Seven months ago, Churchill Brothers were in utter turmoil.
They had just lost the Durand Cup finals to Mahindra United, coach Emeka Ezeugo had left citing differences with the management and the I-league season was about to commence. The team was down, uninspired and without a coach. That is when they turned to Zoran Djordjevic.
The Serbian has always believed in attacking football. According to his philosophy, the best way to defend is to take the game to the opposition. And taking over as the Churchill coach, that's what he did. Building the team around prolific goal-scorer Odafe Okolie, the former Sudan and Yemen national coach inspired the club to its maiden I-league title.
In the process, he became the first foreign coach to win the I-league. The Super Cup loss to Mohun Bagan on Sunday has done nothing to deter his status as one of the best coaches in Indian football right now.
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
Adarsh Vinay: You took over as the Churchill coach just before the league started. The team had just lost the Durand Cup finals. What was your strategy?
Zoran Djordjevic: When I came here, the team was dispirited and uninspired. My job was to help the team recover psychologically and to prepare them tactically. Last year they finished second in the league because of a 3-goal difference. We lost Odafe's strike partner to Dempo, so our attack was a little weaker. But we got Felix in his place. My philosophy has always been attacking football. So I decided to go on the offensive. It was difficult initially but after a few games, we developed an understanding. I adapted to the players and they adapted to my philosophy. We played amazing football. And with the help of God we achieved this wonderful result.
AV: What are your comments on goal-machine Odafe?
ZD: I am really grateful to have a player like Odafe in the team. I can't believe that the previous two coaches couldn't understand him. Odafe is a wonderful person, a family man. God has gifted him abundantly. He fits well into the team and gets important goals at regular intervals. We succeeded as a team because of our attacking, free-flowing football. We play the best football in the country.
AV: You recently spoke about the importance of retaining this team for next season...
ZD: I have asked the board of directors to sign a contract with all the players because they deserve to continue with this club. If you want to build a strong team, you should have long term vision. I am lucky to have Churchill Alemao and Joaquim Alemao. Both of them have great vision. They understand football. They love football.
AV: What do you have to say about the impact of foreign players in Indian football?
ZD: Teams with capable foreign player have a huge advantage. We have Odafe, who is outstanding and we have Felix and Ogba Kalu. They have scored a lot of goals for the team. The foreign players are very important for the success of the team. For instance, Mohun Bagan would struggle to stay in the first division without Jose Barretto, Peter Odafe and Marcos Pereira. In my opinion Indian football needs top quality players from abroad. But at the same time, clubs should have their own academies and develop their own players.
AV: Foreign coaches, foreign players, a foreign national coach - where is Indian football headed?
ZD: Foreign players and coaches should have high standards. If there are football academies in each club, there'll be a lot of quality at the youth level and then it'll be difficult for foreign players without quality to come and play in India. The sports ministry and the national federation should ensure that every club has an academy. As a rule, all clubs that play competitive football in any division should have academies in all youth categories. The weakest point of sports in India is the medical support. The grounds should have proper maintenance and training equipment. But the most important thing is the academies. Every team should have it, if they want to build a team for the future... 7 to 14 years is the age when a player develops technically. The coaches should be professionals with proper training and experience. The head coach, the support staff, the fitness coach, all of them should have proper qualification. There should be an expert for goalkeeping alone. The national team is the top priority of the country. But the basics are developed in the clubs. There are lots of enthusiastic people in India but enthusiasm alone is not enough. You need proper management. If it continues like this then there is no hope. In the 1950s, India were the best team in Asia but after that the level has gone down, while Korea and Japan have improved. Saudi Arabia have now played in the last four World Cups.
AV: How do you compare yourself with some of India's best-rated coaches like Armando Colaco, Derek Pereira and Subhash Bhowmick?
ZD: I know all three of them personally. They are brave, capable and intelligent people. They deserve to be at top clubs around the world. Their teams are doing well. India need more coaches of their quality.
AV: You have always been against Bob Houghton's Goal 2011 proposal. Why is this?
ZD: Bob Houghton is a great man with a lot of experience and great ambitions but this plan wont work in India. In countries like Mexico and Korea (where similar projects have worked), the government gives a lot of importance to sports. In India, there are talented footballers but they don't have proper guidance and the necessary facilities. Bob Houghton wants to take top players from all over the county but these players don't have the basics right. This plan will work at the youth level. It is easy to build the youth category of the national team. But it is different for the senior team. Look at the number of matches they played in the last one year. The federation should provide more matches. The national team is the window of football to the world. If you have a good team, you will get a lot of respect from other countries. But it's impossible if there are no facilities. Indian football really needs to be given a lot of importance at the club level.