Delhi Dynamos had missed out on a semi-final spot in the first season of the Indian Super League (ISL) before making it to the semi-final in the next two seasons. However, they could not make it to final in any of the campaigns.
After three seasons under three different coaches, the club roped in former Real Madrid man Miguel Angel Portugal in the summer of 2017.
What transpired was a disappointing and frustrating season for the club. The Lions finished eighth in the league with 19 points from 18 matches and later endured an early exit in the Super Cup against bottom-placed I-League side Churchill Brothers.
Miguel Angel Portugal and the club parted ways at the end of the season and the Spanish coach took charge at La Liga 2 club Granada CF. Reflecting upon his solitary year in Indian football, Portugal discussed the positives and the negatives he had come to terms with.
"The positives are the organizations and the fields of play. The negative is the calendar. You play four matches in ten days (in ISL) and after that, you don’t play for 15 days. It is better to make a medium to a long-term plan," he spoke exclusively to Goal.
The coaching merry-go-round is set to continue at Delhi Dynamos and Portugal is the latest victim. The former Real Madrid 'B' team coach believes that a long-term plan is essential for the club. Delhi started the season badly but picked up good results towards the end of the league season.
Although the management would have expected better results at the end of the season, Miguel Portugal asserts that his work at the club was good. What hampered his work was the meagre budget on offer for player recruitment.
"I think that my work was good. We played very well but it was difficult to adapt to the conditions of work in Delhi. We also had a low budget," said Portugal."We signed the foreign players based on the budget. Two players in Pune City -Alfaro and Marcelinho - earned as much as our budget."
Portugal also had a piece of advice for Delhi Dynamos for the next season. "In football, if you have more budget you can sign best players and better results are possible. That is the key."
Miguel Portugal wants his former club to spend more in the transfer market. However, he is also happy with the development of some of the Indian talents that he had at his disposal."I am very happy with the work of the young Indian players. Vinit (Rai), (Lallianzuala) Chhangte, Nandakumar (Sekar), Sajid (Dhot) - they have to improve but they have the confidence to play in the Indian Super League and the club has a good basis for the future," said the 60-year-old coach.
Portugal is in Spain, preparing Granada CF in their bid to earn a playoff spot. With five games left, they are four points adrift of the final playoff spot. Portugal's future at Granada beyond this season is unclear and the gaffer is leaving his doors open for a possible return to India.
"I don’t know if I will return to India after my stint at Granada CF. I am one of those who thinks that you have to leave the doors open," said the Granada CF head coach.
The popularity of football in Delhi is evident when one sees two thousand kids lining up at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium beneath an April sun to participate in the age-regulated trials for the city's football club — Delhi Dynamos.
The Dynamos' record in the Indian Super League looks balanced between finishing in the top four and lingering below that — they have reached the semi-finals twice, but have also sat out of the top four on two occasions. The last season was particularly an unhappy one for them as they finished their campaign sitting grumpily at number eight, with just five wins to their name.
However, it is the future that the Dynamos look to improve. Powered by a technical tie-up with the Qatar-based Aspire Academy, they are building a grassroot system with a unified method of playing across all subdivisions of the club. The method in question is characterized by high percentage of ball possession accompanied by short passes to build up play from the back. As for the subdivisions, there are presently four: the under-13s, the under-15s, the under-18s, all featuring in the Youth League in their respective age groups; and the Delhi Dynamos Reserves who ply their trade in the I-league second division.
On looking at successful examples, the structure seems to be an ideal one in terms of promoting overall growth of football for the club as well as towards the bigger picture of a national team. After all, that's how it has worked for the sport's elite proponents in Europe and elsewhere too.
Notably, the Spaniards have enjoyed an era of dominance across two Euros and a World Cup courtesy of the fabled academies and youth systems of football clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid which, for the national team, contributed miraculously gifted players who could execute the 'ball to feet' approach to utmost perfection.
The Spanish propaganda is what Delhi Dynamos are planning to mimic in their own youth system, and no doubt, it is a long and weary sojourn.
"It's a lengthy process," reflects Rajat Guha, assistant coach for the Delhi Dynamos Reserves.
"A majority of these players have come from different regions and different playing backgrounds," Guha continues, "where they were playing football in ways quite different from the one we are trying to teach here. So, putting all of them together and instilling this new ideology has been tough. Although they're eventually getting the gist of it, but we're yet to see a positive result."
The I-league Division 2 table agrees with Rajat's thoughts. The Dynamos' Reserves, who have a solitary win in the seven matches they have played, are just three points ahead of Group A's bottom-placed side Lonestar Kashmir. They next face second-placed Real Kashmir on Monday, a team they have already lost to in the initial leg back in March.
Despite the shortcomings, Guha chooses to remain optimistic on account of the effort his players are putting up.
"The boys are working really hard," he says, before adding, "I'm quite hopeful that soon we'll turn the tables in our favour. In all the games that we have either lost or drawn, we have recorded a high percentage of ball possession — 60-70 % — but the conversion rate has been poor. Once we work on that, we'll begin to see positive results."
In possession football, patience is key. A side might dominate possession for the entire 90 minutes, but it is not given that they will win the match due to a superior possession rate. The Reserves have faced similar situations before. After such moments of dejection, disbelief is certain to creep into the dressing room, which Guha believes can be curbed only with patience.
"We try to tell our boys that it should not be about winning or losing. All they have to do is get down on the field and give their best, so that when they step off the pitch, they won't have anything to regret despite the result. If you follow your heart, the result will automatically follow," Guha prophesies before he goes on to highlight how the homogeneity of one playing style across all subdivisions of the club will go a long way towards improvement.
"We'll have to keep it simple and not complicate football," he points out. "In our under-13 and under-15 teams, the players have adapted well to the system, because at that age you're new to the game and you do not have a pre-formed idea or playing style in mind. So, they gather it very easily."
Having heard this about the young ones, there comes in picture the man who shoulders the responsibility of consolidating the structure that the Dynamos look keen to organise.
Francisco 'Fran' Perez, head coach of the Dynamos Reserves and the flagbearer of Aspire Academy's ideology at the club, looks as enthusiastic as the young boys who have come for a trial as he is approached for a tête-à-tête.
"I'm trying to replicate the Spanish style of play here at Delhi Dynamos," he declares. "To play football you need the ball. You need the player to have fun with the ball. This way you can motivate the players because to improve they need to have the ball. This is our style. We start to build up play from the back and step-by-step try to play forward, also using the wings to switch play."
When asked about how he looks to groom a player, the Spaniard explains,"The most important thing here is training, which is carried out according to the level of the players. We start at the base, which means teaching the technical part — the basics of it, and once the players grasp that, we move to the application part; how to position yourself to open up, receive the ball, and then go for possession and the gameplay."
Fran, a Real Madrid fan, seems to love his job here in Delhi with the kind of passion he has apparently seen in the city's young ones.
"I feel that in India the people have a passion for football. It's like a new sport that is going up. The players feel that football can make their lives better. So I'm happy with them… and proud. They are doing really well," he smiles as he says this before reflecting on how he wishes to carry on giving something back to the club as well as to Indian football.
"Our focus is on promoting football in Delhi and in all of India. We're looking for a local boy to represent Delhi Dynamos, and I really think this is the way forward. We want the main player to come from the academy. So we build that player and get him to the first team. That is why, our best academy players will go to Qatar to improve even more at Aspire. When they come back we will put them in the first team. And that I think is the club's philosophy, which says: bet on youth football!" Fran puts in with determination as he begins to turn towards a bunch of teenagers warming up on the other side of the training pitch.
Finally, he quotes, "It's not only the success of the Spanish national team and the Spanish clubs that makes me think this is the best way, but also the Spanish players, who are in every part of the world."
"This is why it is important to promote this in India," he contemplates philosophically before he runs, whistle in mouth, clapping frantically, and yelling encouragements in his native Spanish to the young ones to get on with the show.
Delhi Dynamos FC are set for a month-long pre-season camp in Kolkata and Doha, Qatar as the two-time semi-finalists begin their preparation for the upcoming Indian Super League season.
The side led by new head coach Josep Gombau will be playing three friendly matches each in Kolkata and Doha, before traveling back to Delhi where they will play a string of friendlies before the start of the new season.
The Indian group of Dynamos has already reached Kolkata and will undergo a week long preparatory camp under assistant coach Mridul Banerjee. The foreign contingent of the club will start joining from 20th August onwards.
Six players – Vinit Rai, Lallianzuala Chhangte, Nandhakumar Sekar, Sukhadev Patil, Daniel Lahlimpuia and Mohd Sajid Dhot will miss the camp due to commitments with the Indian National Team in the SAFF Camp currently being held in New Delhi.
The side though will see fresh faces join the squad as Amit Tudu, Seiminmang Manchong and Shubham Sarangi will also be a part of the pre-season preparations.
“We wanted to face some good Indian sides in the pre-season to get an idea of how things are shaping up. I want to assess the squad in the Indian conditions to get a better idea of them before we head to Aspire Academy,” Head Coach Josep Gombau said.