Change for change's sake was how Mohun Bagan somewhat unconvincingly explained the parting with Karim Bencherifa in February 2010. A little over 14 months later, the Moroccan won Salgaocar their first I-League. Bencherifa spoke to HT from Ludhiana. Excerpts.
I'm feeling great. It is not easy being a foreign coach for four-five years in India (Bencherifa started with Churchill Brothers in 2006-07) and not everything about my time in Kolkata (with Mohun Bagan) was positive. I've won the Federation Cup and other tournaments but it's different winning a competition after coming close at least three times.
Did you expect this when you joined Salgaocar in 2010?
No. The team was disjointed and my first task was to stave off relegation. But from the chairman to the backroom staff and the players, we all worked very hard and that was the beauty of our revival. We finished sixth last season. This time we had a largely new squad and my target was the top three.
Credit to all the players, even those who didn't play a single game, because they pushed the others to give their best. When we lost, we got encouragement, when we won we got bonuses. We lost three games in a row at a crucial time and Mr (Shivanand) Salgaocar (the chairman) met me with a big smile, saying 'I am fine, don't worry.'
Would you say doing it with one of the cheapest squads (unofficial estimates have between Rs 5-6 crore as the annual budget) makes it more satisfying?
Football is not about how much you have. I'll say this: at Salgaocar we invested wisely.
This title gives you the licence to play the AFC Cup and the Asian Champions League qualifiers. Is getting noticed in Asia a target?
My next target is flying to Casablanca on June 2 to be with my family. We are a work in progress and we are looking at retaining 95 % of the squad on a two-year contract. I too have signed a fresh two-year contract till 2013. I promise you we will give the Asia opportunity our best shot.
You had a young team with two of the oldest strikers in business in Sueoka (32) and Yakubu (33). How did you balance this?
I ask for 100 % in every training session and I think we were the fittest team, one with a fair amount of talent and possibly the best team spirit.