When Khalid Jamil took charge of FC Bengaluru United last week, there were murmurs of surprise. The first Indian to get full-time charge of an Indian Super League (ISL) team in 2021-22, Jamil will now start a project to get a second division I-League team to the second rung of Indian football, the I-League’s top tier, after a poor run with NorthEast United in 2021-22. And from four Indians helming ISL clubs, three of them in interim roles, the country’s apex league is back to having no Indian as head coach.
“It could stay that way for the next five-six years because we still have to improve and develop,” Savio Medeira, director coaching, All India Football Federation (AIFF), said on Saturday.
Lack of training courses and opportunities to grow are the main reasons why Indians are not in charge at ISL. Those in turn mean that Indian coaches can’t put together support staff, something ISL franchises expect them to. “There can be one or two who are not the coach’s chosen ones but like everywhere, teams prefer head coaches who can get their staff. Coaches too prefer working with people they are comfortable with,” said a former ISL franchise official.
A Pro diploma is mandatory in ISL and India not holding a course in over six years didn’t help. Medeira, who got his badge in 2005, said the one planned for 2020 fell through because of Covid-19. Going abroad for the course, as former FC Goa assistant coach Clifford Miranda did, isn’t always feasible. So when AIFF began a five-module year-long AFC pro diploma course in Chandigarh last March, the response was good. Medeira said 18, the maximum permissible for one instructor, attended. This despite candidates having to pay. Including a stint abroad with a club, a candidate could spend up to ₹7 lakhs to get the diploma.
Once the course ends, successful candidates will need coaching time and this is where they usually run into the first hurdle. Of the seven clubs in the I-League championship round, only Neroca FC had an Indian coach. Barring Real Kashmir, all six teams in the relegation round had Indians coaches. Even if an Indian deploys all his tactical nous to stave off relegation, he is unlikely to be noticed by ISL clubs.
Medeira said a pathway would be difficult till owners in the I-League, India’s second tier, are more open to having Indians in charge. Medeira, Jamil and Derrick Pereira, who was in charge of FC Goa after Juan Ferrando switched to ATK Mohun Bagan last term, got that in the I-League, or its predecessor National Football League, and were successful too. Diamond Harbor FC, a new team in the Kolkata league, has signed Mohun Bagan’s I-League winning coach Kibu Vicuna for this season.
“An Indian coach does not get too many opportunities and so needs to be successful in whatever little time he does,” said Renedy Singh, who was among the 18 in Chandigarh. The former India midfielder was in charge for three games (two draws and a defeat) at SC East Bengal in ISL last term between Spaniard Jose Manuel Diaz leaving and his compatriot Mario Rivera taking over.
The lack of a long structured season, not just at the top, academies and coaching centers also contributes to fewer opportunities. You don’t have to be a good player to be a successful coach but you need the pyramidal league structure which helps you come through the ranks. ISL has 11 teams, I-League had 13 this term, and due to Covid-19 a full second division season hasn’t happened since 2018-19 when there were 15 teams. Only a handful of states conduct leagues that runs over two months. That means, forget an ISL change room, many Indian coaches despite their qualifications have not handled any change room, said the former franchise official who did not want to be named.
“So, it helps if you can be attached to a training center or an academy,” said Singh, who has led both Mohun Bagan and East Bengal and was deputy to David Platt and Anthony Habas in ISL—it is mandatory to have an Indian as assistant-coach. Singh runs an academy in Imphal. “You can plan your sessions and grow into the job.”
All this means it is unlikely that 2021-22 will be repeated. And it isn’t like this only in India. Barring the top four or five Asian countries, it is difficult to find local coaches in charge of teams in the top tier.