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Armando Colaco's stay at East Bengal: The God who failed

The God Who Failed - by Novy Kapadia

Armando Colaco with East Bengal’s midfield star Lalrindika Ralte

When Armando Colaco joined East Bengal in November 2013 in the thick of the 7th Airtel I-League, he was hailed as a saviour. He replaced Marcos Felopa of Brazil after nine rounds of the I-League and came to Kolkata with the reputation of being India’s most successful coach of the 21st century.

His tenure at East Bengal started with a bang, a 1-0 victory in the 10th round match against arch rivals Mohun Bagan on 24 November 2013.

At that juncture, East Bengal’s numerous supporters felt Armando would lead them to the Holy Grail – winning the I-League after a decade in relative wilderness. After all, he had impeccable credentials, having won three I-League titles and two National football league(NFL) titles with Dempo since 2004-05. 

He had also been the national coach.

Kolkata will be remembered as Colaco’s Waterloo

Sadly, Kolkata proved to be Armando Colaco’s Waterloo. He was dismissed from the job in February 2015 and so lasted in East Bengal for just a little over 15 months. During that period, despite having a star-studded squad, East Bengal twice flopped in the prestigious Federation Cup. In the 35th Federation Cup in Kerala, East Bengal failed to progress from group B, losing to Sporting Clube de Goa and drawing with Rangdajied United.

A year later in the 36th Hero Federation Cup, in Goa, East Bengal again failed to progress from the group stage, losing twice to both Dempo and their nemesis Sporting Clube de Goa, drawing with tenacious Mumbai FC and winning just one match.

In February 2014, in the 118th IFA Shield tournament in Kolkata, East Bengal was trounced 0-3 by Sheikh Jamal Dhanmondi from Bangladesh. Four days later Mohammedan Sporting beat the same Bangladesh club side to win the IFA Shield.  

In the 7th Airtel I-league too East Bengal was not consistent. Colaco was not entirely to blame as injuries to key players – ace defender Uga Okpara, striker James Moga, defensive midfielder Mehtab Hossein and utility player R. Vashum – led to inconsistency. They had only one sequence of winning back to back matches – three in a row against Sporting Clube de Goa, Mohammedan Sporting and Pune FC.

Disappointing returns for East Bengal

With Armando at the helm, East Bengal did win the Kolkata league title twice but that is considered small fry these days. To give him his due, the 2014 Kolkata League victory was achieved with a relatively young squad. However, none of the promising young players could progress to the main team except sprightly winger Abhinas Ruidas.

The question that arises is this – was Armando more sinned against than sinning? Was there too much interference by the club officials, a recurring factor in Kolkata football? Did he not get the players he wanted?

In the 2013-14 season he inherited a squad fashioned by Trevor Morgan, who preferred one touch football. However for the 2014-15 season Armando did get the players he wanted, including ace strikers Ranti Martins and Dudu Omagbemi, reliable defender ex-international Deepak Mondal and midfielders Sukhwinder Singh and Anthony Soren. But East Bengal’s performance during the Hero Federation Cup and opening six rounds of the Hero I League was lacklustre.

During the Hero Federation Cup he kept complaining that the team had little combined practice and several of the players were jaded after an exhausting season in the Hero Indian Super League (ISL). East Bengal had 26 players who represented different franchises in the recent ISL and so his excuses were partially justified. He also added that the team lacked width as both his attacking wing backs Saumik Dey and Robert Lalthlamuana were injured.

Questionable policies of Colaco

East Bengal’s performance in the recent Hero Federation Cup was laboured and uninspiring. There was no quick release of the ball from midfield. Both Ranti and Dudu seemed out of touch and were not as prolific as they were with Dempo and Sporting Clube De Goa in the past.

Their choice of other foreigners was also strange. East Bengal has some of the best central defenders in the country – Arnab Mondal, Raju Gaikwad, Deepak Mondal and Gurwinder Singh – yet they opted for the 30 year old Australian of Serbian descent Milan Susak.

In midfield, 33-year-old Leonidas Bertos of New Zealand came with a big reputation, as he had represented his country in the 2010 World Cup. However he never fitted in and always seemed to slow down the attack as he invariably turned towards his own goal when receiving the ball and so got nicknamed Back-pass Bertos.

East Bengal needed a creative midfielder to initiate attacks. Cavin Lobo was supposed to be the sensation this season but sadly a knee injury has prevented him from giving off his best. Joaquim Abranches has also not been in peak form and somehow Armando neglected Baljit Sahni who was in electrifying form for Atletico de Kolkata in the ISL.

Armando also complained of intense pressure from the regional media in Kolkata. But this phenomenon was not unexpected. He knew of this before opting for coaching East Bengal. Also Armando is an experienced coach and should know how to handle pressure.

He was not in the position of Santosh Kashyap who coached Mohun Bagan briefly in the 2012-13 season but left unable to cope with internal politics, pressures of big players and the local media.

Some of the Goan coach’s detractors have accused him of regional bias in selection of the playing eleven but this is not true. The biggest failure of Armando was his inability to get East Bengal to play in the style he wanted.

Is the 61-year-old losing his Midas touch?

When he was at Dempo, he made them play the short passing, possession game and his club team was nicknamed the Barcelona of India. His midfield consisting of Riston Rodrigues/Peter Carvalho (defensive screen), playmaker Climax Lawrence and retracting wingers Anthony Pereira/RC Prakash and Clifford Miranda would dominate possession for long periods of the game.

The hallmark of his coaching was that he had a settled squad and built a family like atmosphere in the team. He never let them feel the pressure and ensured they got a fair deal from the club management. Like the great Liverpool team of the 1980s, Dempo always bought players who fitted into their system and style of playing instead of opting for glamour names.

But somehow Armando could not revamp East Bengal. When he joined the team in November 2013, his hands were tied as he inherited a team which was used to the long ball game and quick penetration which Trevor Morgan relied on. It was expected that he would gradually get them to play the short-passing, possession football which Dempo had excelled in.  

During his tenure East Bengal seemed to excel only in patches. Their best display was a floodlit match against Pune FC at the Balewadi sports complex in April 2014. East Bengal trailed by a solitary goal at half-time but then played scintillating, combined, attacking football to win 2-1. In many of the other matches  it seemed that East Bengal was caught between two stools, trying to briefly play possession football but when in trouble instinctively resorting to the long ball game.

But he could never impose his playing philosophy on his players. Maybe the East Bengal players were too used to Trevor Morgan’s ways and could not adapt. If that was so, he should have insisted on a new look team at the start of the current season, choosing players who could fit into his philosophy.

Armando left East Bengal in tears, feeling he should have been given more time with his players. He could not complete his tenure with the national team or with East Bengal. Is the 61-year-old Armando Colaco losing his Midas touch?

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