Samir Naik was an integral part of the Indian national team and Dempo SC for the larger part of the 21st century. He was part of the India U23 side which won the LG Cup in Vietnam in 2004, the AFC Challenge Cup in 2008 and also featured in the 2011 AFC Asian Cup. He also won five league titles with Dempo SC in an illustrious career.
The marauding full-back, after his retirement in 2017, is now impressing as the head coach of Dempo SC.
He was assisting Mauricio Afonso for a couple of years before taking over the reins of the Goa-based club at the start of this season. Needless to say, Naik managed to win the first tournament Dempo played under his stewardship and then went on to finish second in the Goa Professional League.
"I assisted Mauricio for two years as a player and that experience with helped a lot. This was my first year and we won the first tournament that we played (AWES Cup). We beat Gokulam Kerala in the final. Moreover, we finished second in the Goan league. I had a good team," the 38-year-old told Goal in an exclusive chat.
Passing on knowledge gained from spending time with experienced coaches to the next generation is one of the major facets that attracted Samir to coaching. "Whatever I have learnt from my coaches, it is time for me to give it to next generation. That is a motivation for me to coach. Other experienced players are also doing this and we need more of this."
He also feels managing different personalities in a team is one of the challenges that comes with coaching. "There are different mentalities in a team. We need to manage them and understand them. You need to get in close with their characters. When we were playing, we only needed to care about ourselves. Now, I’m thinking about my players all the time."
Naik also feels that he is at his dream club, having served Dempo as a player for 18 years before coaching them.
"Dempo is one of the best clubs in the country. We have the most number of league titles and I’m proud to be coaching Dempo. I have served this club for 18 years and then to be a coach of this club is an honour," stated Naik.
The Mumbai-born defender also felt that there is a dearth in upcoming footballers from Goa as there are not many clubs who are plying their trade in the top-tiers of Indian football. Especially after the backing out of clubs like Salgaocar, Dempo and Sporting Clube de Goa.
"There are good players from Goa. But opportunities are few for them. We have only one team in Indian Super League (FC Goa) and one representative in the I-League (Churchill Brothers who got relegated).
"There are very few chances for the talent in Goa. They play only the Goa league. They do not know what is the standard of I-League and ISL. We should have more teams from Goa in the top-tiers," expressed Naik.
He went on to state that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) should work on a solution to incorporate these clubs in the top-tier as well, given their history and contribution to Indian football.
"Dempo, Sporting Goa and Salgaocar should come back to the I-League. AIFF should do something to ensure these three teams come back into the fold. These teams have given Indian football a lot. Small differences between AIFF and these clubs should be resolved. There should be a solution."
Samir was given his India debut by current coach Stephen Constantine during his earlier stint in the country and the defender feels that to play for the Englishman, one must possess talent and a hardworking nature.
"When I played for India, Constantine gave me my first break. He knows what he is doing. Anybody cannot walk into his team. You need to be hardworking and be good enough."
He went on to praise the current crop of Indian defenders and praised his former boss for getting the best out of them.
"I think Constantine has been very good and under him, these players (Jhingan, Anas and co.) have done very well. In the FIFA rankings, we came up from 150-odd to 97 and the team is doing good. ISL also helps as the players have been playing under foreign coaches. So I feel, Indian football is going up on a whole."
Certain sections of the fans have been critical of Stephen Constantine's selections as they feel players who have performed in the I-League and ISL have not been given a chance. But Naik begged to differ.
"My opinion is that coaches know better. He (Constantine) knows his players better. Whatever decisions he must be taking, it must be based on the performances. He watches the games and I don't think the criticism is right. Our improved ranking is because of him and I feel he is doing right," said Naik in a staunch defence of the English coach.
Naik was part of the Indian team which last participated in the Asian Cup, back in 2011. He feels that this time, India has had a kinder draw for the 2019 Asian Cup but the odds will be tough.
"Last time, we played very tough teams like Australia, Bahrain and South Korea. They were top teams and this time (in 2019) we have UAE, Thailand and Bahrain. I’m not saying it is an easy group but we can compete with them," assessed Naik.
He also felt that he had very few regrets in his playing career but only cherished memories.
"In my very first tournament for India, we won (LG Cup in Vietnam). Then we won the AFC Challenge Cup, the SAFF Cup and the Nehru Cup. We did very well in those years and they are the highlights of my career. Also, winning titles with Dempo and reaching the semifinals of the AFC Cup," reminisced Naik.
Bengaluru FC went one step further than Dempo (when they reached the final in 2016) but Naik mentioned that the new grouping system (which means teams from South Zone will meet a West Zone club only in the final) has meant that Indian clubs are not facing the top teams anymore before reaching the final.
"When we used to play, we played those big clubs from West Zone (Syria, Bahrain, Jordan). It was tougher back then than now. We beat teams like Al Faisaly away from home. But Bengaluru FC have also done well. But it was tougher to compete in the AFC Cup during our time."
Naik also had a positive outlook on India's future, given the performances of the India U16 team and the various youth-centric programs going on in the country.
"Now, we have more academies with all the clubs starting development programs. I think in next 10 years, we will be having better players. The India U16 team is also doing well under Bibiano Fernandes," he signed off.