Barely three weeks into a five-month ISL season, there’s obviously plenty of room for unforeseen twists and more recent narratives to unfold. It’s not really safe to take a punt so early so which team can lift the trophy in March, but even so, backing a team with a Spanish manager at their helm can be a relatively safe bet. This is what the brief history of ISL told us. Of the seven seasons completed, up to five have been won by teams led by a Spaniard.
With five of the 11 teams being led by Spanish managers this season, there is a good chance that the trend will continue. The two giants of Kolkata are led by men from that part of the world, as are FC Goa, Odisha FC and Hyderabad FC. And while ATK Mohun Bagan and East Bengal only have one Spanish player between them – defender Tiri plays for Bagan – the other three teams are expected to be inundated with Spaniards.
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Five of the six foreigners registered in Goa are Spanish (the only exception is the Australian Dylan Fox who respects the quota of the Asian Football Confederation). Hyderabad (4) and Odisha (3) are not far behind. This means the number of Spanish players this season stands at 16, comfortably higher than any other foreign nationality. Due to the reduction in the number of foreign players in a starting XI to four, the presence of the Spaniards actually decreased by 23 in the previous edition.
Since the league’s inception in 2014 – when Luis Garcia and Joan Capdevila were the top players for ATKMB (then ATK) and NorthEast United FC respectively – 92 Spaniards have played in India’s premier division, three times more than the imports from any other foreign country. And often, as Ferran Corominas, Edu Garcia and Juanan have illustrated, these players have become the cornerstone of their club’s success.
Current Hyderabad coach Manuel Marquez traces the abundant presence of the Spaniards to the unparalleled success his men enjoyed internationally nearly a decade ago. From 2008 to 2012, La Roja swept everything in front of them of course, adding two European Championships and a World Cup to what until then had been a fairly sterile trophy cabinet (they had only won the Euro in in 1964). At club level, Barcelona were simultaneously marking their authority as a driving force with multiple La Liga and Champions League crowns.
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Equally appealing was the manner in which the two conquered their opponents, redefining the grammar of contemporary football with their possession-based play. They were telling us that physicality didn’t matter anymore. What did was the magic you could unleash with the ball at your feet. In no time at all, children from all corners of the world knew what “tiki-taka” was and were trying to imitate what they saw on their screens.
“When I was a player 20 years ago, no one from Spain worked abroad. After Spain won the Euro in 2008 and 2012 and the World Cup in 2010, many foreign clubs have started to take an interest in Spanish coaches and players. Right now the English and German teams look better, but that success of ten years ago has been a major reason, “says Marquez.
Although Spain’s players and coaches don’t necessarily guarantee success, they seem to bring with them the assurance that the quality of football will not be compromised. From their initiation, they learn to treat the ball like an ally and acquire fundamental technical skills, and the emphasis on these aspects is maintained throughout their education.
“Even the Spanish players who don’t play in La Liga have a very good base. They know how to play and have very good technical skills. In ISL, that’s why a lot of Spanish players have played very well, ”said East Bengal manager Manolo Diaz.
The influx of Spanish players is actually a recent development in Indian football. Until a decade ago, the I-League was widely dotted with players from African countries like Nigeria and Ghana, with Europeans perhaps having a negative impression of Indian football. The 2012-13 I-League season marked a turning point when Sporting Clube de Goa appointed Spaniard Oscar Bruzon as manager.
As a first step, Bruzon added a few Spanish players – Angel Berlanga and Juanfri – to his roster and gradually opened the door to other Spanish players. A few years ago, Chennai City FC even scripted a fairytale march to the I-League title on the backs of three Spaniards – Pedro Manzi, Nestor Gordillo and Sandro Rodriguez – doing all the heavy lifting.
Odisha coach Kiko Ramirez is hoping for similar ISL gains this season. The club’s Spanish contingent have already started running with Javi Hernandez and Aridai Suarez scoring some scoring goals in the three games they have played so far. Most of these players roamed the lower divisions of Europe, but now relish the central Indian football scene.
“Spanish players are doing well not only in India, but in many countries. Not all good players can join clubs in Spain. So clubs abroad try to recruit these good players and take advantage of their presence, ”explains Ramirez.