IN A FEW DAYS' TIME, ISL franchises will converge in Mumbai for the second ISL domestic draft. Before that, they are in the process of rounding up their transfer business regarding foreign players and coaching staff. With many teams set to begin preparatory camps in September, the last few weeks saw the tempo of the business go up. Players and coaches old and new have put pen to paper, giving fans a fair indication that the second edition of the showpiece tournament will exceed its first season in terms of presence of stars from the footballing world.
Defending champions Atletico de Kolkata are keen on using their first season's team as a benchmark on which to improve; and it reflects on their team-building so far. They made a good start to their transfer business by poaching Kerala Blaster's highly effective Canadian striker from last season, Iain Hume. Now they have put emphasis on maintaining stability by retaining Borja Fernández, the fan favourite Spanish defensive medio. The 34 year old has played for clubs lik Real Madrid, Valladoid, Getafe and Deportivo La Coruña in the past, apart from representing Spain from the Under-16 to Under-21 level. Borja was a regular starter for ATK in the first season, making 16 appearance in the 17 matches they played. He scored once. And unlike some others, he has not beein idle since the ISL wrapped up. He joined La Liga side SD Eibar on a 6 month deal and played 16 matches for them, making sure he gets ample training and game time before ISL comes calling again.
A new addition to ATK's ranks in the upcoming season will be 26 years old right winger Samheeg Doutie. This South African player has played for his nation's U-23 squad as well as the first teams of South African Premier Soccer League clubs like Orlando Pirates, SuperSport United and Bidvest Wits. He's also in his prime, with perhaps the best years of his career still ahead of him. Now, the reason his signing is interesting is because it was mediated by Atletico de Kolkata's parent club, La Liga giants Atletico de Madrid. ATM have an interest in Doutie and they want to test him in overseas tournaments like ISL before making up their mind on him. This indicates that ATM is willing to take an even more active role in the team-building of ATK and use ISL as a benchmark to bleed in young and potential first team players. This can result in higher quality foreign players being supplied to ATK.
A couple of months earlier, ATK's goalkeeper Subhashish Roy Chowdhury left for Delhi Dynamos. Later, their other keeper Apoula Edel, too, chose to leave them for Chennaiyin FC. The player who has been signed to fill up that void definitely seems to be up to the task at first glance. 35 year old Spanish keeper Juan Jesús Calatayud Sánchez came out of La Liga club Málaga CF's academy and eventually played for their first team. From there he was loaned out to fellow La Liga club Getafe, before having a long stint at Segunda División at clubs like Racing Santander, Hércules CF and Mallocra. In 2013, he joined Hungarian top-tier league Nemzeti Bajnokság team Videoton FC, where he has made 59 appearances till date. With his addition ATK are bound to get a safer, more experience pair of hands under the crossbar.
FC Goa started their team-building with an emphasis on maintaining stability. Midfielder Grégory Arnolin was retained, so was Portuguese centre-back Bruno Pinheiro. Then their Marquee manager Zico's influence came in handy as they secured Brazillian superstar Lucio as their Marquee player. Now, the latest to join their ranks is Spanish medio Jofre Mateu González, who made 12 appearances for ISL rivals Atletico de Kolkata last season. At 35, Jofre's resume lists ample playing experience at some of the top level clubs in Spanish football; including Barcelona, Levante and Espanyol. On top of that, he has already played in the ISL, which means he is familiar with its hectic schedule as well as the Indian climate, something many foreign players struggled with last season.
Also joining FC Goa will be Victor Simões, adding to the star-studded Brazilian belt at the franchise. This 34 year old striker has been something of a world traveller, playing for clubs across continents and divisions. He started at Brazilian Série A side Flamengo, then spent a short time at the Minor Leagues before spending the next few years in Belgium Pro League playing for Germinal Beerschot and Club Brugge. Later on he had two more short stints in Série A at Figueirense and Botafogo as well as some K-League expeirence playing for Chunnam Dragons. But he rose to fame in the 5 seasons he spent at Al-Ahli where he helped them win the Saudi Professional League, the Saudi Crown Prince Cup, The King Cup of Champions (twice) as well as the AFC Champions League in 2012. He spent the 2013-14 season at Umm Salal in the Qatar Stars League. He has not played any professional football in the 2014-15 season.
Chennaiyin FC started out with a good news for the fans: their favourite Bruno Augusto Pelissari de Lima, the young Brazillian midfielder who scored 4 goals in 11 matches in the first ISL for CFC, would be coming back for the second season as well. Then they successfully raided ATK and poached their trusted goalkeeper Apoula Edel, the Cameroonian keeper who used to play for French Ligue 1 side Paris Saint-Germain and pulled a number of difficult saves in the ISL final that helped ATK win the title.
Turns out a goalkeeper wasn't enough: they have also managed to bag ATK's top scorer from last season, Fikru Teferra Lamesa. The 29 year old Ethiopian striker with playing expeirence at the top-tier leagues of South Africa, Czech Republic, Vietnam and Finland became something of a sensation during the inaugural ISL, scoring spectacular goals, wooing the crowd with his trademarked backflip celebrations, as well as gaining a bit of notoriety because of disciplinary issues. He clashed with opponent players and his own coaching staff, and things came to a head when he gestured at and pushed his own teammate Jakub Podany during a match. Later, he reportedly had a fight with manager Antonio Habas, which allegedly led to him being dropped from the team at the ISL final. But in spite, or perhaps aided by his bad-boy antics, Fikru left a lasting impression among the fans and created a star image for himself among football fans in India. Post-ISL he returned to South Africa and joined Bidvest Wits. Though he has not played a game for them, he has remained in training for the remainder of the 2014-15 season.
However, an even better news greeted Chennaiyin fans recently. The strongly-built French international right back who was Chennaiyin's first pick in the 2014 ISL International Players' Draft, Bernard Mendy, has been retained by CFC for the second ISL. Local fan favourite Mendy has played for Ligue 1 giants Paris Saint-Germain in the past and also had a taste of Premier League, turning up for Hull City. His stout presence in the defense earned him a lot of plaudits during the first ISL and he has kept himself busy at Cypriot First Division side AEL Limassol for the rest of the season. His return promises a familiar stability for Chennaiyin's defence, and his proven crowd puller status bodes well for their overall campaign.
NorthEast United will be trying their best to make up for their forgettable first ISL campaign where they finished at the bottom of the table. Now divorced from the I-League club Shillong Lajong, the John Abraham-owned franchise has a new approach to team-building this season. Recently when they signed Cédric Hengbart, the French right back who made 11 appearances for Kerala Blasters last season, their intent to improve was made clear. And all this is being done under the watchful eyes of their new Marquee manager: César Farías.
Now, Farías, who was the Venezuela national team manager for 6 years, is no stranger to football craze in India. Back in 2011, he was at the sidelines when Venezuela took on Argentina at the Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata. It was a remarkable occasion, as a certain Lionel Messi was making his debut as Argentina captain in that match. It was a tightly fought game, played before a highly vocal, 70,000-strong Kolkata crowd. The heat was having its effect on the players as some of the world's best players were forced to slow down and take it slow, as well as pause for multiple water breaks. It was Argentina who won the match, thanks to a 67th minute Nicolas Otamendi header off a Messi corner kick. But it gave Farías an eyeful of what it was like to play football in the subcontinent. He has had plenty of experience managing clubs; having served Primera División Venezolana sides like Trujillanos, Deportivo Táchira and Mineros de Guayana. He also spent a year with the Venezuela U-20 squad, which is good news for NEUFC youngsters who might get valuable developmental inputs from the veteran manager. Taking up this role marks a return to the fray for Farías, who has not managed a team since 2013.
Finally, there's Delhi. In the past one week they have pulled off some major moves and grabbed headlines. One of them has been appointing ex Indian national team striker Raman Vijayan as their Technical Director.
Vijayan has, at one point, been a regular for the Blue Tigers. A lad from Chennai, he earned 30 national team caps, scoring 7 times. He was called Indian football's 'Golden Boy' when he finished as the top scorer in the 1997-98 National Football League, netting 10 goals from 18 appearances for FC Kochin. He went on to play for top Indian clubs like East Bengal and Mahindra United, Dempo and Mohammedan Sporting. After hanging up his boots, he got himself an AFC A-License for coaching and has been working at Bangalore ever since, with teams like KGF Academy (I-League 2nd Division) and South United FC (Bengaluru Super Division). Last year, Chennaiyin FC showed interest in having him as a part of their staff. He was even flown to be part of the International Players' Draft. But things did not work out and Vijayan seemed to take it in his stride. This opportunity to work at Delhi Dynamos is a chance for him to break into the top level football teams in India.
But the biggest news in terms of appointments, and perhaps the hottest topic in Indian football right now, is the appointment of Roberto Carlos as the Delhi Dynamos manager. As we discussed in a previous story about Roberto's playing as well as coaching career, he has not been very effective as a manager so far, but the presence of a sportsman of his calibre in the bench will mean a lot for the players, many of whom have grown up watching him play and idolizing him. This also means that once again, ISL has caught the attention of the footballing world, and it will lead to more sponsors and players will wanting to be a part of it.
And for Delhi Dynamos, the rewards are already coming in. Brazilian Série A club Atlético Paranaense have loaned out their 21 year old attacking medio Gustavo MarmentiGustavo Marmentini, who is yet to play a match for their senior team, to test his mettle in the ISL. This is further sign of prominent foreign clubs realising ISL's potential to be the testing ground for young, upcoming players, and opens up possibilities of developmental tie-up between Indian clubs and franchises where players can be exchanged for training and playing time purposes. In the long run, this can benefit upcoming Indian players a great deal.
The 2nd ISL Domestic Draft is but days away, and that is where the ISL teams will see their squads finally take shape. But the business with overseas players ahead of it has given us a good glimpse of the different paths various franchises have taken, and what their approach is going to be about regarding the upcoming ISL. Apart from securing experienced, skilled, crowd-pulling names for themselves, the last few months have meant something more significant for these franchises. Last year they were all formed at the same time, constructed through multiple drafts and thrown into the arena after a hasty birthing process. But this year, they have time to step back and think. So, what we are at now is a point of departure, where the ISL teams will choose their own methods of growing and develop their own unique identity, and become a little more like real football clubs in the process.