Imagine, if you will, that all 20 teams in La Liga were managed entirely by English coaches right now. 20 managers struggling, as David Moyes, Gary Neville and Tony Adams did. That, until now, was the ISL - for seven seasons, every team was managed or coached by foreigners. And (going by official club websites) only 3 of the 11 ISL teams mentioned their Indian assistant coaches. That's what makes Khalid Jamil's appointment at NEUFC so significant: The first, and only official Indian head coach of any ISL team. Slow progress, but it is progress nonetheless.
Why is he important?
What's been lost amongst the celebratory coverage of Jamil's appointment is what he could represent for the many Indian coaches toiling away behind the scenes. Khalid Jamil represents hope.
Representation matters. The world of sport has painfully been re-examining its biases, intended or not, over the last couple of years, and yes, while it is odd to equate the struggles of Indian coaches to other, greater issues, it is a struggle nonetheless.
The ISL is the pinnacle of Indian football, and the country's very own coaches have had little to no opportunities to make their mark. India doesn't lack for talent in this sphere - Thangboi Singto, Syed Shabir Pasha, Derrick Pereira, Naushad Moosa are quite capable of occupying the role of head coach.
It's precisely why Jamil's appointment as head coach is so refreshing.
It's also why his success is so important. Doors would open, conversations would be had that could elevate the presence of Indian coaches in the ISL. One can see why NEUFC are described by many as the neutral's favourite. There are many rooting for Jamil to succeed - the question is whether someone who's thrived as a perennial underdog can shine when the spotlight, and expectation is on him.
He did voice his support for Indian coaches to be given more opportunities though, saying 'I believe they can do [the job], because they have experience.' Whether the rest of the league will be willing to listen is another matter entirely. Yet, as much as he downplays his achievement, there will be plenty of eyes on Jamil this season.
What's his background?
He proved himself last season, turning around NEUFC's season as interim manager after the sacking of Gerard Nus to finish third and reach the semifinals. But Jamil's always been one for proving himself against the naysayers- there were snorts of derision after he hung up his boots with Mumbai FC in 2009 and immediately started coaching the club.
He kept them alive, as one of the clubs with the league's lowest budgets, Mumbai FC took on the personality of their coach - tough, hard-working, awkward to deal with, and with no fear when facing the big boys. Criticism did come his way, as is the nature of the job, with people deriding Jamil for a streak of unambitiousness in his style of play.
Like the best of managers, Jamil was able to recalibrate, and in his next role as manager of an unheralded Aizawl FC, he performed a miracle. Gone was the backs-to-the-wall football, instead Jamil nurtured plenty of unknown Indian talents into a thrilling outfit, as the Mizoram club romped to the 2015-16 I-League title. Hard work still underlined everything that was great on the pitch, which is eerily similar to how NEUFC performed in the run-in last season.
What's his coaching style?
It's easy to notice how important hard work is to Jamil - in a pre-season interview with NEUFC's social channel, the 44-year-old repeats the phrase 'working very hard' seven times in 90 seconds. Therein perhaps, lies his greatest advantage as an Indian coach. As much as the language of football is deemed to be universal, the ability of players to identify with a coach who's familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Indian football and culture will be greater.
The common thread of many of the players Jamil has nurtured is their willingness to run through a brick wall for him. In turn, Jamil returns their trust with faith and a readiness to treat them as humans first, and not just professionals. How much can a foreign coach truly understand the difficulties an Indian footballer has faced coming through?
"So overall, it is a good team. Just we have to work hard and play as a team."
- NorthEast United FC (@NEUtdFC) October 25, 2021
Jamil disagrees, however. 'A coach is a coach', he noted in the pre-match press conference before NEUFC's season opener against Bengaluru. Perhaps it is his ultra-focused nature shining through, another trait that's perhaps a window into why he does so well with youngsters - the ability to cut through the waffle and deliver clear, concise messages.
It translates so well onto the pitch as well - barring his spells at East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, each of Jamil's teams have had clear identities. Mumbai were dogged and defensive, Aizawl were free-spirited youngsters, while NEUFC are a marriage of the two. In all three of those teams, Jamil was able to extract quite a bit from his Indian youngsters, a reflection of his mentoring abilities.
Organizationally, it's rare to see a Khalid Jamil team dragged out of position, with only the very best able to outfox his well-drilled sides. However, NEUFC are still a work in progress, as though the unfancied Highlanders went ten unbeaten last season, they conceded eleven goals in the process.
What's his goal this season?
The NEUFC coach mentioned 'going a step further' ahead of the season - which would imply he believes his team can reach the final of the ISL playoffs and maybe even win the whole tournament outright. Clearly this is not a man short of belief, but what makes him such a tricky customer for opponents to deal with is that he marries said belief, with real, practical sessions of hard work on the training ground.
What may offer him an advantage are new rules that limit the foreigners in a starting XI to four. Unlike his peers, Jamil already has the experience of dealing with such a limitation from the decades he spent in the I-League. If anything, Jamil may even go the other way, filling his side with the Indian youngsters he trusted to reach third place in the league last season.
However, his prized jewel, Apuia, has left - but you wouldn't bet against Jamil unearthing yet another diamond in the rough. He's done it countless times before, after all. For once, however, it may be his foreign recruitment that may aid Jamil in his quest to go a step further - Hernan Santana ought to bring solidity and organization to the NEUFC backline that Jamil so desires.
All of Jamil's success has come when being the underdog, and in a league with cash-rich Mumbai City and the might of ATK Mohun Bagan, one could certainly make the case for NEUFC being the dark horse once more. Yet, given his elevation to head coach, the pressure is well and truly on for Khalid Jamil - will he buckle, as he did at East Bengal and Mohun Bagan before?
'You can't be what you can't see' - well, all eyes are now on you, Khalid Bhai.