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Blasters and Vukomanovic paying the price for an emotional decision

Kerala Blasters FC players walking off the field during the Indian Super League match against Bengaluru FC.

Kerala Blasters FC players walking off the field during the Indian Super League match against Bengaluru FC.
| Photo Credit: File photo: MURALI KUMAR K

In one of the most controversial frames captured in Indian football, an otherwise calm and professional Ivan Vukomanovic, Kerala Blasters FC’s coach, was seen gesturing to his players to walk off the pitch at the Kanteerava Stadium in Bengaluru.

The issue was he was not in agreement with referee Crystal John awarding Bengaluru FC’s Sunil Chhetri a quick-freekick goal against his side in last season’s contest. BFC was awarded the match 3-0, but the repercussions for Blasters was far from just a loss to its fiercest rival in the ISL knockout joust.

As American writer Sean Covey once said, “We are free to choose our paths, but we can’t choose the consequences that come with them.”

Tough times

And this has been true for Kerala Blasters and its gaffer Vukomanovic as both parties have gone through some tough times since the forfeit on March 3 this year.

After one of the most infamous moments in Indian football, AIFF, on March 31, penalised Vukomanovic with a 10-match ban from AIFF tournaments along with a ₹5 lakh fine under Article 9.1.2 of the AIFF disciplinary code.

Apart from this, the club was asked to pay a fine of ₹4 crore and issue a public apology, failing which would have seen the amount increased to ₹6 crore. And, the club had to comply. On April 2, Kerala Blasters issued a statement on its social media platforms regretting the incident.

However, the damage was already done, and to make matters worse, the heavy punches were yet to land on the side that was already backed to a corner by its own deeds.

The ISL is still in its infancy stage, even though the tournament is 10-years-old now, and most of the clubs find it tough to make two ends meet. It is no surprise that finances took a hit on Blasters’ plans for the next season. The miseries compounded as AIFF rejected KBFC’s appeal on June 2.

The club from the ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’, had its ship sinking and had to do something drastic to keep afloat. The captain’s decision backfired, with severe consequences. However, Blasters could not afford to sack the driving force behind the club’s resurgence in the league. Vukomanovic was the leader of the masses and had the support of the club’s dedicated fans, also known as Manjappada.

Australian writer Lauren Eden once said, “Sometimes we are just the collateral damage in someone else’s war against themselves.”

And this came true for the women’s team of Blasters when the club decided to temporarily shut down the side just four days after the AIFF rejected its appeal on the fine and the ban.

“It is with a heavy heart that we must announce the temporary pause of our women’s team. This decision has been necessitated by the recent financial sanctions imposed on our club by the football federation. While we respect the authority and decisions of the federation, we cannot deny our disappointment at the impact it is likely to have across various functions of our club,” the club posted on various social media platforms.

The club then decided to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) as well and a decision is awaited.

Strategic calls

The club now had to make strategic calls while bringing in new players — which is what Blasters’ Sporting Director Karolis Skinkys is known for as well — for the season and the Manjappada had begun voicing their concerns.

However, Nikhil Bhardwaj, the club’s Director of Operations, assured that there was no need for the fans to worry. “I see many people panicking and worrying about the departures versus arrivals, relax. Every such decision is approved by the coach and SD. We will be stronger, we will be better,” he posted on X.

Given the hand it dealt itself after last season’s unceremonious exit, the Kerala outfit has done quite well in the preparation leading to this year’s ISL. Despite losing its talismanic midfielder Sahal Abdul Samad to Mohun Bagan Super Giant in the transfer window, the team roped in some Indian talent to strengthen the squad.

The signings of Prabir Das, Pritam Kotal and Aibanbha Dohling to shore up the defence and striker Ishan Pandita to rack up the goals will exude confidence in the die-hard fans from the tropical state of Kerala.

The Yellow Army and the West Block Blues will be up against each other on Thursday at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium, Kaloor, to revive their famed rivalry as the 10th season of the league begins. Vukomanovic will not be on the sidelines donning his ironed-and-tucked-in white shirt, as the 10-match ban is still on.

Only time will tell if Blasters’ plans for this season will come off after one of the most contentious calls by a coach in Indian football last year.

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