Kerala’s footballing prowess, evident in the '80s and '90s, had waned considerably at the turn of the century. After players like I.M. Vijayan, Pappachan, Jo Paul Ancheri, Sathyan, Thomas Sebastian and Sharaf Ali retired, Kerala found it tough to replace them. But the situation has turned around now. Under Bino George, Kerala’s distinguished coach, the state has bounced back. The talent pipeline is buzzing, the swagger is back and there is confidence all around. In this interview, Bino George talks about Kerala’s new-found winning streak, all that’s ailing Indian football and the way forward. Excerpts:
Kerala’s victory in the recent Santosh Trophy football championships is an indicator of the state’s football renaissance. As the head coach, what do you have to say about this win that could potentially revitalize football in Kerala?
We adopted an attacking brand of football from the outset. I knew that if he played a dour brand of football, people in Kerala will not support us to the fullest extent. I believe that spectators have to feel a sense of thrill when we play.
We decided to keep possession – in some matches we had 70 percent ball possession – play short passes and have a flowing attacking style. As we played more matches, many more spectators started coming to the stadium and soon we had a jam-packed stadium of supporters.
This is what football is all about. Barcelona doesn’t play aerial passes to win. They stick to their style and keep the ball on the ground. In the same way, I have my footballing philosophy too and I make sure my teams exhibit that. The team is chosen accordingly.
I consider athletics as the mother of all sports, and Kerala always had great athletes. So, football is a game that suits us well due to our athletic ability. It’s an emotion for us. Earlier, Kerala used to contribute as many as 10 players to the Indian team – Vijayan, Thobias, Kurikesh Mathew, Sharaf Ali, Satyan, Pappachan, Chacko, etc. I want that era to come back.
It’s great to play with an attacking philosophy but as you are well aware, it’s a risk too. Defensive teams can often win in football.
It’s a fact that teams that play good football can lose. But I am clear that my team should play attractive football. I believe that if I don’t get the results today, I’ll achieve it tomorrow. My favourite coaches like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola believe in that theme.
Having said that, if we had lost the final of the Santosh Trophy, all that impressive work we did earlier in the tournament would have come to naught. In that sense, it was a risk. If we win, players get the credit. And if we lose, then it’s the coach’s mistake. That’s football.
You had some tough moments in the final against Bengal, though Kerala had beaten that side 2-0 in the group stages. What were the tactics that you adopted?
If indeed we had slipped a bit, that was only during the final. Bengal had played us in the group stages and had got used to our playing style. They marked our central mid-fielders tightly and blocked our play through the middle and this affected our movements. In the second half we changed our tactics and played two strikers upfront instead of one, used the wings more and reduced our dependency on the central midfield. This stretched their defence and we started getting more chances.
Do you think there is a dearth of technically gifted players in Indian football?
This is one of the reasons why Indian football isn’t growing. I consider 11-12 years of age as the golden period to develop basic technique. If you don’t lay that foundation by then, it can get difficult. The basics of good passing, shooting, control, trapping and first touch should get formed at this stage. From age 13-15, coaching moves more into a tactical zone.
The fact is we don’t have enough quality coaches at the grassroot level.
That’s why our kids don’t develop fast enough. When the (Zinedine) Zidane-(Marco) Materazzi incident happened at the World Cup 2006, the French football federation penalized Zidane by making him coach at the grassroot level. In India, coaches at the grassroot level are poorly paid. If I get paid a big enough salary, I’m prepared to help the kids at the grassroots.When a 5-year-old kid joins an academy, the coach should know how to handle the situation. Don’t look to coach the kid. Just give him the ball and ask him to score goals and have fun. If you start the coaching process too early, the kid will lose interest and stop playing the game.
Kerala football had slipped in standards during the intervening period. Why do you think that happened?
Earlier, we had tournaments like the GV Raja trophy in Thiruvananthapuram, Mammen Mappila trophy in Kottayam, Chakola trophy in Trissur, Narayana Guru trophy in Kannur and there was also a Kollam-based tournament on an annual basis. Tournament play improves performance of the players. Later, unfortunately, all these tournaments stopped one by one. Nationally, tournaments like the IFA Shield and Federation Cup came to a halt. Overseas, there are a number of highly competitive tournaments and that’s how their young players develop.
It's only with the advent of the Indian Super League (ISL) that crowds started to come back in. Parents are now starting to send their kids to academies to play football. They are seeing how lucrative football can be for the top players in India. But this needs to percolate down to the next rung of footballers too and I am hopeful that it will happen soon.
Earlier, footballers used to play for departmental teams. But many of them stopped playing football as there was hardly any tournament that they could play in. Many of the players also lost interest in playing once they got government jobs. Can you imagine (Lionel) Messi stopping football because he gets a job? The attitude has to change here.
One of India’s best defenders Sandesh Jhingan went abroad to play but returned quickly. That was disappointing. What do you think went wrong? Was that a reflection of our standards?
He should have gone abroad much earlier. Here in India, players like him have the support of fans, get stellar treatment, there is name and fame. But that’s not the case when you go abroad, where you aren’t recognised.
He should have stayed on and got used to the coach’s philosophy. The key is to go abroad when young; it’s easier to get acclimatised to the culture, system and climate that way.
India is a huge country. But we don’t have the infrastructure. Clubs overseas, even in places like Dubai or Korea (where I did my AFC pro-licence from), send their teams to places like Germany for training. Every club in those countries has 4-5 grounds. They have a playing philosophy, curriculum and a plan. How did Japan reach here? Japan’s a good example of how good planning can yield results. As far as India is concerned, no miracle can be expected in the immediate future.
Kerala’s Santosh trophy winning team has such good players like Jijo Joseph and Jesin TK, who scored five goals against Karnataka in the semi-finals. What are their opportunities, going forward?
Jijo Joseph, the captain, has in-born talent. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get sufficient leave of absence from the bank he works for, to play more tournaments. He has missed out on some of his important years.
Jesin, on the other hand, was spotted by me when he was playing in a college tournament. He had no proper training. He didn’t play district football but straightaway got picked to play for the state due to his great talent. Now, even without playing the I-league, he has ISL offers.
Kerala has so many talented players waiting to get scouted like Jesin. But we have no scouts in Kerala. Unless you play for an ISL or I-League team it’s difficult to get into the Indian national squad.
The government can support us in a big way here. Our clubs don’t have grounds and most of the grounds are government-run. The sports council is spending a lot of money, but these funds need to be used to develop better coaches and players.
Handling pressure is an important aspect of playing sport. How do you address this, as a coach?
As a coach, I never show my players that I’m under pressure. If they feel I’m under pressure, they will get affected too. So, it’s important that I radiate positive energy.
I have to keep boosting their confidence through pep talks. I ask them to visualise all the positive things that can happen once we win.Before an important match, I show them videos of their games and how they have done well in the past. I talk about how good they are, how good their movements and skills are and never mention anything negative before the match. It’s all about positive reaffirmation.