Ivan Vukomanovic: The beating heart of Kerala Blasters

Kerala Blasters head coach Ivan Vukomanovic is now a grade-A celebrity in the state. Sandeep Shetty/Focus Sports/ ISL

December 19, 2021. Kerala Blasters are taking on defending champions Mumbai City and there's concern in the air. This is the Blasters' sixth game of the season: they've had one (big) loss, one (narrow) win, three draws until now. Add an underwhelming pre-season and the usual conclusion to a Blasters season is brewing: the sacking of the coach.

Ivan Vukomanovic, the man in the hot seat, isn't worried. He's not raised his voice in the dressing room or on the training ground. He's asked people to focus on their strengths, forget the frailties of the past. He's expressed quite confidence in every media interaction.

Around half an hour into the match, something clicks. Jeakson Singh plays the ball into Alvaro Vazquez, who plays it back out wide to Adrian Luna. Luna looks up and lofts a delicious ball to the feet of Roberto Pereyra Diaz, who turns and pauses and scoops it to Sahal Abdul Samad. A moment to steady himself, another to measure the bounce and Samad smashes it on the half-volley inside the near post. 1-0 Blasters. Vukomanovic, in a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, shirt tucked into dark jeans, smiles.

That was just the opening goal of a 3-0 demolition of a stunned champion side but this was when everyone else realised what he already knew: this was not the same Kerala Blasters that these very pages had predicted would be "fighting to stay off the bottom."

Almost a year on now, and the Blasters have never looked better. They reached the final last season, and played better, more entertaining football than they ever have. For the first time ever, they have retained their coach for the new season.

And he's now a grade-A celebrity in the state. When was the last time you saw a football coach in India mobbed by media and fans for the mere act of landing in town ahead of pre-season?

Kerri vaa da makkalle

Vukomanovic walks into a room, and it's immediately his. It doesn't matter if there's just him and you in there, or him and a hundred others. He's about 6'4", broad shouldered and with the waistline of an elite athlete, but his aura is more than just physical. You may be the one interviewing him, but he's the one controlling the conversation. Five minutes with him and you can see immediately why he seems to have total control over his dressing room.

We're meeting at the Kochi hotel where he's put up and he's having breakfast on the go - a cup of black tea and a croissant. "That's all I get to eat at breakfast these days," he laughs. "For the two months I've been in India, I've been losing weight. Now, I'm just two kilos off my playing weight!"

There's a reason for this. As packed as a coach's schedule usually is, Vukomanovic's takes it several notches higher. Few others in the ISL, coaches or players, are as in demand as he is this pre-season. After the interview with this writer, he has another two lined up, and then a sponsor's promotional event - and that's before lunch. He'd been up till 2 am the previous night putting the finishing touches on his team's training programmes ahead of opening day.

Everybody wants a slice of him, sponsors preferring him over any of the Blasters' star players. The Blasters are one of the biggest entities in Indian sport and Vukomanovic is the face of it.

From his first appearance on camera, when he told fans he'll have his team do the talking on the pitch, to the snippet before the final where he channelled his inner Malayalee, he's been a big hit. Vukomanovic called Blasters' fans to join the team in Goa for the final. He said, "kerri vaada makkalle" (come on in, my children) - a famous line from the 90's superhit Malayalam movie, Godfather

The foundation of all that, of course, lies in just how well he's gotten the Blasters to play. As a fan told this writer on the morning of last season's final, "we can win some, we can lose some, that's okay. But you know this team will give its all, leave nothing in the tank. Isn't that all you really want to see from your team? That they care about it as much as we do?

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Totaalvoetbal, adapted

While Vukomanovic doesn't compromise in attitude, his tactical ideas are anything but rigid. He started off as a striker at the youth level before a late move to central midfield saw him break into the senior team at Red Star Belgrade in that position. He then flitted between midfield and central defence for all of his 18-year senior career. It's a tactical, technical malleability that has become the bedrock of his coaching philosophy now.

The flexibility defines him. He took a month to adapt to India - "the quality, the mentality, the cultural factors, the habits" - but eventually he did. There's no fixed philosophy, be it gegenpressing or possession-based or low-block-and-counter. As he puts it: "Football's constantly changing, constantly evolving. Every year you just want to improve, to adapt, to learn."

You could see this adaptability - in individuals and as a collective - on the pitch last season. Puitea, a winger, became one half of his central midfield. Jeakson, who started off as a centre-back, was the other half. Samad, always seen as a No 10, was pushed out wide. All three had the best seasons of their career so far.

Vukomanovic's most played formation was a version of the 4-4-2 where he had two playmakers pushed wide and two high-pressing strikers, but there would be slight tweaks to the style depending on who played where. If Sahal wasn't playing, Rahul KP would take up station on the right wing - an entirely different player, the team would mould itself to maximise his strengths (pace and directness vs Sahal's slow-burn touch and vision).

This is also the reason why he's not worried that the tip of his spear - Vazquez and Diaz - aren't with the Blasters this season. "Last year, Blasters had lost all their foreigners and everyone was worried. Then we brought in these guys, and everyone was worried, wondering who they are... Now we are saying we can't live without them!"

He's saying it without saying it: Don't worry, we've got this.

Last season, he had been two minutes-and-change away from winning the whole shebang. He wants to do one better this time around.

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10x harder

Vukomanovic became a coach almost by accident. "When I was in Belgium at my last club, my manager told me [that he saw coaching potential in me]," he says. But he was unconvinced and dillied-and-dallied on applying for the course, till a year later his manager told him "Listen, I'm going to enrol you. I'll join you as one of your mentors. I want you to start"

This is when he started thinking seriously about life after football. What now? He knew of too many tales of financial woes for former players to not commit to a long-term plan. And coaching seemed the best route to take.

"It's 10 times harder than being a player," he laughs. "As a player, you are told what to do every day, everything is prepared for you, it's very nice. For a manager, you need to know more than football and tactics: it's about management, it's about communication, about understanding your players and adapting to them. It's a completely different world."

It's even more strenuous for him because his idea of managing a team means being involved in everything about the club. A la one of his favourite coaches, Alex Ferguson.

So morning-to-night he's involved in meetings, charting out training sessions, working on tactics, developing short-term as well long-term plans. It's why he worked so closely with sporting director Karolis Skinkys and takes great pride in talking about how the Blasters have a full set-up now: first squad, B team, u19, u17, u15. "Like in school," he says, "you start in [1st standard] right? Not PhD directly!"

He watches as many of the youth and reserve games as he can, and has just one tactical message he wants the age-group coaches to follow: be flexible, play young footballers in different positions, let them learn, adapt and evolve. The way Vukomanovic sees it, youth football isn't about winning trophies, it's about developing players who can seamlessly step into senior teams.

All this is in addition to the massive commitments his commercial and media teams extract from him. For all intents and purposes, Vukomanovic is the Blasters, the Blasters are Vukomanovic.

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"You can kill me, I don't care. We're in the final!"

Vukomanovic connects with the fans on a base level because he so clearly remembers what it was to be one.

"Picture this," he says. "Semifinal of the European Cup. Bayern Munich vs Red Star. In Belgrade, 200km from my house. I was 14 years old. I had to be there!"

Growing up he had been the lone Red Star fan in a family of Partizan Belgrade supporters. He was going to get no backing for this plan. "My mother told me, 'Are you crazy? Don't do it! I will kill you!'. Now you must know that the only thing I knew about Belgrade - I'd never been - was how to land at the railway station and take the tram to my aunt's house."

"So, that morning, I acted like everything's normal, packed my books and said 'Ok, mama, I'm going to school.' Then I ran to get the train, it left at 20 past six in the morning."

"I didn't even have a ticket for the game! I thought I'll get there and then worry about all this. I arrived at around 9-10 and since my aunt had gone to work, I waited till 3. She came and said 'What are you doing here!' but since I was already there, she took me to the stadium, where I met a friend from school and his father and we got tickets somehow."

"That's how I witnessed the legendary semi, with the Red Star equaliser in the 92nd minute. I travelled back home with my friend, and my mother was beating the hell out of me, but I said 'I don't care, now you can kill me, we are in the final!'"

That kerri vaa da makkale exhortation from before the final in Goa? That was no PR stunt. It came from the heart, because he had lived it.

It's this genuineness that speaks so loudly to the fans. It's why they flocked to Goa. It's why they flocked to the airport in August. It's why Kochi will be decked in yellow come October 7.

For now, he is excited to show the fans what his new signings can do, how the retained core of his squad have improved, "We will have something new, that's why football is beautiful, no? I'm really optimistic, I think the consistently of our work [will pay off], we will show good things, and let's hope for the best."