I-League winning coach Khalid Jamil was on Wednesday unveiled as the new coach of East Bengal, with reports of his contract being worth Rs 1.25 crore (about $200,000) in yearly wages making him among the highest-earning Indian coaches in domestic football.
Jamil, who guided Aizawl FC to the first national league crown for a team from the north-east, goes to Kolkata for the first time as player and coach. And while it would have been normal for him to have moved to a bigger club had the disruption of the Indian Super League (ISL) and its possible elevation to the top division of Indian football not happened, his decision to join one of the big Kolkata clubs comes at a time when the future of the I-League itself seems uncertain.
It is quite possible that some ISL clubs too approached Jamil to secure his services soon after Aizawl's fairy-tale run to the I-League title. But on the whole the ISL has not been open to fielding an Indian as the top person in management just yet.
Right from the first season, it has been common to see the likes of Vivek Nagul, Raman Vijayan and Syed Sabir Pasha -- all with some coaching experience within Indian football -- sit in dugouts of ISL teams alongside more illustrious names. This coming season will also see an Indian coach as accomplished as Derrick Pereira assist Spain's Sergio Lobera Rodriguez at FC Goa. In a world where marquee names are secondary to pure expertise as coach, a lot of these roles could have been inverted, but that wouldn't have made sense under the ISL's business model -- especially in the league's first few seasons.
It is a shame because the I-League, as well as the National Football League as it used to be called, has seen some interesting battles between Indian and foreign coaches. From 1996 to 2008, several coaches boasting of impressive resumes pitted their wits against Indian coaches, but were unable to win the top prize in Indian football. That sequence was finally broken by the underrated Zoran Djordjevic of Churchill Brothers in 2009 and then only matched by Karim Bencherifa with Salgaocar, before Ashley Westwood picked up two titles with Bengaluru FC.
Had ISL franchises taken a punt with Indian coaches it would have made for a fascinating comparison between the football philosophies at home and abroad. With the ISL set to have longer seasons, perhaps the franchises will be open to employing Indians in the role of the head coach in the future.
For now though, it will be interesting to see how Jamil -- with his proven ability to work wonders with low-budget teams -- adapts to the heady cocktail of East Bengal's history, the club's inherent glamour, expectations of a hysterical fan base and the fickle nature of Kolkata club officials that his new two-year appointment promises to serve up in the coming season.
Irrespective of which division they end up playing in, the East Bengal dugout will be a place of great interest when the domestic season begins. And let's not forget that technically Jamil's job begins with the defence of the Calcutta Football League over the monsoon.