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Indian football’s Spanish connection

Two progressive Spanish football coaches, Kibu Vicuña and Juan Ferrando, are poised to take the Indian Super League by storm when football resumes after the pandemic break

Kibu Vicuña (left) of Kerala Blasters and Juan Ferrando of FC Goa.
Kibu Vicuña (left) of Kerala Blasters and Juan Ferrando of FC Goa.

In 1987, Kibu Vicuña was a 16-year-old playing for the University of Navarra in Spain when the team coach had to take leave. Vicuña, the club captain, was asked to take on the task of coaching too. He managed to steer them away from relegation from the fourth division of university football—and that heralded a storied coaching career that took the now 48-year-old to clubs in Spain and Poland before bringing him to India last season.

About a decade later, in another corner of Spain, 18-year-old Juan Ferrando realized that the knee and hip injuries he had suffered a few years earlier meant he couldn’t aspire to the professional playing career he had hoped for. So he started working for coaching licences (he currently has a Uefa Pro Licence, the highest in Europe). Coaching stints at the youth teams of Barcelona and Malaga followed before Ferrando, now 39, travelled to clubs in Moldova, Greece—and now India.

With Vicuña, who has been in India for a while, taking charge at Kerala Blasters and Ferrando at FC Goa, Indian football has something new to look forward to—two cutting-edge Spanish coaches at two of the most demanding clubs in the Indian Super League (ISL).

Vicuña and Ferrando, appointed in April, both come from a generation of Spanish coaches that has revolutionized football in recent years. So when the ISL returns in November after a pandemic-enforced lockdown, with possibly all the matches being played in one state, the Spanish rivalry will be something to watch out for.

Vicuña has already created a legacy in India by winning the I-League title at Mohun Bagan (now ATK-Mohun Bagan) last season, ending a five-year wait at the Kolkata club. Ferrando comes to FC Goa to take forward the legacy of his predecessor, Sergio Lobera: as someone who delivered a style of football that fans think personifies the state itself—bold, vibrant and entertaining. But even though FC Goa won the league phase last year to become the first Indian club to qualify for the AFC Champions League group stage, they—like Vicuña’s Kerala Blasters—are yet to win the ISL (the ISL has two winners: “league winners", with most points at the end of the league, and “champions", decided in a knockout round among the four top teams).

The pandemic has forced both to coach their teams from afar, by creating virtual training and diet plans. “The pre-seasons prepare muscles and psychology because the next season would be a hard season," Ferrando says. These generally see a hands-on focus on team training, fitness and tactics—the latter being particularly important if it’s a coach’s first season at a club.

Expectations from both teams are high. Goa and Kerala have fans who expect their teams to not just win, but to do so while playing progressive attacking football. “Sometimes teams have a good style but no results. I like a proactive style. I like my teams to begin the play from behind, control the game with the ball, have good combinations, keep the ball in their half, and finish with attacking players in their box. And when you don’t have the ball, press and win it back close to their goal. The most important thing is to create chances and take more shots to keep pressure on the opposition. And these things take time to execute," says Vicuña, whose Bagan team grew into his image after a difficult period. In the 16 I-League matches that were played before it was cancelled due to the pandemic, Bagan had established a 16-point lead at the top of the league, scoring 35 goals and conceding just 13.

Ferrando comes into his role with a CV that includes a PhD from the Spanish University of Zaragoza’s department of medicine and a stint with Arsenal under the legendary Arsène Wenger, where he was the personal trainer of club stars Robin van Persie and Cesc Fàbregas. As manager, he led Volos from the Greek third division to the first division with back-to-back promotions. Before this, he took Moldovan club Sheriff Tiraspol to only their second Europa League appearance in the club’s history. These are no mean feats for a coach who is only 39.

Vicuña says he is good at coaching a team in a particular way and system. “I could get a job in England’s third division and play long-ball football but I wouldn’t be good at teaching it," he says, explaining that he doesn’t believe in that style of football.

But just like Ferrando’s understanding of the sport goes beyond on-pitch tactics, Vicuña too believes in the need for a united dressing room for sustained success. Ferrando, who is currently reading a book on using man-management skills for business solutions, emphasizes the mental and emotional side of managing a team. Working under Wenger has helped him understand the importance of man management, he says.

“In the dressing room, Wenger would see faces and know players’ feelings. What is going on in their minds, what the ambience is like—he is extremely intuitive. Sometimes coaches don’t need to talk, but (to) know their players. Tactically, if you ask me, I don’t believe in a system. What is important is the focus: Where is the ball, the opponent, your teammate, the winger, the defender? This is football. What matters less is the formation, what matters more is players expressing themselves," he says.

There were rumours that Lobera was sacked as FC Goa coach due to dressing room unrest and disagreements with senior management. If that is true, it’s possible that Ferrando’s approach to team management tipped the scales in his favour when Goa started looking for a new manager.

Both Vicuña and Ferrando are obsessed with new ways of coaching. Ferrando says he watches 10-12 hours of football a day, while Vicuña is reading up, as both try to prepare their teams from a distance. He proudly shows off Robert Moreno’s My Recipe for 4-4-2 and a couple of books on attacking transitions in football.

“When I started coaching in Osasuna (Spain) 20 years ago, I didn’t have an iPad or a computer. All my notes were written, all my drills in a notebook. I read them sometimes and I can’t recognize them. It’s like I don’t do anything now that I did in the past. I remember watching a training drill and I asked someone—where did you get that one from? And they told me— ‘why, I did it with you’," says Vicuña.

But for all his immersive tactical study, Vicuña says he isn’t like a headmaster who insists on a rigid way of playing. At Bagan, he was credited with creating what he describes as a “collective belief". It is this ability that should help him at Kerala Blasters, a club that has always had potential but has stopped short of realizing it.

He can certainly count on a remarkably vocal supporter base in Kochi. “Sometimes you can win because of that kind of atmosphere. It is a privilege. It is also pressure. But for me, pressure is privilege."

Ferrando says that being a young coach comes with the additional challenge of being taken seriously in a dressing room. “I have been lucky to work with different players from different countries and with varied personalities," he says. “But I have always made sure they respect the job—theirs and mine. And if you help players play better, they always respect you. Players are not stupid, they know how good a coach is within a week."

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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