The Spanish influence in Indian football has been growing steadily with clubs like Chennai City, FC Goa and Bengaluru FC.
On June 5, India played Curacao in its opening encounter of the King’s Cup hosted by Thailand. Under new manager Igor Stimac, a lot of new things were expected to see the light of day, trailered by the bold yet expected choices he had made in team selection. Brandon Fernandes, Adil Khan, Michael Soosairaj and Rahul Bheke were names that had long done the rounds, but hadn’t made the cut.
They did, finally, and how.
In the seventh minute of the game, Fernandes, operating as a deep-lying playmaker, found talented prodigy Sahal Abdul Samad in the opposition box with a delightful long chip. Sahal brought the ball down with the inside of his boot, beat another defender and sent a cross that invited a side volley.
These were the first few minutes of the first game under the Croatian, and the Goan’s pass to find the Kerala-born lad reminisced a lot of people about how a certain Xavi would regularly find an onrushing Lionel Messi or Dani Alves wide in the opposition box.
India continued to show flashes of unprecedented brilliance on the ball, with laxity in the final third that affected the scoresheet. Otherwise, the Blue Tigers looked to have found a different philosophy – different from the certain English-thoroughbred: kick the ball high up and let your forwards do the rest.
If there’s one style in the world that involves midfielders like no other, it’s Spanish. In the La Liga, midfielders are the building blocks to every move, and forwards, more often than not, put the final nail in the coffin. It’s time – India looks to have finally accepted and adopted the technical fluidity from the European heavyweights.
At the club level, make no mistake, the attempt has always been there, and still is. Dempo SC, in the latter stages of the last decade, were one of the fluidest sides in not just the country, but Asia. With Peter Carvalho, Climax Lawrence and Clifford Miranda constantly chipping in from the wings, it was one of the strongest sides that allowed its midfielders to express themselves. Beto, at #10, was lethal in his combination with Ranty Martins, a deadly striker who could convert half chances to numbers on the score-card.
East Bengal of the 2012-13 era played some effective passing football. With Mehtab Hossain orchestrating from deep and Penn Orji and Alvito D’Cunha creatively dominating, Chidi Edeh had all the support to help himself to a lot of goals. The Nigerian obliged, also from the help of Ishfaq Ahmed and Sanju Pradhan.
Bengaluru FC have, for the last three seasons now, played a rigid Spanish style, something similar to the likes of Atletico Madrid. The structure, application and the build-up is the same, but the onus on security-first (defence) is a little more. Arguably, the most successful club in recent Indian history, Bengaluru have proven that with a little time and the right attitude, systems can be implemented successfully.
If there’s one side that comes closest to Spanish flair, its FC Goa. One touch passing that bores you as a viewer at times has become their forte. The Gaurs have kept possession as high as 76% in some ISL games, showing their keenness to be on the ball at all times. The team has done it successfully as well.
Under Sergio Lobera, they have qualified for the playoffs and the final in successive seasons and recently lifted the Super Cup, converting their belief into effective silverware. The clubs have continued to operate in their preferred way, but until now, the national team had rigidly followed the English or the bereft-of-ideas style.
The national team’s following of a similar style, that starts with building from the back, is certifying that Spanish football is now being accepted at all levels. Effectiveness of the same remains to be seen at international level, but it has produced the goods at club level and with technical players within the system, it will easily take Indian football towards positive things.