When technical director Akbar Nawas took over as Chennai City FC coach during the summer of 2018, the club was in trouble. The Coimbatore-based outfit, just one year after being promoted from the second division, had managed to scrape through the jaws of relegation during the 2017-18 I-League season where they finished eighth.
Fast forward a year, they defied all odds to be crowned champions of India – making history by becoming the first club from Tamil Nadu to do so.
They not only shattered records but bagged the trophy in some style, winning admirers for their attacking and unique possession-based style of play. And Nawas was the mastermind behind it all, implementing a different philosophy while also raising the standard of Indian players, most of who were local.
However, the Singaporean’s journey was far from smooth. Had it not been for football, Nawas could have been a professional basketball player or even a coach. Inspired by Michael Jordan, basketball was the first sport that caught Nawas’ attention and after taking up the game at the age of 13, he gradually started playing for the youth teams, his school team and the state league in Singapore.
But since basketball did not enjoy much popularity in his country, he decided to give football a try.
“My first ball was a basketball,” Nawas told Scroll.in, reflecting on his childhood. “Basketball was so unpopular. In Singapore, you will mostly see Chinese play basketball. It was very rare.”
Taking up football wasn’t easy either. He failed his first school trial for the U-17 team and had to train hard to get in. It was later while playing for the school team that a national youth coach drafted him into the U-19 national team. Nawas was so elated with the call-up that he couldn’t sleep that night, but he got dropped from the team’s first tour after his selection.
Nawas, however, would go on to represent Singapore at the Olympics and the senior national team in 1992. But his professional playing career came to a screeching halt after persistent injuries and that was when Nawas decided to take up coaching.
“I would pick up an injury every two weeks or a month. A broken ankle, knee, something or the other,” he said.
Passion vs money
Since coaching did not pay too well, Nawas had no choice but to take up different jobs. Marriage at an early age of 22 meant that he had to fend for his family. He was also pursuing a major degree in business and marketing.
Before taking up coaching full-time, Nawas worked as a painter, plumber and an event manager before securing a stable job as a sales executive with Levi’s and Lee. He later quit his job and began his own business before the Singaporean Football Association offered him a job to manage the Under 8-12 national youth teams.
“It was very difficult managing different jobs alongside coaching,” he said. “One gives you passion and one gives you money. It was a difficult period but I think it was good in terms of the learning process.”
In 2015, Nawas was appointed coach of the Tampine Rovers reserve team and as an assistant for the senior team. The club had a history of their senior team winning plenty of honours but they did not pay much attention to the reserves.
Nawas stitched together a team roughly two weeks before the league and the first match they played, his side were battered 1-5. He was so guilty of not coaching them properly that he promised his players that he would never have them beaten again in such a manner. From there, the club would go on to win the reserve league for the first time and that moment instilled the belief in Nawas that he could succeed as a coach.
He later signed for Philippine’s Global Cebu in 2016 before coming to India. But the challenge of joining Chennai City was one of a kind as he had to build a team from scratch, a club that operated on a shoestring budget.
Playing the proper way
With a major emphasis by the club management on guiding local players into the first team, Nawas and his assistant Jordi Villa, (the Spaniard who was a former Barcelona and Manchester City technical scout) began recruiting players from the Chennai league. The emphasis during scouting was not on picking players in certain positions but choosing those with solid game sense.
“At Rovers and Cebu, I had the freedom to buy players from different positions who could fit in my system,” he said. “In Chennai, we selected players on their decision-making ability, trained them and fitted them in different positions depending on our style. We groomed them and won the I-League, so it will always be the biggest highlight of my career.”
The Spanish trio of Pedro Manzi, Nestor Gordillo, Sandro Rodriguez – scouted from the lower divisions in Spain – hogged the limelight but local players including Edwin Vanspaul, Alexander Romario Jesuraj, Ajith Kumar, Pravitto Raju and Michael Regin formed a great supporting cast.
The goalkeeper forming the axis of the attacking play, full-backs drifting inside to bolster the midfield and the central striker dropping deep to create space and accommodate other attackers – positional play was the essence of Nawas’ free-flowing philosophy.
“Positional play is a top-most priority for me whether defending or attacking,” he said. “If you don’t have it, it becomes jungle football. But if you have it, then you can damage the opposition. There has to be a structure playing against a team where tactically you need to get the better of the opponent.”
He added: “Not that I don’t like the long-ball strategy but the reason I prefer to build up is that you can control the game and bring the ball forward. If you play long, the opponent can win the ball six or seven times. But if you build up, you can invite pressure and play with your rhythm. The fans are also entertained. So it’s not about the philosophy, it’s about the objective or why you play it.”
Nawas admits being a big admirer of Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola and Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, two coaches who have had a major influence in shaping his philosophy.
“I like Pep because of this organized way of attacking and Klopp because of his intensity of pressing and attacking the counter. I like to combine both their ideas,” he said.
At first, Nawas had doubts about implementing his philosophy at Chennai City. He was aware that such a style would not yield him instant results and even had multiple arguments with Villa about the way they should play – be bold enough and take risks or adopt a more pragmatic approach.
“As a coach, you have to bite the bullet and make a decision,” he said.
“Even if we had the choice to play direct, I wouldn’t allow that. Maybe you will falter in terms of consistency because of the level of players that you have but you can always teach. So I just had to be brave enough and try my style. If you play well and lose, you lose happily but if you defend for 90 minutes and you lose, you lose sadly.”
With plenty of key players departing for greener pastures in the Indian Super League ahead of the season, Chennai City’s performances witnessed a dip in form. The club has risen to the mid-table after languishing in the bottom half earlier this season. Lack of consistency may have dented their chances of defending the crown for a second year running, with Nawas’ side suffering most losses through narrow margins.
“The most challenging thing I’ve faced here is when the team plays well and we still lose,” Nawas explained. “When you play well, but you can’t score goals and get the result. And it’s difficult to answer the stakeholders when they ask you why the results are not coming. As much as they want to support you, they also have the right to ask you about results. You have to learn to handle that pressure and if you can come out of it, you can grow stronger as a coach.”
After the highs of last season, Chennai City are not done yet this time around. They remain the only Indian team competing in Asian club football this season and will face Maldives’ Maziya R&C, the same side that knocked out the defending ISL champions.
Nawas wishes to add a few more highlights to his Chennai City career. “Being the only Indian team, we feel motivated,” he said. “We feel that we have something to prove and I hope we do well.”