CHENNAI: As noon approached on Tuesday, Gokulam Kerala coach Fernando Santiago Varela looked out the window of his hotel room in the city, probably finalising what he was going to say at a team meeting scheduled for later. His team was going to play Chennaiyin FC in a friendly game that evening; an encounter that would finish 1-1. A friendly it may have been, but his track record suggests those are serious affairs for Varela.
Last year, he won the Kerala Premier League with a young team, before making an abrupt departure before the season started. He came back a few months ago and started off with victory in the Durand Cup and a strong showing in the AWES Cup in Goa. They then held Mumbai City FC 1-1 and beat Indian Super League champions Bengaluru FC 3-1. If those results are any indication, Gokulam are going to be right up there in the race for the I-League title.
One suspects his sudden departure and his equally abrupt re-entry are just the initial twists in a much larger plot that will be played out over the season. Varela was managing Catalan club CF Gava when the opportunity to manage Gokulam first arose. The first man he sought out for advice was Bengaluru FC manager Carles Cuadrat. “We finished the pro-license together,” he says. “After speaking to him, I thought it would be a good opportunity for me.”
He may be based in Spain these days, but Varela is proudly Argentinean — the glass of mate (a herbal concoction that is Argentina’s national drink) that he sips from is proof enough. As a manager though, he is a bit of both. Varela says his game is a mix of the passion that South American football oozes in abundance and the tactical nous that makes Spanish coaches often tower above others. It is perhaps no wonder that the two managers he looks up to are the headmasters of both schools: Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola.
“I like Guardiola. I like Bielsa. I am Argentinean and we have much passion. A lot of Argentinean coaches are now working across the world. In Peru, we have (Ricardo) Gareca. Ramon Diaz was in Paraguay. Tata Martino is in Mexico,” he says. “But then, I took my pro license in Spain. So I learnt from Spanish coaches.”
Varela’s mind then goes back to the time he almost became one of Bielsa’s boys. “He was in Newell’s Old Boys. I was in River Plate. Some people told me two years later that he wanted to sign me.”
Indeed, as a Bielsista should, the word that he often returns to while describing his footballing philosophy is intensity. “We try to be offensive and play football that is good to see. I don’t believe in systems. Formations can change during the game, maybe four, five times. My teams will always have intensity. You can have intensity with or without the ball. When your passes are slow, you don’t have intensity. When you don’t apply pressure, you don’t run fast, there is no intensity. “I don’t believe in keeping the ball for the sake of it. They have to be prepared to do what they need to. Maybe they need to keep the ball, maybe they need to pass long. Sometimes they will need to create an opportunity in three passes.”