I-League: Foreign coaches draw up a mixed bag in the world of Kolkata football

AIFF Media
The coveted I-League title has eluded even the most successful of foreign coaches at the two Kolkata giants....

Since the advent of the National Football League (NFL) and subsequently its successor the I-League, foreign coaches have been in demand in Indian football. However, ever since the NFL came into existence in 1996, only three foreign coaches have gone on to lift the title in the top flight of Indian football (excluding the Indian Super League).

In the I-League era, Zoran Dordevic (Churchill Brothers, 2008-09), Karim Bencherifa with Salgaocar in 2010-11 and Ashley Westwood twice with Bengaluru FC (2013-14 and 2015-16) are the only non-Indian coaches to win the championship.

The two Kolkata giants have not been shy themselves when it comes to looking towards foreign inspiration.

East Bengal’s tryst with foreign coaches can be traced back to 2005 when they appointed Belgian Philippe de Ridder in midseason. Under the Belgian, the Red and Golds finished runners-up to their arch-rivals Mohun Bagan in the NFL. He parted ways with the club due to complications with the board the following year before returning to the Red and Golds for a second stint in 2009, once again in midseason after Sukhwinder Singh’s resignation.

In his second stint, the Belgian guided the Kolkata giants to a Federation Cup triumph while they finished ninth in the I-League. Differences with the board saw him exit the club again. Thereafter England’s Trevor Morgan was appointed. 

The Englishman oversaw one of the most successful spells for the club in the I-League era in a three-year spell which lasted until 2013. In his first season at the helm, Morgan’s East Bengal fell narrowly short of the I-League title, finishing as runners-up five points behind Karim Bencherifa’s Salgaocar.

Morgan’s men also went on to lift the Federation Cup with victory over Mohun Bagan in the final. The club won three trophies in total in his first year in charge including the Calcutta Football League (CFL).

His second year in charge yielded another three trophies for East Bengal as another runners-up finish in the I-League ensued. The Kolkata club finished second best in the Federation Cup too but managed to retain the CFL among other trophies. It took some convincing to retain Morgan for a third season in which the club finished third in the I-League. His final season is remembered most for taking the club all the way to the quarter-final of the AFC Cup with an unbeaten record. Morgan’s men did manage to reclaim the Federation Cup while a hat-trick of wins followed in the CFL. That would be Morgan’s last contribution to the club as he resigned for personal reasons.

His three-year reign at East Bengal undisputedly remains the best spell by a foreign coach at the club whose I-League drought continues to linger.

Morgan was succeeded by another foreign coach in Marcos Falopa but the Brazilian’s tenure lasted a total of 11 matches before he handed in his resignation.

Mohun Bagan, meanwhile, began the I-League era with a foreign coach in the form of Brazil’s Carlos Roberto Pereira. The Brazilian had led East Bengal to a fifth-place finish in the previous season of the NFL before he signed for their arch-rivals. He took over Mohun Bagan after a fractured season which had seen three different foreign coaches including former striker Chima Okorie take charge of the club at various stages.

Under the Brazilian, the club finished fourth in the inaugural season of the I-League while capturing the CFL title. They were knocked out by East Bengal in the semi-final of the Federation Cup with Pereira leaving the club at the end of the one season.

In his stead, arrived Morocco’s Karim Bencherifa who delivered three trophies in his very first season including the Federation Cup and the CFL. The Kolkata giants narrowly missed out on the I-League title, finishing three points behind champions Churchill Brothers. That second-place finish remained Bagan’s best in the I-League before Sanjoy Sen delivered them their maiden title in 2014-15.

Despite his by all terms excellent first year, the Moroccan was let go midway in the following season. It was a decision the club’s administrators would later come to rue as Bencherifa led Salgaocar to the league title in 2011.

In a bid to their end to their title drought, the club rehired Bencherifa for a second stint in 2012. In the first year of his second spell, the Moroccan helped the club avoid relegation despite a 12-point penalty. Another trophy-less season followed in his second year and he was unceremoniously sacked after an eighth-place finish in the league.

Another foreign coach in the form of Englishman Steve Darby took charge of the club for a brief period in 2011 but he resigned from his position after only three games in charge citing a poor relationship with the technical committee.

While foreign coaches have often bought a moderate amount of success for the two Kolkata clubs, the coveted I-League title has always eluded them. Morgan and to a certain extent de Ridder, have been the better performing foreign coaches for East Bengal in the I-League era while Bencherifa’s first stint at Bagan was also a fruitful one. Unfortunately for the Green and Maroon brigade, the Moroccan’s most successful spell in Indian football came elsewhere in Goa.

While Morgan and Bencherifa are examples of positive stints of foreign coaches at Kolkata clubs, the tenures of Darby and Falopa serve as a cautionary tale.

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The I-League era has been a lean phase for both Kolkata clubs and as such, the performance of Morgan and Bencherifa remains the gold standard for foreign coaches. Overall though, it has been a mixed bag for both clubs when it comes to appointing foreign coaches. That could perhaps be one the reasons both clubs go into the upcoming season with Indian coaches at the helm.

It is the I-League the two teams most passionately desire and the fact that no foreign coach has been able to deliver it to them could maybe lead the administrators to not consider them worthy of the hassle for now.

Now, while Bagan have continued to show their faith in an Indian coach, East Bengal have brought in an illustrious coach in Alejandro Menendez. However, the target would be the I-League and failing to win that might see these coaches get the boot, regardless of their nationality.