Fernando Santiago Varela has been one of Indian football’s most successful coaches of late. The Argentina-born Spanish coach was appointed as the head coach of Gokulam Kerala FC in 2018. He delivered two trophies – the Kerala Premier League and the Durand Cup – whilst managing the Kozhikode-based team between 2018 and 2020.
After enjoying a trophy-laden spell at Gokulam, he joined Churchill Brothers prior to the 2020-21 I-League season. Under him, the Red Machines came agonizingly close to winning the title. However, despite topping the league with 29 points, they finished runners-up owing to an inferior head-to-head record against champions Gokulam.
After parting ways with the Goan club, Varela was roped in by I-League debutants Sreenidi Deccan FC earlier this year. In a freewheeling chat with Sportskeeda ahead of Sreenidi’s maiden I-League season, Varela explained his decision to join the Visakhapatnam-based team. He also spoke at length about his coaching aspirations and his memories of defeating Kolkata heavyweights East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in Kolkata a couple of years back.
Excerpts from the interview with Fernando Varela
Q: Your team Sreenidi Deccan FC finished runners-up in the recently concluded IFA Shield. You enjoyed an unbeaten run in the competition until Real Kashmir FC defeated you 2-1 in the final. How much has that tournament helped you prepare for the I-League?
Varela: It’s Sreenidi’s first season in the I-League, but we have many experienced domestic players hailing from different parts of India. We began our pre-season training in September in Hyderabad and played a friendly match with a state team before heading for the IFA Shield. We have a good team and we are doing fairly well.
Q: You have a good track record as a coach in India. What made you interested in Sreenidi? Why didn’t you continue with Churchill Brothers despite taking them so close to the I-League title last season?
Varela: I met Sreenidi’s chairman [Dr K.T. Mahhe] and his son. They shared their vision with me and showed me their academy’s facilities. Few clubs in India, including ISL teams, have such facilities. Their aim is to help Indian football grow and it wasn’t a difficult choice for me because our visions are the same. They have a good grassroots initiative, which will ensure a steady supply of talent to the senior team in the future.
Churchill Brothers never thought of retaining me. I was surprised, but it’s true.
Q: You worked with Gokulam Kerala FC in two stints [2018 and 2019-20] and guided them to two titles – the Kerala Premier League in 2017-18 and the Durand Cup in 2019. Is it true that the club didn’t cooperate with you enough before parting ways with you?
Varela: No, it’s not true. When I decided to leave Gokulam, they proposed that I continue as their head coach. However, that didn’t work out eventually. I had an amazing time at the club. Under my coaching, Gokulam became the first team from Kerala to win the Durand Cup in 22 years.
It indeed was a special achievement because we defeated the two Kolkata giants, East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, in the semi-final and the final respectively. We created our own style of football. Gokulam didn’t have a professional set up initially. I helped the players become professional by telling them to eat, train and sleep properly. They never had anyone to guide them on these aspects before.
Q: What was your assessment of Indian football when you first came to this country, and where does Indian football stand now? We’re struggling to win against relatively weaker nations like Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka these days.
Varela: The best thing about India is its passion for football, especially in places like Kolkata and Kerala. We at Sreenidi are helping Indian football by providing good facilities like nice pitches, proper training and nutrition etc. The I-League and the ISL should have more teams and more matches.
I also think that the number of foreigners in a squad should increase. In all the top leagues around the world, each team has many foreigners. If you don’t have more foreigners in the squad, how are the Indian players going to learn from them? Adding more matches to the calendar might give Indian players a better chance of shining.
Q: How does it feel to be back in Kolkata? You must have a lot of fond memories of this city as you won the 2019 Durand Cup here and nearly claimed the I-League title with Churchill Brothers last season.
Varela: I love Kolkata because we [Gokulam] won the Durand Cup here. After we defeated East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in consecutive matches to win the title, fans of both teams came to our hotel to congratulate us. It was an amazing feeling. The East Bengal and Mohun Bagan fans keep calling me even now (laughs)!
Q: Did the East Bengal or Mohun Bagan officials contact you at the time?
Varela: A few officials approached me, but I didn’t receive any official offer. I love this city. I would love to manage a Kolkata club someday.
Q: Marcus Joseph played under your stewardship and was instrumental in Gokulam’s Durand-winning campaign. He’s currently having a stellar season with Mohammedan Sporting Club and you’ll soon play against him. Do you rate him as the best foreigner to play in India in recent times?
Varela: Yes, he’s one of the best foreign players in India at the moment. He had a brilliant Durand Cup campaign with Mohammedan this year. He’s a game-changer with great skills. He also has an amazing personality.
Q: You’re a UEFA pro-license holder. Has any ISL team ever approached you?
Varela: My agent did speak to a few ISL teams, but no agreement could be reached. The ISL teams know my profile and are aware of the good work I’ve done in India. I’m sure an offer will come because the clubs know my value. I also share a good rapport with many Indian players. They keep telling me that I’m ready to manage an ISL team. I’m good enough to manage an ISL team.
Q: Why do you think Spanish coaches and footballers are in such high demand in India?
Varela: The Spanish coaches are showing their competency everywhere and not just in India. I think the Spanish style suits Indian players.
Q: Sreenidi have many experienced domestic players like Ubaid CK, Arijit Bagui, Samad Ali Mallick, Girik Khosla and Phalguni Singh on their roster. How much will that help given the fact that it’s Sreenidi’s debut I-League season?
Varela: I’ve told the boys that we’re going to fight for every title. We showed that in the IFA Shield despite being a new team. We need to create our own style first and then look to win as many matches as possible.
Q: Is there any young player in the Sreenidi squad who can be a future star and whom we should all watch out for?
Varela: Yes, we’ve many youngsters in our ranks who have the potential to become future stars. As of now, I can name Lalchungnunga, Rosenberg [Gabriel] and Bijay [Chhetri].
Q: Which teams do you think are the main contenders for the I-League 2021-22 title apart from Sreenidi FC?
Varela: It’s a bit difficult this season as most of the teams have signed high quality Indians and foreigners. The competition is going to be quite tough this season. I think Real Kashmir FC, Mohammedan SC and RoundGlass Punjab FC are very strong teams.
Q: Final question. If the 2022 FIFA World Cup final is played between Argentina and Spain, which team would you support?
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Varela: Ha ha (laughs)! I’ll support Argentina regardless of who the opposition is. I cannot change that. We won the Copa America this year. Hopefully we’ll win the World Cup too!
Q. Where do you think Sreenidi Deccan FC will finish in their maiden I-League campaign?