it to a few other senior players. Chhetri confirmed their tensions in an interview in 2019 saying, “My only issue was, when I felt hurt. In friendlies, he used to rotate captaincy and in tournaments, I used to get it and I was okay with it. People who know me know I’m really happy whether I get the captaincy or not. But, when it happened where I was being rotated with a Pronay (Halder), Sandesh (Jhingan) and Gurpreet (Singh Sandhu), then I used to feel a little bit hurt.” Eventually, Constantine stepped down as Indian national team coach after the AFC Asian Cup last year and Chhetri was reinstated as captain.
1. Haroon Amiri & V. Soundararajan
Before Akbar Nawas’ arrival to rejuvenate the club, Chennai City FC were in dire straits under local coach, V. Soundararajan. They barely avoided relegation in the 2016-17 season and weren’t helped by his polarising style. The player who was really vocal about Soundararajan’s poor management was Afghan defender Haroon Amiri. Initially brought as a star prospect by Chennai, Amiri was surprisingly dropped by Soundararajan in the crucial parts of the season.
The former Afghanistan captain was also abruptly released by the club in March 2017 after ‘disagreements’ with the coach. He alleged that Amiri refused to come in as a substitute during a game against Bengaluru FC. However, a source told Khel Now about Soundararajan’s polarizing style, saying, “His only tactic was long balls. He demanded players to shoot from 40 yards. You can’t score like that. He did nothing else if I have to be honest. We had two training sessions a day, each averaging four hours. That resulted in injuries to many players, including me.”
Amiri later confirmed this with a tweet, indicating that there was a real rift between him and the Soundararajan during a difficult period for the former I-League champions.