Who are the Kerala Blasters? The what is clear -- a football team, of course, but the who? Not so much. The Indian Super League's (ISL) most popular team since inception, (yes, yes, they have some wise old competition now for that tag), they have found establishing an identity on the pitch an impossible task.
It doesn't help that they don't do patience. In the past six years, they've had nine different managerial changes. They've had Englishmen, Dutchmen, an Irishman and a Portuguese fella in charge. They've tried long-ball, catenaccio, Dutch free-flow and everything in between. They've asked David James to manage them. Twice. This is not as much a manager merry-ground as footballing bumper-cars, the place where philosophies, tactics and man-management come to smash into each other and just have a fun time. A proper mishmash -- what in traditional Kerala cuisine they call an avial (Google the recipe if you don't know; it's well worth the try).
Into this nowhere-near-as-tasty-as-avial mess steps Kibu Vicuna.
Vicuna is Spanish, and with that passport comes the hype -- pass, pass, pass, goal, win. No more "Chip the ball to the strikers, chest, and we take it from there," Dimitar. It's baggage. Except it doesn't weigh Vicuna down. The man's not just hype.
Last season, he passed and sliced and diced his way to the I-League crown with Mohun Bagan, the traditionally tightly contested competition obliterated. Bagan sealed it with four games to spare, a clear 16 point-gap between them and the next closest, East Bengal. They drew their first game of the season, lost their second and then didn't lose any. They scored more and conceded fewer than anyone else. They were near-perfect. Then, Vicuna's team dissolved into nothingness right under him. His players scattered to different teams across the nation, the club he led to glory merging with the ISL's defending champions.
So, he steps into the league's toughest job-to-keep with a point to prove. And that is, inarguably, the Blasters' greatest strength going into the campaign.
Around Vicuna, they've made changes. CEO Viren D'Silva has gone, with there now being a clear delineation between the football and non-football side of things. To head the former, they've hired Lithuanian Karolis Skinkys as Sporting Director. Much like his coach, Skinkys comes with a track record. He started at local club FK Suduva as a spokesperson before rising to sporting director -- with him in that post, they won their first A Lyga title in 2017, and then twice more the following seasons.
For now, Skinkys and Vicuna seem to be on the same page, and their recruitment appears top-notch. Vicuna had stated earlier that his priority would be to fix the league's third worst defence and that meant bringing in quality. Bakary Kone, a veteran of Burkina Faso and formerly of Lyon, and Costa Nhamoinesu, fresh out of seven years at Sparta Prague (the first African to captain the side), come in to provide calm heads and experience. Across state borders comes Nishu Kumar, one of Bengaluru FC's most consistent performers, uber-reliable on both flanks. They will miss their cult hero -- Sandesh Jhingan -- but nowhere near as much as they did last season. The beard has left for good, but he hasn't taken the Blasters defence with him.
In front of this revamped defensive line steps Vicente Gomez, a Spanish defensive midfielder, an old hand, one of eight seasons at Las Palmas and two at Deportivo La Coruna. He's poised to be Vicuna's on-field general. Vicuna has brought Nongdamba Naorem with him from Bagan, the exciting 20-year-old so pivotal to his attacking game plan last season.
Up top it's even more exciting, Argentine Facundo Pereyra and Australian Jordan Murray coming to support the club's absolute A-list signing of the season, Gary Hooper. His record of 143 goals and 55 assists in 322 games in the past decade across Celtic (oh bhoy, Celtic!), Norwich City, Sheffield Wednesday, and the Wellington Phoenix speaks for itself. If the Englishman gets off to a quick start, the hole that was left by the departure of last season's captain, top-scorer, and talisman Bart Ogbeche suddenly starts looking not so much a hole as a mere memory of one.
This, then, promises to be a season of sweeping change. A single transfer window's work of 24 departures and 19 arrivals tells its own tale. One thing, though, hasn't changed. Sahal Abdul Samad and everything that goes with that name.
Just as Blasters stepped into a footballing void in the state six years ago, so did Samad when he burst onto the scene a couple of seasons back. This lad was going to be their one true A-grade superstar. Last season, though, he played more than an hour's football just six times. In 18 matches, he played the full 90 just twice. He started on the bench in half of them. And every time he came off the bench, the roar that accompanied his entry onto the pitch was as loud as any of the 29 goals the teams scored. The Blasters yearn for his success.
Eelco Schattorie was going to be the man who drew the throwback trequartista's full potential out of him. It is now Vicuna's challenge. It's one of those nagging knots you feel lies at the root of solving the entire puzzle. Unlock Sahal, unleash the Blasters.
And so in a unique season, one in which football is being played as a beacon of hope that normality will once again visit us in our daily lives, the Blasters fans will be clinging onto their own unique hopes. Hope that their management will show patience with one approach. Hope that their manager's winning momentum will carry over. Hope that Hooper will hit the ground running. Hope that Samad will do all that Samad can do. Hope that they will be supporting a team that doesn't leave them hanging at the end of it all. Hope that come season-end, the league will know who the Kerala Blasters are.