AIFF Media Team
NEW DELHI: On the night of July 4, 2023, when everyone at Bengaluru’s Sree Kanteerava Stadium was revelling in India’s ninth SAFF Championship triumph, standing almost unnoticed in a corner of the pitch was a man wearing a proud yet shy smile on his face. It was hard to believe that he was Mahesh Gawali, India’s Assistant Coach and the Head Coach on the bench in the final; the man who played a significant role in steering India to the title in a difficult encounter against Kuwait.
Gawali, 42, is one of the most respected names in Indian football. He has made an indelible mark on the sport both as a player and a coach. His journey from a talented young footballer to one of India’s finest defenders and finally an influential coach has been a remarkable one.
As a classy centre-back, Mahesh was the backbone of India’s defence for more than a decade. In between, he won the SAFF Championships title twice in 2005 and 2011 in Karachi and New Delhi, respectively. The gold medal he earned on July 4 was actually his third in the SAFF, and the first in his new role as a coach.
In an exclusive chat with www.the-aiff.com, Gawali shared his experience of winning three international titles as an assistant coach of the Senior National Team, the way he handled the added responsibility from the touchline in the semi-final and final of the SAFF, the inner strength of the team and much more.
Question: Winning the SAFF Championship as a player in Karachi and Delhi and then as a coach in Bengaluru. Which assignment was more difficult? What are your feelings?
Mahesh Gawali: Winning the title as a player, that, too, as a coach, was difficult, for sure. But now many things in SAFF have changed. Previously, only South Asian regional teams played in the SAFF. But now other teams like Lebanon and Kuwait are also participating. Yes, the team we had in Karachi had some gifted players and we faced good competition and qualities. It was a wonderful experience. Syed Nayeemuddin was our coach and his caring nature was too good. He took care of everybody in the team and there was a different type of motivation all around.
Q: Was there anything in Syed Nayeemuddin that inspired you as a coach when you took up the present assignment?
MG: Yes, certainly. When Nayeem saab was the coach, he used to motivate us daily. There was a phase in my life when I decided to stop playing football but he brought me back to the game. It was the turning point of my career and I achieved a lot thereafter. To be honest, it was he, who taught me never to give up. Now, I tell the youngsters to keep going. Don’t stop, it will make you a better player for sure, I tell them now.
Q: The AFC Asian Cup is knocking on the door, so what gives you hope for this team and why?
MG: Honestly, I have a lot of faith in the way this team is playing. Everyone is showing the right attitude on and off the pitch. It has surely raised its bar considerably higher now. I feel that when we play Australia also, it will be very difficult for them to beat us. I have this feeling because my confidence level has grown, which was not as much when I entered the senior team last year. At present, things are different. So, if we continue working the way we are now, it will be very good for each of us.
Q: What are the changes you are talking about?
MG: Like in the SAFF final, everyone understood that they had to bear a lot of responsibilities and they performed well. In the dressing room, when I was leading the team, the environment was different. They were talking and discussing how they needed to cope with the situation. And the understanding, love, care, and attitude the players had amongst themselves were tremendous.
Q: In the SAFF final, when Kuwait scored first, it was after a long time we found India trailing in a match at home. Did you panic?
MG: No, I never had that feeling. Sometimes when you are trailing, it comes to your mind “Kya ho raha hai?”, which is funny. But this time it did not come to my mind at all. I thought I was pretty much stronger than before because I knew that something was coming because I could see my players wanted to do something. I just told them to force themselves and press higher. I strongly believed that we will come back and score.
Q: You have worked with many foreign coaches before. So what is extraordinary about Igor Stimac?
MG: Igor is a very intelligent coach. He understands each one of his players. He taught them to build up from the start. He told the players that if there is any pressure, they need to do the build-up, which will give them confidence. The process surely takes time, it is not something that can happen in one day. If we notice, we rarely kick the ball up these days. Igor truly believes in individual creativity.
Q: What did you tell the boys at the half time of the SAFF final when you were in charge in the absence of Stimac?
MG: I told them ‘It is our trophy’ and it shouldn’t go anywhere. I was just pushing them. After all, it was my job. I needed to create that pressure because, at the end of the day, it was our trophy and the nation’s trophy. I told them not to forget this fact.
Q: As a player, you had so much success. Are you enjoying your success as a coach, too?
MG: I don’t want to leave football and I want to be in this game as much as I can. Because I love the game and I’m enjoying all the moments. Yes, sometimes there are ups and downs. But you need to be more dedicated, work hard and stay mentally strong.
Q: Players are now having an off-season. Are you also relaxing at home or have started working on your next plans?
MG: Well, we need to start working immediately from the next day itself because we know there’s a bigger task on our hands. The performance, fitness and all other necessary information of a player need to be kept. We should have the next plan ready at least two months in advance.
Q: As a footballer, you possessed the amazing ability to make front tackles. Are you trying to inject the same into your centre-backs?
MG: Well, it’s a difficult skill. You have to have a really strong mentality and a strong reading power to intercept the move. You have to analyse the passer and be focused on the receiver. If you miss it, then you are out and the opponent gets a clear view of the goal. Yes, I am trying to do the same with Anwar Ali. He tends to come and do the move at the training, but it takes a lot of practice, for sure.
Q: As a player, you had Sunil Chhetri as your teammate and a junior. And now you are his coach. How is the journey?
MG: When he first came to the National Team, Sunil was not always in the starting eleven. But I found him someone, who was ready to give everything to be in the starting line-up. Slowly he started getting goals and became very strong as a player. His dedication and motivation level is still very high. He doesn't give up. Sunil is a thorough professional, and very disciplined in terms of his food, rest and in every aspect of life. This is what is helping him to grow better and become stronger. Every youngster should learn from him. He is focussed, dedicated, gives his hundred percent and most importantly, he never says “I can't”.