Why the ISL can well be called Indian Spanish League

By, New Delhi
Dec 08, 2021 09:00 PM IST

Of the ISL's seven seasons, five have been won by teams managed by Spaniards. Players from Spain also outnumber overseas players from any other country in the league. How did the Spanish influence grow so deep in Indian football?

Just three weeks into a five-month ISL season, there is obviously abundant room for unforeseen twists, turns and newer narratives to unfold. It is not really prudent to take a punt this early then on which team can lift the trophy come March, but even so, backing a team with a Spanish manager at its helm may be a relatively safe bet. That’s what the ISL’s brief history has told us. Out of the seven completed seasons, as many as five have been won by teams managed by a Spaniard.  

Antonio Lopez Habas. (ISL) PREMIUM
Antonio Lopez Habas. (ISL)

With five of the 11 teams this season being run by Spanish managers, there is a good chance of the trend continuing. The two Kolkata giants are run 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 have just one Spanish player between them - defender Tiri plays for Bagan - the other three teams are expectedly inundated with Spaniards.

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Five of Goa’s six registered foreigners are Spanish (the only exception is Australia’s Dylan Fox in compliance with the Asian Football Confederation quota). Hyderabad (4) and Odisha (3) aren’t far behind. It means that the count 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 Spaniards has actually shrunk from 23 in the previous edition.      

Since the league’s inception in 2014 - when Luis Garcia and Joan Capdevila were the marquee players for ATKMB (then ATK) and NorthEast United FC respectively - 92 Spaniards have played in India’s top division, three times higher than imports from any other foreign country. And often, as the likes of Ferran Corominas, Edu Garcia and Juanan have typified, these players have gone on to become the cornerstone of their club's success. 

Current Hyderabad coach Manuel Marquez traces the copious presence of Spaniards to the unrivalled success that his men enjoyed at the international level almost a decade ago. From 2008 to 2012, La Roja swept everything in front of them of course, adding two European Championships and one World Cup to what was a pretty barren trophy cabinet until then (they had only won the Euros in 1964). At the club level, Barcelona were simultaneously stamping their authority as an imperious force with multiple La Liga and Champions League crowns.

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The manner in which both were conquering opponents was equally appealing, redefining the grammar of contemporary football with their possession-based game. They were telling us that physicality no longer mattered. What did was the magic you could unfurl with the ball at your feet. In no time, kids in far-flung corners of the world knew what ‘tiki-taka’ was and were trying to emulate what they were seeing on their screens.  

“When I was a player 20 years ago, nobody from Spain used to work abroad. After Spain won the Euros in 2008 and 2012 and the World Cup in 2010, a lot of foreign clubs started becoming interested in Spanish coaches and players. At this moment, the English teams and German teams seem better but that success from a decade ago has been a major reason,” says Marquez. 

While the Spanish players and coaches don’t necessarily guarantee success, they seem to bring with them an assurance that the quality of football won’t be compromised. Right from their initiation, they are taught to treat the ball as an ally and acquire fundamental technical skills, and the emphasis on those aspects is maintained all the way through their education. 

“Even the Spanish players that don’t play in La Liga have a very good base. They know the way to play and have very good technical skills. In the ISL, that is the reason a lot of the Spanish players have played very well,” says East Bengal manager Manolo Diaz. 

The surge of Spanish players is actually a recent development in Indian football. Until a decade ago, the I-League was largely dotted with players from African countries like Nigeria and Ghana, with Europeans perhaps having an unfavourable impression of Indian football. A turning point came in the 2012-13 I-League season when Sporting Clube de Goa appointed Spaniard Oscar Bruzon as their manager.

In a first, Bruzon added a couple of Spanish players - Angel Berlanga and Juanfri - to his roster and opened the door gradually for other Spanish players to follow suit. A couple of years ago, Chennai City FC even scripted a fairytale march to the I-League title on the back of three Spaniards – Pedro Manzi, Nestor Gordillo and Sandro Rodriguez – doing all the heavy lifting. 

Odisha coach Kiko Ramirez is hoping for similar gains in the ISL this season. The club’s Spanish contingent has already hit the ground running with Javi Hernandez and Aridai Suarez scoring some cracking goals in the three games they have played so far. Most of these players were meandering along in Europe’s lower divisions but are now relishing the centrestage in Indian football.     

“The Spanish players are performing well not just in India but in a lot of countries. All the good players can’t fit into the clubs in Spain. So, clubs abroad try to sign these good players and benefit from their presence,” Ramirez says.

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    Vivek Krishnan is a sports journalist who enjoys covering cricket and football among other disciplines. He wanted to be a cricketer himself but has gladly settled for watching and writing on different sports.

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