CHENNAI CITY FC CAUSED a stir in Indian football when they took an early lead in the top division title race, but that gap is fast closing now.
The club which debuted in the I-League last season and finished 8th had an 8 point lead at the top of the table a couple of weeks ago, but as of today that's down to just one. CCFC now have four clubs - Real Kashmir FC, East Bengal, NEROCA and Mohun Bagan - within 3 points of themselves.
But the ever-evolving title race does not seem to phase Chennai City FC head coach Akbar Nawas. When TFG caught up with him via text messages, he was relaxing on a Sunday evening, keeping an eye on Mohun Bagan's win against Shillong Lajong.
Hailing from Singapore, Akbar Nawas was an early appointment made by Chennai City FC. His signing was announced in March, which gave him a good few months to observe Indian football closely and build up to the new season. When TFG asked him about his impressions of Indian football compared to his experience in South East Asia, he said what he had seen painted a positive picture,
"Techincally the Indian players are ahead in Indian football. Much more competitive here than in Singapore. Different environment altogether as there is more following here in India."
Although this is Nawas's first stint as a head coach in India, he's come close to Indian football before. Just before he took over as the head coach of Tampines Rovers in 2016, the club played Mohun Bagan twice, once in AFC Champions League qualifiers and once in AFC Cup. Early on in his stint with the Rovers, Nawas faced the then I-League champions Bengaluru FC in AFC Cup quarter finals.
These encounters, according to Nawas, made it an easy decision to come to India,
"Yes it was a factor. Having played Indian teams it gave me a glimpse on Indian football, and of course the meteoric rise of its national team."
Nawas came in with a good managerial track record. At Tampines Rovers he finished top two in the league and reached the domestic cup final. He then took over as head coach at the Filipino top flight club Global Cebu FC and finished as runners up in the league again. But Chennai City differed from those clubs in a major way: it was a new club at the top division, still finding its feet and coming off a rather struggling season. Did this make him change his targets for the season, or was he aiming to be a title contender from day one? Nawas's reply to this question was,
"Haha, yes, it's the first time a reporter asked me the right question about the season. Well... yes, I understood CCFC's stature and position when I took the job. It was a different challenge from my previous coaching stings, a challenge I wanted to undertake and see if I could do what I did and bring CCFC to another level. With the management, the target was specifically to improve the club's overall position."
Once in charge, Nawas had his early work cut out for him. Chennai City FC had a good crew of talented local players, and he needed to marry that with the overseas recruitments. Asked how he went about finding a balance between domestic and foreign talent, he said,
"We had a style of play and philosophy in mind, then we (me and my previous assistant coach Jordi Villa) recruited the foreign players to suit the philopsopy. As for the local players, we tried to do the same when selecting them and also tweaked by changing the players' position to suit the style."
Jordi Villa, his assistant coach, left Chennai City FC in July to join Major League Soccer side New York City FC. But the vision they had implemented, according to Nawas, was unchanged and still in progress,
"To play this style might take a season or two. Consistency is a factor and though many coaches would rue the chances not being converted I'm not one to lose sleep about it."
But while Chennai City FC got off to an incredible start notching up 5 wins and 1 draw in the first 6 games, the last 3 matches have seen them tumble. Two back to back draws were followed by their first loss of the campaign, and now their long lead has suddenly evaporated. Nawas, however, wanted to take the up and downs in his stride,
"What we need to do is to create more chances than we did in the last 3 games and of course the officiating is much talked about, especially in Saturday's match."
Asked whether he believed the penalty awarded to Real Kashmir FC that led to Chennai City losing 0-1 to the Snow Leopards, Nawas replied,
"Yes it was. And everyone else thinks so and knows so. It's on video for all to see."
Bad officiating has been a recurring problem for Chennai City, especially for Nawas himself. One of the worse experiences he has had in India took place on 16th November, when one of the match officials allegedly threatened him with violence when Nawas complained about wrong decisions. Asked about that incident, Nawas said he wanted to put it behind,
"Sorry, that is in the past and I won't comment on it... the only thing I will say about the officiating in the Aizawl match is tat we were denied a clear penalty and some controversial cards were given towards us."
The bizarre episode, which resulted in the referee sending Nawas off to the stands, was one of the weirdest instances of bad refereeing in a season riddled with poor decisions made by the gentlement in black. Asked whether it was one of the strangest incidents he had ever encountered during a match, Nawas said,
"Yes, it was, and our management made a complaint about it."
The Chennai City FC head coach was even verbally informed that he was suspended for the next match, but when the club took it up with AIFF, that decision was not upheld.
Nawas himself said he wanted to focus ahead, not on past incidents. Asked by TFG whether the recent results indicate a need to change his approach going forward, he said,
"Nope, we are going with our same mindset as when we started the season; that is to be competitive in the next game that we play and as professionals if we lose or draw, we reflect, look at video and improve. Every game that we play we must aspire to win regardless of the circumstances."
According to the coach, the job at hand stretched beyond the current season or I-League campaign. The club needed to raise itself to a level where it would be seen as a top contender on a consistent basis,
"It's the process that's what's I'm looking at, not the end result which is looking at the table or winning the title as of now. Once we get to a level where we can challenge for titles year in year out then I'll be contented to give a specific target to a season."
Asked whether his vision is backed by the long term commitment of CCFC management, Nawas replied,
"Yes it's a long term project and we have the understanding [with the club management] that allows me to take this approach... the ultimate goal is to play a brand of attacking football where everyone can relate and will be itching to come and watch whilst challenging for titles year in year out."
Meanwhile, he said was working on establishing a dependable supply line of domestic players from the academy setup,
"Yes, it will happen gradually. It's an essential part of the plan."
Nawas said he was pleasantly surprised by the amount of talent he saw in Tamil Nadu,
"There's a lot of talent in Tamil Nadu. Players such as Soosairaj, Ajit, Edwin, Vijay, Pravito, Romario, Ameeruddin etc have potential and a bright future."
But what of the short term? Chennai City are in a tight 5-way title race, and the need to get back in for is immediate. The former central midfielder-cum-wingback for remembered his playing days,
"Whenever I played, I was very enthused to go forward and score goals. I've always been that way."
This is Akbar Nawas's third straight season in a top division title race. In Singapore and Philippines, he finished second. Now in India, he is looking to set that record straight, and he's aware that the job at hand is not going to be easy.
Asked who he thought posed the biggest challenge to Chennai City FC this season, he did not name the club closest to them in the league table, the one that gave them their first defeat of the season. Instead, he said,