Josemi took his place in the heart of the ATK defence while Borja Fernandez pulled the strings in midfield. The former had played all 17 matches in the season for the side who would go on to become the maiden champions of the ISL. The latter had appeared in all but one. On the bench sat Jofre Mateu and skipper Luis Garcia, both of whom had played equally pivotal roles for the then Atletico de Kolkata outfit (now ATK).
With a partnership with LaLiga giants Atletico Madrid and former Granada and Valencia coach Antonio Lopez Habas at the helm, a Spanish flavour to the Kolkata side was not a surprising outcome. Out of the 12 overseas players recruited by the club that season, half of them belonged to Spain. Striker Arnal Llibert and reserve goalkeeper Basilio Agudo completed the Spanish contingent at the club, the former making 11 appearances himself over the course of the season.
Next year, when Marco Materazzi’s Chennaiyin lifted the title, it was the ‘Samba’ flavour which dominated the squad composition. The midfield which had driven the champions’ engine had been predominantly Brazilian. Former Manchester City midfielder Elano had been the indisputable star of the season for the champions elect, complimented brilliantly by the contributions of fellow compatriots Raphael Augusto and Bruno Pelissari.
While Elano had been the star man for the Chennai outfit in the league matches, it was Pelissiari who had come into his own in the business end with goals in the semi-finals and finals wins. There was also Eder and Mailson Alves to marshall the defence.
When Atletico de Kolkata returned to reclaim their title in 2016, the Spanish tinge was back with a mix of the old and the new. 2014 title-winner Borja Fernandez was still pulling the string in midfield though the supporting cast around him had changed. It was Jose Molina at the helm of affairs this time though the number of Spaniards (six) in the squad had not differed to that Habas had possessed two years ago.
Tiri was a rock in defence for the champions while Borja was complemented by Javi Lara in midfield. Up front, former Kitchee SC striker Juan Belencoso who scored two goals over the campaign.
In all the three editions prior to the ongoing season, one particular nationality (apart from Indians) has dominated the squad make-up of the champions. Although they have the small business of a semi-final and potential final still to navigate, new entrants Bengaluru FC are the indisputable favourites for the title already owing to their impressive showing in the league-stages.
If that is indeed the case, it will be the third-time running in four years that Spaniards will rule the roost in the ISL. With Albert Roca steering the vessel, Bengaluru have an unprecedented percentage of players from a particular nationality in their overseas contingent. Five out of their eight foreign recruits belong to Spain and it has had an unmistakable impact on the brand of football the Blues display.
Juanan Antonio has marshalled the defence admirably while in midfield, Dimas Delgado, Toni Dovale and the now transferred Edu Garcia have all played important roles. Roca made sure to keep the Spanish equation intact on Garcia’s departure, replacing him with compatriot Victor Perez.
While Daniel Segovia might not have garnered too many minutes, the rest of the Spanish armada have more than made up for it with their contributions.
It might be a mere coincidence that one foreign nation has formed the backbone of all the ISL winning teams so far but perhaps, the common theme could well be the formula to become champions.
The communication aspect of having greater number of speakers of the same language is obvious.
With a greater sense of camaraderie with your native speakers a natural instinct, having too many players from one particular nation can never be a bad thing.
FC Goa also have four players of Spanish nationality with Manuel Lanzarote, Ferran Corominas, Edu Bedia and Sergio Juste part of the squad.
Therefore, while Roca and Lobera's men gear up for the final push, they could very well be acting on the winning formula which erstwhile champions of the ISL have incorporated.