The rise of a country in any sport is usually on the back of a certain style. It establishes them, makes them different and makes the opponents think of a way to counter the style. It also makes the team come together to make the style their own. In the old days, we have seen India dominate world hockey with their dribble-savvy style and so many Indian cricketers make their mark thanks to their wristy stroke-play. In football, we have seen Spain rise to the top of the world on the back on possession-based football. Brazil’s samba style, England’s long-ball approach, Holland’s ‘Total Football’ revolution or even Germany’s physical style – each style had its own hallmark.
So even as India begins its slow march towards becoming a football power, one can’t help but wonder what India’s style is? How do Indians play football? Is there a defining characteristic? Are we quick? Are we physical? Are we technically gifted? What sets us apart? What can we use as our base?
Height, possession, fitness...
Since Bob Houghton took over as India coach in 2006, the team has tried various tactics. The Englishman’s obsession was height. At his first press conference after being appointed coach, Houghton made it clear that he would love to have a few more tall and towering figures in the ranks.
“If you took note of the  World Cup, you must have seen that most of the goals came from set-piece moves like free-kicks and corners and you need some physical presence there,” he had said. “In the World Cup final also, you saw a 6’5’’ [Marco Materazzi of Italy] scoring a goal while both Italy and France had at least seven players of a height above 182 cm. You just can’t dismiss the height factor. I’m not saying that we should have a team of giants. What I’m trying to say is that it’s good if your team is good, technically sound and runs well from box-to-box but height comes handy.”
The former president of the AIFF, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, had added, “The average height you can have in the North East is 5’6’’, so we’ll have to focus on northern India – Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Delhi. We would have to find talents in this region and groom them.”
Houghton though was more than just about height. His teams played for the second ball. If the ball isn’t cleanly controlled or dealt with there may be a “second ball” and the player that reacts quickest to it might find himself in a very useful position.
After Houghton, Wim Koevermans came into the picture. The Dutchman was coach of India from 2012 to 2014. He liked playing the possession game like the Spanish, he wanted the team to keep the ball and most of the time, India would focus on short, ground passes.
And that brings us to Stephen Constantine’s second stint. He wants the players to be energetic. He wants the players to be fitter than any other team. He wants his players to be able to run the distance. So if not with technique then at least with energy and speed, the idea is to make India competitive but, still, every coach has his own different style – a different stamp.
The way forward
Now, the hope is that perhaps the ISL might show India the way forward. Five of the ten coaches this year are Spanish. Miguel Angel Portugal (Pune City), Josep Gombau (Delhi Dynamos), Cesar Ferrando (Jamshedpur), and Carles Cuadrat (Bengaluru) will join Sergio Lobera (FC Goa), who is the only coach among the five to continue with his old club.
Being Spanish usually means that they play a style that favours possession over physicality.
Of course, there are individual tweaks that each set of tactics unique but still the technical aspects of the game – the calmness you display on the ball and the manner in which you think ahead – remain the same. In many ways, it is a style of play that may suit the natural physical stature of the Indians pretty well.
Delhi coach Josep Gombau said, “As a Spanish coach, we all have more or less the same philosophy. We will tweak it in our own way. I am from the Barcelona academy and I understand football in a certain way. If you go to an English coach, then his understanding will be different. Here I like the attitude of the young players and they want to learn quickly. The Indian players have all the skills to play this kind of game.
Pune City coach Miguel Ángel Portugal, who was Delhi’s coach last season, believes that his players will also be able to adapt to the style. “Same philosophies but different functions. The only way to get better is to play, play, play. The players in Pune have understood the change in philosophy very quickly. End of the day, the perfect style is the one that gets you the win. I love ball possession but it depends on the rivals too.”
FC Goa’s assistant coach Jesus Tato is in the unique position to judge the improvement in the Indian players. He was part of ISL 3 as a player and now in ISL 5, he will be involved in a different role. “When I came here in ISL 3, the main difference was the tactical understanding. The conditioning of the players was fine but to play football, you need to understand where you have to be at the right time. But now, I can see greater awareness in the players. For me, that is the big difference.”
Pune’s Portugal further added: “The young Indian players are a smart lot. They have been watching and they have been learning. They understand football very well considering that they have been showing the top leagues on television in India for many years now. So their understanding of the game is pretty good. You watch and you try to do the same. You learn from Manchester City, you learn from Real Madrid, you learn from Barcelona. The best teacher for the young player is Cristiano [Ronaldo]... is [Lionel] Messi. You see them, you try. That is the best teacher.”
He added, “For me, the Indian player has good quality. He is technical, they are quick but they are not very strong. In a sense, they are similar to Spanish players. And for these reasons, I think the Spanish philosophy will be good for India too.”
It’s still early days but with so many young players cutting their teeth on a specific style of play, India just might find an identity that will go well beyond the Indian Super League. This, though, is just the first step and India have plenty of miles to go before the dream will come to fruition.