Shanmugam Venkatesh: IM Vijayan was like a festival, you just needed to enjoy him on the field!

Apart from Sunil Chhetri, there’s someone else in the current Blue Tigers contingent who has won the SAFF Championship twice as a player. In fact, he has also been on the triumphant side as an Assistant Coach in 2015, besides making it to the final (also as an Assistant coach) in the 2018 edition in Dhaka with an U-23 squad. In a freewheeling interview, Assistant Coach, and former India captain Shanmugam Venkatesh recollects triumphs in the 1999 and 2005 edition while sharing anecdotes of his playing days, and memories of winning the SAFF Championship in Pakistan.

When did you first win a SAFF Championship?

My first SAFF Championship triumph was in 1999 when we hosted it in Goa, while the second came in 2006 in Pakistan. Interestingly, that’s the sole edition that has been hosted in Pakistan so far.

How old were you in 1999? What was the pressure like?

I headed to the SAFF Championship directly from the AFC U-19 Qualifiers. In that sense, I was the kid among the superstars.

It may sound a bit arrogant, but there wasn’t any pressure at all – and again, it all boiled down to the superstars in the team.

Who were the superstars?

Bruno (Coutinho) was our captain, and up front we had an extremely aggressive Bhaichung Bhutia, and the magical IM Vijayan. If that wasn’t enough, Basu-da (Basudeb Mondal) was there along with Shabbir Pasha, the late Carlton Chapman, Jo Paul Ancheri, Jules Alberto, with Robert Fernandes, and a young Dipak Mondal playing as central defenders. I reiterate, I was merely a kid, extremely lucky to be staring in every match. Sukhi-sir (Sukhwinder Singh) was our coach, with the late PK Banerjee the Technical Director of the team, while the late Krishnaji Rao was the team manager.

Wasn’t there a clash of egos in the squad with many ‘superstars’ in the ranks?

I remember them laughing and making fun all throughout the match. For Vijayan and Bhaichung, it was all too easy. The triangle of Bruno operating from the hole with Bhaichung and Vijayan on the rampage was too much to handle for other teams. Bruno used to shuffle and send in those delectable long balls. His leadership skills were an example for all. The quality in every department was so unmistakable.

I was kind of playing on my home ground in Goa, as I was then contracted with Salgaocar in the NFL.

Any particular incident that you remember from that tournament?

(Laughs aloud) I remember a rival wingback gasping for breath and had to be substituted within 10 minutes itself.

What happened? And against which team?

Shabbir Pasha started toying with him, and then the others joined in the fun. I reiterate, handling Bruno, Bhaichung, and Vijayan – that too all at their prime was too hot to handle for all.

Let the team stay a secret, but I am sure old-timers will remember.

Elaborate more on IM VIjayan.

Vijayan was like a festival. You just had to enjoy him while playing. And if you were lucky to be on the same side with him, it was more fun. He used to pick up rival defenders and midfielders and go past them just for fun. And then used to tell us – “Dekha, mainey kiya. (Did you guys see that)?”

He was a pure genius.

What was special about the triumph in Pakistan?

The respect which we got while playing in Pakistan was something else. The love from the common man stood out. Of course, we had played the Friendship series a year back (in 2005), and the expectations were huge. The crowd appreciated our play like anything. We had rotating captains in that tournament with Bhaichung and me doing the honours. Syed Nayeemuddin was our coach back then.

Any anecdotes which you would like to share?

There are so many, all of which will live with all of us as memories. I remember once we had gone to a local market and everyone had come out to see us. Everyone wanted to touch us, everyone wanted to talk to us, everyone wanted to give us something or the other. Every man whom we spoke to or interacted with was so happy to see the Indian Football Team in Pakistan. Moving forward together was the message from both sides.

How different was it as a coach in 2015-16?

I was the Assistant Coach, and it was a special victory purely as we had to swim against the tide to win it. We had some crucial players missing, and the players who had assembled prior to the tournament had the dream to win it but were lacking in match fitness. More so, Afghanistan were a sublime squad, the pre-tournament favourites. But the boys improved with every match, and eventually, we won it.

As a coach, I sometimes feel helpless. Sometimes you wish that you were on the ground with the ball at your feet. The mindset of the coach is entirely different from that of a player. But looking back, the edition in Thiruvananthapuram made me more confident, facilitating my decision-making.

What is the value of the SAFF Championship?

We lost the 2018 edition final against Maldives with our U-23 team. We had beaten them hands down in the group stage, but we faltered in the final despite having better exchanges for a major period. The celebrations of the Maldives team made us realise the importance of the tournament a bit more. For all other participating nations, it’s like their World Cup. Every team comes out here to win, including us.

What can the fans expect in this edition?

We are here in Maldives to win it. The standard of play in the SAFF region has improved quite a bit. The technical preparation of the teams has made them more compact, keeping in tune with the modern-day vision.

About Arunava Chaudhuri

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