It was 2015. Akbar Nawas was head coach of the Tampines Rovers reserve team. The five-time champions of Singapore had a rich tradition of winning trophies at the senior level, but took a more casual approach when it came to the reserves. Nawas knew that. Their practice sessions on the training pitch were limited to 40-odd minutes before or after the senior team had finished using it. His staff and he had picked the team hastily just a week before the reserve league was about to start, ending up with “18 midfielders and no defenders”. Their first match was against Geylang International FC. They lost 5-1.
As the players walked out, dejected, Nawas—whose son plays professional football—thought to himself, “What if it was him walking out like that?” According to Nawas, he had not pushed the players, or prepared them. “I felt sad seeing them. I hadn’t done them justice. I was so casual, like the most idiot coach you could find.”
In the dressing room, Nawas sat his players around him and made a promise. “I told them, ‘I promise you that I will never let you get beaten 5-1 again. I will make you unbeatable. I will make you a team to be feared.’”
Of course, they lost a few games on the way, but Nawas and his team won the reserve championship that season.
Four years since that career-changing loss, Nawas was being flung in the air in celebration by his Chennai City FC players after they were crowned the I-League champions. His band of experienced Spaniards and firebrand young Indian players had won a tightly contested league which went into the final round of matches. But it wasn’t the fact that Nawas’ team had won which endeared them to Indian football fans. It was, rather, the way they had won.
Nawas employed a highly entertaining attacking style of football. Data from analytics company Instat shows that Chennai City made the most number of passes per match (484) and created the most number of goal-scoring chances in the league (136). They had a better scoring rate (2.4 goals per match) than the last eight I-League winners, hammering 48 goals in 20 matches.
Such was the confidence Nawas built in his team that they fought back four times when they were trailing in a match to eventually win. After the I-League, Chennai City beat FC Pune City and Indian Super League champions Bengaluru FC in the Super Cup. They lost to eventual winners FC Goa in the semi-finals, but against Bengaluru especially, Nawas’ men showed that they could win by mixing grit with guile.
“When I was a player, my coach played me wingback a few times. I always roamed forward and loved attacking. I wondered why no one covered my position when I went ahead. Part of this instinct is in my coaching philosophy. I ask my team to play positional possession—not just possession. At all times, every position on the pitch must be filled in if someone leaves it empty by roaming into attack,” Nawas explains. This constant movement and combination play has become a hallmark of Nawas’ teams.
This plan required players of a certain kind. Nawas got former Barcelona and Manchester City technical scout Jordi Vila on board as his assistant and youth development head. The Spaniard left for New York City FC before the season began, but only after identifying the quartet of Pedro Manzi, Nestor Gordillo, Sandro Rodriguez and Roberto Eslava from the lower rungs of Spanish football. Together, they contributed 40 goals and 19 assists in the I-League. Manzi scored five hat-tricks, including one in the Super Cup. These were phenomenal numbers to end the campaign with.
But it’s the performance of the Indian players who played alongside the Spanish contingent that is Nawas’ true certificate of excellence. Traditionally, Indians are not entrusted with passing football, especially the kind employed by Nawas, which involves building up play from behind— yet all Chennai City goalkeepers have made more passes per match than their striker Manzi despite playing fewer games than him.
“When I saw the first training session, I was worried—the Spanish players were just left looking at each other in exasperation. But I believe every player can be coached. It was down to us to pick the right ones and enforce the system through training every week,” he says.
He is no stranger to difficulties—unbeknownst to most, Nawas has faced his own hurdles in life. As a player, he suffered numerous injuries but blames himself for never recovering: “I was too lazy for rehab. Once, after an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury, I went from 55kg to 80kg in a few months.” Raised by a single parent, Nawas learnt to admit his failures and turned them into an empathetic way of coaching. He ran an event management business while acquiring his coaching licences, until he became part of the Singapore FA set-up as a learning coach who was also in-charge of the nation’s various age-group teams.
“A lot of coaches come from Europe and apply what they have learnt there to any team in the world. That doesn’t work—you have to adapt. You will be surprised, but I don’t believe in passing drills any more. I used to, at one point, be obsessed about it. Now my drills are about decision-making. Passing is all about decisions—decisions under pressure, and replicating this pressure in training every week is what makes you do so well in games. When I saw the complex drills of (top Dutch club) Ajax, it amazed me. But some of these philosophies are fixed—some passes have to go from point A to B. I don’t think so. I change it up, according to what challenges and works for my players,” Nawas says. It is the same with motivating players, and he would rather use the traditional way of “psyching them up” with a speech and a whiteboard than showing them tactical videos before a game.
Another aspect of his philosophy is to include local talent. Through painstaking scouting and open trials, he got the right mix. Alexander Romario, Ajith Kumar, Pravitto Raju, Edwin Vanspaul and Michael Regin are just some of the Tamil Nadu players who were a vital part of Chennai City’s remarkable journey. Much like Akbar Nawas, who, in his typical unassuming style, transformed a team which had finished eighth twice in a row into champions of the I-League.