Perhaps the most telling aspect of Hayderabd FC and his winning campaign was how he injected himself with confidence whenever the situation called for it.
Heading into the 2020-21 Indian Super League (ISL) season, Hyderabad FC (HFC) looked like a team on the boil. They had been founded a year ago and had collapsed to a lower finish on first request. They tried to install Albert Roca at the helm, hoping the Spaniard, as he did at Bengaluru FC, would take them to the promised land. That, however, fell flat once FC Barcelona and Ronald Koeman called.
At the time, Manolo Marquez, who had built a decent reputation for nurturing youngsters, was seen as a provisional signing. His earlier work in Spain demanded recognition. Still, it wasn’t the kind of statement acquisition that made the rest of ISL sit up and take notice.
As this season progressed, Hyderabad FC started to leave their mark. Not just because they began to string together wins and positive results, but because they relied, for much of this season, on an Indian core – a core that many felt was insufficient to compete on a regular basis.
So, ahead of the 2021-22 season, there was a lot of intrigue surrounding Hyderabad FC. They retained most of these players (aside from the notable departure of Liston Colaco) and ensured some sort of continuity.
They brought in some stellar foreign footballers but the focus, just like in the last campaign, was on how their Indian players would fare. What if they could punch above their weight and help Hyderabad FC carve their name into Indian football folklore.
Cut to nearly nine months later. Outside a packed Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Fatorda, Hyderabad FC found themselves in all sorts of conflict. The Kerala Blasters came out of the traps and seemed determined to grab the final by the scruff of their necks.
To some degree, Hyderabad FC also started to feel the pinch, especially when the Blasters brought them under control and made the HFC wonder if their approach was sustainable under the pressure of a final. For much of the last two seasons, Marquez’s men have relied on keeping the ball and recycling it. The Blasters, however, didn’t allow them that luxury.
Under these circumstances, considering it was the biggest game in the club’s fledgling history, it would have been very easy for them to fall apart. In the first coffee break, they only had around 33% possession and had a passing accuracy percentage of just over 50%.
Bartholomew Ogbeche, often their guardian angel, was kept quiet by Marko Leskovic and Ruivah Hormipam. And Joel Chianese, one of their most creative sparks, was paralyzed (literally).
Still, they found a way to enter the tunnel without any damage. At times they hung on and they would have looked over their shoulder very nervously when Alvaro Vazquez thundered the crossbar. But they returned to their locker room relatively unscathed – while believing their time would come.
It didn’t come instantly. It happened after 120 minutes of stop-start, messy and jittery football. However, it never seemed like they lost faith in themselves. Each of them knew what their teammates were capable of, and more importantly, each knew that their philosophy, which revolves around faith, belief and courage, would work just fine.
To speak only of Hyderabad FC’s heroism in the penalty shootout against Kerala Blasters would be a bit unfair. Not because it wasn’t the most aesthetically pleasing penalty shoot-out ever in ISL history, but because HFC’s season was more than they achieved when the decisive moments have arrived.
Over the years, teams have been content to prioritize their complement of foreign players. It worked for them too, which means other clubs have caught up and adopted this type of strategy. Hyderabad FC, however, have remained determined to want a young and vibrant core of Indian footballers – a core that has only gone from strength to strength this season alongside outstanding overseas talent.
On many occasions, things weren’t rosy for the Indian players of Hyderabad FC. They were put to the sword and there were days when they couldn’t muster enough passes to confuse the opposition. Yet they have almost always believed in these situations. The stats might suggest Ogbeche got them out of trouble more often. But Hyderabad FC, even by the striker’s own admission, were much more than that.
On the contrary, they were such a well-trained team collectively that it allowed their marquee players to shine. This might not make sense to many people and might even seem paradoxical, especially to those who haven’t watched Hyderabad FC play.
But their moves, which joined those of Ogbeche, Chianese and Javier Siverio, were the mark of a side that knew exactly what they wanted to get into.
Prior to the final, 16 different players (including 10 different Indians) had provided the club with an assist – a tally no one else could match. And, on the big occasion, Sahil Tavora, long considered a fringe player, and Laxmikant Kattimani – a keeper who hasn’t painted many solid images between the sticks, stood up.
There’s a lot to admire about Hyderabad FC – be it the conviction they showed last season and the determination they showed this season by going all the way. Perhaps the most telling aspect, however, was how they injected faith into each other whenever the situation called for it.
By the way, it’s very difficult for a team that was only founded in 2019-20 and doesn’t have a rich history to draw inspiration from. On the contrary, their first memory of the ISL, which resulted in a disastrous last place, should have acted as an obstacle.
Instead, they used it as an ideal launching pad. They understood early on what it took to crack the ISL code. They weren’t tempted by knee-jerk reactions when it didn’t work the first time and rather than getting carried away, they came back with greater determination – the determination they can, true to their belief, cause ripple in the ISL.
That particular facet came through in a finale designed to push them to the brink and maybe over. There were patches where they could have undermined all the qualities they enjoyed. They could have just sabotaged the ball in the field, they could have hit and hoped and they could have also made numbers. But they didn’t.
Like all great teams, they recognized when things didn’t line up in their favor – while maintaining the conviction, grit and faith that have been at the heart of their recovery over the past two seasons. The struggle was very real, make no mistake.
When they missed out on qualifying in 2020-21, they were ridiculed and many even said they couldn’t reach the heights they wanted because they were too inexperienced. But what doesn’t completely destroy you only makes you stronger. And Hyderabad FC has been emblematic of this this season.
They sowed the seeds of their success last time out and had the courage to reap the rewards in 2021-22. It shouldn’t be that way – at least that’s what the ISL precedent taught us. But Hyderabad FC did. And that, more than anything else, sums up how special this season was and how much their story of faith, conviction and courage will be remembered.