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ISL 2017: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi's unlikely link to the Indian Super League

Two ISL head coaches have helped shape the careers of the two greats.


Albert Roca conducting Barcelona training with Messi (leftmost) at the back
Albert Roca conducting Barcelona training with Messi (leftmost) at the back

The new-look Indian Super League (ISL) will come about in November this year, but preparations are already underway and in full swing for the fourth instalment of the popular franchise league.

New teams have been introduced, new rules will come to pass and new faces will be seen in the 2017/18 season of the ISL. Clubs are already getting down to the business of signing players, both domestic and foreign, and the lineup of head coaches is also confirmed.

The forthcoming ISL promises to be the biggest ever, and to top it off, there is also an unlikely link of two leading footballers in the world — Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi — to the premier Indian domestic league. 

Bengaluru FC are one of the two new teams in the ISL next season along with Tata Steel’s new club from Jamshedpur, and their head coach Albert Roca has quite a history with Messi.

The 54-year-old joined Bengaluru FC only last year, and in his short stay at the club, he has already become popular among the Blues faithful, having led the club to the AFC Cup 2016 final.

Once again this year, Roca has guided Bengaluru to the AFC Cup inter-zonal semi-finals, with the Blues squaring off to April 25 Sports Club of North Korea next month.

The Spaniard Roca’s connection with Spanish football stretches back to his playing days, at the end of which he started his career in coaching by being involved with lower league Spanish clubs in different capacities, mainly as an assistant coach.

Then, in the summer of 2003, Frank Rijkaard’s appointment at Barcelona coincided with the Dutchman appointing Roca as a member of his support staff. Roca joined the Catalan outfit as a fitness coach and went on to hold his position for six long years until after Pep Guardiola’s first, hugely successful season at the club in 2008/09 when he reunited with Rijkaard at Galatasaray in Turkey.

It was during his spell at Barca where he was part of a group that tasted Champions League success twice, once under Rijkaard and then under Guardiola. 

That Rijkaard was the man who showed Messi to the world is a fact well documented, but behind the scenes, Roca also played his part as an unsung hero in building the foundations of a player who has since gone on to pocket five Ballons d'Or among other honours.

Roca’s story at Barca doesn’t get enough airtime in Messi’s glorious career, nor in Barca’s recent success trail. That he is just a footnote at the beginning of Barca’s greatest period in history as an uncelebrated hero is what modern football is all about, but Roca had his say in moulding the footballer Messi is today.

The coming of Ronaldo

Meulensteen with Cristiano Ronaldo in Manchester United's training
Meulensteen with Cristiano Ronaldo in Manchester United's training

In contrast to the unheralded Roca, Kerala Blasters head coach Rene Meulensteen’s narrative is one that gained considerable traction from the media from the very start. 

Meulensteen, unlike Roca, became famous for his involvement in first team matters of the Manchester United team of 2007/08 that went on to win the Premier League and Champions League double, leading Ronaldo to his first Ballon d’Or win.

His stint at the Old Trafford club opened new avenues for him to rise up the management ladder in the Premier League, leading the Dutchman to take charge of Fulham, albeit temporarily, in the 2013/14 season.

Meulensteen, as he explained to the Telegraph’s Henry Winter, worked with the uncut diamond Ronaldo before the 2007/08 season to produce the finished article, the like of which hadn’t been seen in football before.

That fine-tuning of Ronaldo could be said to be Meulensteen’s first accomplishment after being promoted to the post of first team assistant under Sir Alex Ferguson.

The now 53-year-old previously worked with the Red Devils’ Youth and Reserve teams, but his ascension to the post of technical skills development coach of the club in January 2007 could be said to be one of the reasons behind Ronaldo’s rise as one of the world’s supreme athletes and a footballing great.

Meulensteen added the tools to the Portugal star’s game that turned it from being individual-centred to being collective-centred. Ronaldo’s personal sessions with the current Kerala Blasters head coach refined his approach and made him unpredictable, a team player and more importantly, a serial goalscorer.

It can be argued that more than Ferguson, it was Meulensteen who sculpted the Ronaldo that we now know: a machine that doesn’t seem to stop.

That the ISL next season will feature two coaches who have had their fair share of contributions to the rise of world football’s two modern day greats in Messi and Ronaldo suggests that India no longer remains an obscure footballing destination, for players and coaches alike.

Messi and Ronaldo’s unlikely link to the ISL comes with their past experiences of working with Roca and Meulensteen respectively, something that the popular franchise league can count among their many achievements.


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