Ivan Vukomanovic: ‘India should focus on youth development’

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Ivan Vukomanovic is a “geographical monster” by his own admission. He loves to jump in his car and head to less explored places. His passion for travel and fascination with history has taken him across Europe and the Serbian has now embarked on a trip to India to take charge of the Kerala Blasters.

He is the club’s 11th manager in eight seasons. He is aware of the kind of riding system at the club where coaches were replaced periodically, but insists he had a “good feeling” about joining the Kochi-based club.

“It’s like when you meet someone in your life, your boyfriend or a girlfriend, and you get that feeling… like a good feeling. I haven’t had that with some interviews but I have had the best feeling with Kerala Blasters. The very first time we met and talked I had a very positive feeling. They presented a good project and they are good people. Some of the other offers I received had more money, but I’m not a coach who’s attracted to that – I’m attracted to good projects and I believe in good people I think Kerala Blasters has a great environment with a huge fanbase – it attracted me to the club,” says the 44-year-old.

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“I noticed that the club had one of the youngest teams in the league and I wanted to be part of the development of the team. I want to develop the boys, not only to perform well on the pitch, but also to help them develop their character and mentality,” he adds.

His initial observations are that the nation, dubbed the ‘sleeping giant of Asian football’, needs to pay more attention to youth development.

“Since we arrived in India, I must admit that I have been positively surprised by what we have seen. We are surprised by the quality and the potential of the talents. I think if we speak honestly, I try to be realistic, it takes infrastructure to develop and move to a higher level but the lack of development of young people leaves a huge void. Compared to other nations, this creates a huge gap for players who come later to senior level, or here at ISL level.

It’s like sending a first-year medical student into the operating room and telling him that a patient is dying and needs a heart transplant. It is quite impossible in such a situation. A lack of youth development creates a huge gap for players arriving at senior level and may struggle with certain aspects.

Former SC East Bengal manager Robbie Fowler drew criticism last year when he said a few of the Indian players in his squad appeared to have never been coached before. Vukomanovic feels he was just comparing the status of Indian football to that of the world standard.

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“I don’t want anyone to misunderstand this, but we as outsiders compare with the situations we have faced in our past. I have lived for 16 years in Belgium, which is today the world number one and develops its young players. Players move to higher levels and become better after making transfers to top clubs. Everyone makes profit, clubs get transfer money and the national team also benefits as they come back better after playing in higher leagues.

“As Robbie said, you have to focus on developing young players between the ages of 14 and 19, which is most crucial for a footballer. If they don’t get a decent job at that age, they will never be ready for the next level.They will struggle when they get to senior level and play in the ISL or national team.If you give them a long break of 5-6 months and then call them in the national team without having given them proper education in the past, they will never be ready to perform. The national team will always suffer and will never be able to make great results,” he said.

“The organizers of ISL and the Federation should connect these dots to complete the chain and help prepare the young players at the highest level. I am sure that very soon India will have a very good national team that can go to the maximum high level like the World Cup. India have huge potential and talent and can do it easily. They have shown it in other sports. I am positively surprised by what we have seen and I am optimistic… this is the way to go. Otherwise we will have a generation of players that will be wasted. You will have a talent and maybe every 10-15 years you will have a (Sunil) Chhetri. But on a huge level you want achieve something. I’m sure of it and it’s a process that you have to follow,” he adds.

A defender during his playing days, his coaching philosophy is simple: score goals. “I want to play attack attack attack. I think it’s a great way to play football. We always talk and say you have to play for the result. Every coach has a style, approach or formation they prefer, but every tactic is good. As a coach, you have to recognize the team’s potential. If I see that some boys have potential (to excel in attack), then our job is to develop them to a higher level – to give them higher scoring opportunities and attacking options. I want to give them the opportunity to play attacking football because they will improve and enjoy their football,” he said. He conceded that playing offensively increases the risk of being hit on the counter, but adds: “That’s football.”

A story of Vidic and Pochettino

Looking back on his playing days, Vukomanovic reveals his special bond with Serbian and Manchester United legend Nemanja Vidic. “You must know that I used to play with former Manchester United captain Vidic. We are from the same city, we have known each other since we were children. We played together in defense at the Red Star of Belgrade. He is four years younger and was the next generation of youngsters to come to our first team. He made his debut in the UCL qualifying round and we played together in defense – it was his first game Our coach told me he would stay with us for another six months to improve and watch, he has become one of the best defenders in Europe,” he fondly recalls.

“When he was in Manchester I was very supportive of them, especially under Sir Alex Ferguson. We make a point of catching up every time we’re in town. He knows I’m here in India now,” he adds .

New Season: Kerala Blasters FC players celebrate a goal during an ISL game against ATK Mohun Bagan. -PTI

Vukomanovic then sealed a move for the Red Star from Belgrade to Bordeaux in France, where he would be roommates with current Paris Saint-Germain manager Mauricio Pochettino. “I played a season in France and my roommate was Pochettino. I was in Bordeaux, he was from PSG. We shared the room for a season, then he went to Espanyol, then became a coach. That been 20 years now and we are still in touch. We exchange messages all the time and keep in touch. I had met him in Belgrade when he came with Tottenham Hotspur to face Red Star Belgrade in the Champions League “, he says.

At the time of this interview, Pochettino was heavily linked with the vacant managerial job at Manchester United. Before we ask anything about it, Vukomanovic jokes: “I can’t say what he said about Manchester’s work (winks). Knowing this, anything is possible!

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Vukomanovic has also crossed paths with tennis ace Novak Djokovic and often dines at the latter’s restaurant in Belgium. But for now, he longs to travel to Kochi and watch his team play in front of their raucous home crowd.

“We have a lot of fun here, there is a lot of laughter in the camp. I have to admit, life in the bubble is something I haven’t experienced before. It’s like luxury imprisonment – we’ll train, play and come back. But it’s fun, we had table tennis, darts, chess and PlayStation tournaments. It’s fun and morale is always high in the camp. Hopefully this (pandemic) is over soon and we can be back in Kochi to perform in front of our fans,” he said.

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