Cuadrat eager to bounce back with Bengaluru FC in AFC Cup after horror last season 

Carles Cuadrat, the Bengaluru FC coach.
Carles Cuadrat, the Bengaluru FC coach.

All Indian Football Federation (AIFF) was forced to take a contentious decision after consulting with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) yesterday. Bengaluru FC were finally given the nod over Chennaiyin FC for the 2021 AFC Cup Qualification round.

The Blues, along with ATK and FC Goa, will be the three Indian sides to play in the continental competitions next year. Bengaluru FC finished third in the league table, while the Marina Machans finished fourth in the league table and were the ISL 2019/20 runners-up.

Bengaluru FC fans were elated as soon as the news broke about the return of Asian football to their fortress. In spite of an unsatisfactory campaign overall, Carles Cuadrat has taken Bengaluru FC to its second Asian qualification in two years.

The Spaniard acted as sidekick to Albert Roca between 2016 and 2018 at Kanteerava. He was also part of the Blue crew which reached the AFC Cup final in 2016. Three years later, the 51-year-old steered Bengaluru FC to Indian Super League triumph as the manager.

Sportskeeda caught up with Carles Cuadrat for an exclusive chat, where the Blues boss spoke about the desperation to bounce back stronger after a disappointing Asian journey last campaign. Here are some of the excerpts.

Q. Your AFC Cup campaign didn't go according to plan last time around. Now that you got a continental spot again, how important will it be to balance both and be successful?

A: It’s always been a matter of pride and importance for Bengaluru FC to represent India at the continental level. I was there when we reached the final of the AFC Cup in 2016, which is why I fully understand what it means to the club and the supporters to do well in Asia. Like always, the aim remains unchanged – that of being competitive in Asia and to make the last stages of the competition.

If you have a look back, Bengaluru FC have represented India in Asia for six seasons and no team has been able to match that level of consistency. For our campaign next year, we will look to enjoy the continental journey once again with the support of our fans.

Q. Bengaluru FC have one of the best squads in India, and they delivered before in the AFC Cup by reaching the final. There is a huge pressure on your side to deliver something good for Indian football. Do you feel you can match that expectation again?

A: We will look to build the right team, the kind that can fight to progress in all the competitions that we will be a part of. What happened in our AFC Cup campaign last season was one of those rare occurrences that sometimes happen in football. But as a club, that exit is something that we have to take lessons from and get stronger.

We arrived at the game in a crucial moment of our season where we were fighting to finish on top of the ISL standings as there was a Champions League spot on offer which means we couldn’t rotate the squad as much as we would have liked to in the league games. This, coupled with injuries to Rino, Eugene and Sunil in February stopped us from using players with rich continental experience in our campaign.

We went into the game with respect for our opponents because we know these countries around us have been developing their football over the last few years. Teams from Bangladesh and the Maldives have a good tactical structure to their play and can pose problems to any opponent. The Maldivian national team even beat India in the SAFF Cup final in 2018.

We’re all aware that in modern football, there is no weak rival any more, and we will plan accordingly and try our best to reach as far as we can in the 2021 campaign of our Asian challenge.

Q. You have retained five foreigners for the upcoming season. How vital is continuity within the group for Bengaluru FC?

A: I think at Bengaluru FC, we have a very clear identity about what it is to be a football club. If you look back, Bengaluru FC, in its short history, has been through three eras. The first one [2013-2016] saw Ashley Westwood create the base and give Bengaluru FC the right professional structure and the first trophies.

In the next chapter, [2016-2018] Albert implanted a different way to play the game and Bengaluru FC kept on winning titles. And now with me, Bengaluru FC looking to keep performing well on the pitch but are also giving more importance to the development of Indian players and our young talents in the B team.

And while doing this, we went on to win one of the more important trophies in Bengaluru FC's history – the 5th edition of the ISL. Through all of these eras, the management has been really supportive and it is crucial to maintain a level of consistency in a bid to give a project an identity.

I remember during Albert’s first season in charge, we weren’t able to win in eight games on the trot and finished our I-League campaign in 4th position. What made this more difficult is that we had the best Indian players at the time playing for us in Sandesh, Mandar, and Vineeth among others. But the CEO came to us and told us that the management believes in and supports the work we are doing and we went on to win the Federation Cup.

So, such confidence will always pay. I think it’s one of the best aspects of this club – the desire to strengthen its identity and to believe in the chemistry between the supporters and their idols on the pitch.

Q. How much of a loss will be Nishu Kumar, who is set to put pen to paper with Kerala Blasters?

A: It is always sad when you end up losing a player you have been supporting for a long time. Nishu was part of the first eleven at Bengaluru FC only three times in our first season of the ISL. But with me, he has always been one of my go-to players and had 17 and 18 starts in the next two seasons.

However, we have to understand how the market works and the club has a financial structure that we cannot break. It was the same case with Miku and Xisco last season. It was my suggestion to the management to keep the championship winning team intact, but economic factors came into play and decisions had to be taken.

But my duty as a professional is to keep trying to get results with what I have, so I have no complaints about it. On the other hand, it is a matter of pride to see how our work on the pitch at Bengaluru FC with a player makes him shine and earn a better contract. We have to understand that it is a part of being in football.

During my time at Bengaluru FC, we have lost players such as John Johnson, Edu Garcia, Subhasish Bose and Lenny Rodrigues over large amounts of money. And now, the same has happened with Nishu. I take it as a reward for our ability to grow and improve the players we work with.

Q. How do you keep yourselves busy during lockdown?

A: When you are a part of the football industry, there is always work. I have used this time to reorganise our material, to work with new ideas, to scout players and to also talk about the project of our club to a lot of people from different countries who have been asking about it.

I have also been spending my time giving interviews to media from a lot of different countries like Nepal and El Salvador. I’ve also been sharing notes on our success in the ISL with other professionals. We have had some sensational numbers that haven’t gone unnoticed by many coaches.

In the last two seasons, Bengaluru FC has held the record for the longest unbeaten streak [11 games], most consecutive wins [6 wins], the record for the most clean sheets in a season [11], then there’s the record of going unbeaten for close to two years at the Bengaluru FC home, Kanteerava [17 games]. I have also been requested to conduct special courses in set-pieces.

A few academies got in touch saying not many had much success in that area of the game, and that they had come across some of our set-pieces on the internet – like the one that Nishu scored from against Hyderabad and the one that Sunil scored from against Kerala for Bengaluru FC. They wanted to know how we work on that aspect.

Just yesterday, Xavi Hernandez’s assistant in Al-Sadd, Sergio Alegre connected with me to ask us about our secrets with set-pieces and we were on a video conference for more than an hour. It’s always nice to be able to speak about Bengaluru FC to those who ask me, and to introduce the club and the city all over the world.

Q. You went Instagram live with Chennai City FC coach Akbar Nawas. Do you feel sharing ideas with others coaches is essential to elevate your tactical knowledge in football?

A: It’s always nice to have an interaction with fellow professionals. We know the game and we know exactly the things that happen in and around it, I respect everyone’s opinion, but I think when it comes to football, it’s the players and coaches that need to be heard.

We are the ones that deal with everyday situations at training and the games. It was really interesting when Martin Bain, the CEO of the ISL, called all the league coaches to Mumbai in January for a meeting.

We’re all trying to develop football in India and our voice should be heard because we know exactly what happens within. After 5 years in the country and after having won an ISL title and having debuted 10 young talents at the same time, I humbly believe the opinions of coaches like Akbar Nawas, Antonio Habas, Sergio Lobera, Albert Roca or even myself, which aim to better football in India, should be respected.

Edited by S Chowdhury
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