“We are building a squad that our fans can be proud of” – Carles Cuadrat on our takeaways from the 2023-24 season and the road ahead

31 May 2024, Kolkata: The winds of change were palpable from the moment Carles Cuadrat, along with his deputy Dimas Delgado, stepped out of the Kolkata Airport on 24 July 2023. More than five-hundred East Bengal supporters turned the scene into a red-and-gold spectacle, hours before the scheduled arrival of the club’s new coaches. The time you ask? 3 AM!

As soon as the red-and-gold faithful caught a glimpse of their new ‘Professor’ wearing a confident smile, they filled the airport with chants of “Carles Cuadrat – Egiye Cholo/Amra Achhi Tomar Sathe” [O Carles Cuadrat, you lead the charge/We are right beside you”] , waving their flags and scarves with thunderous applause. That moment itself set the tone for the rest of the season, a season that witnessed more highs than lows.

As they say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. The process of rebuilding the team and laying a new set of bricks had begun with Cuadrat’s appointment in April last year. The club’s proverbial ‘Never say die’ spirit was revived as the players gave their all for the badge throughout the season, starting with the Durand Cup. Despite settling for silver after a dominant display in the final, the team instilled the hope that the twelve-year trophy drought would end soon. And it did only four months later as they clinched the Kalinga Super Cup after a pulsating final against Odisha FC, thus returning to the Asian stage after a nine-year hiatus.

Having tasted success in the country’s two major Cup competitions, Cuadrat’s team was hungry for success in the Indian Super League. Despite being one of the only two teams contending for the final playoff spot till their last league fixture, EBFC were unable to cross the final hurdle as they suffered a 1-4 defeat against Punjab FC in Delhi. In the process though, Cuadrat not only guided the team to its highest points tally (24), highest goals tally (27), highest cleansheets tally (7), biggest home win (5-0 against NorthEast United FC) and biggest away win (4-2 against Kerala Blasters FC) in the ISL, but also promoted twelve B team players, whom he has been closely monitoring from his frequent visits to last year’s CFL matches.

With the 2023-24 season coming to a close, Cuadrat sat down with the Emami East Bengal Media Team to discuss his major takeaways, the incredible fan support, the need to forge a stronger team for next season’s domestic and AFC competitions, and the road ahead.

1. When you joined Emami East Bengal FC at the start of the season, you said you wanted to make a difference. How do you look back at the statement now?

Cuadrat: I can see in the eyes of the fans who talk to me on the streets of Kolkata that we’ve regained the pride of being champions. Everyone truly believes that better things are in store for the club. We’ll participate in an Asian competition again. We have a quality staff and squad. Our U-17 and U-21 squads have been doing exceedingly well, winning championships and reaching finals. A two-year project allows you to put a lot of things in order within the club, and that is being achieved week after week. We are in a resurgent phase after many coaches came only for one season and left nothing for the future. If we all continue working in the same direction, the future will be quite bright for East Bengal.

2. You felt the immense passion of the fans from the moment you stepped out of the Kolkata Airport. As the Head Coach of such an iconic club, how do you manage to stay calm and deal with the pressure?

Cuadrat: I like challenges. I belong to a sporting culture that had to wait fourteen years for Johan Cruyff to win a tournament again. I’ve been a player of that culture, playing finals against Real Madrid, Athletic Bilbao and also with the Spanish National Team, from the age of fifteen to twenty. I’ve played European finals against Germany, France and several other top European nations. Later, I was also a coach at FC Barcelona. I’ve been trained to withstand pressure. Pressure motivates me and brings the best out of me in extreme circumstances. I think it was a wise move to take charge of Emami East Bengal – one of the best decisions I’ve made in my career.

3. There have been lots of positives throughout the season. What according to you are our biggest highlights?

Cuadrat: (There are) Two important factors in the implementation of a new project – (a) Obtain results, which we’ve done by reaching the finals of two of the three tournaments this season (Durand Cup and Kalinga Super Cup), and winning a title after twelve years. We’ve built a team structure that allows us to be competitive against any rival, to be able to fight for points until the referee blows the final whistle. In that sense, East Bengal conceded many goals in the recent past, with results going against us. Scorelines like 5-6 and 4-6 clearly indicate that there was much disorder. (b) We’ve created a team that has won almost half of the official matches we’ve played this season (14 out of 33). Moreover, we’ve scored more goals than we’ve conceded this season, something that has not happened in the recent years. It’s just the beginning of building a more consistent team that can beat anyone.

4. You are generally very calm and unfazed by pressure. But did you have a sleepless night before the Kalinga Super Cup final?

Cuadrat: Ha ha ha (laughs)! I have sleepless nights after every game. I go into games with great intensity. Irrespective of the results, I analyze them the same night, watch the replays and analyze the data. The numbers indicate many things. We’ve won individual duels and second balls in most of the games. Did you know East Bengal made the least fouls in the ISL season after season? You can’t compete like that. You might get the Fairplay Award, but not at the cost of losing every duel and every half-half ball. After the first five ISL matches (1 draw, 1 win and 3 consecutive losses), where our opponents fouled more than us, I had a novel proposal for the players – If they didn’t win the foul contest (commit more fouls than the opponent, stop counterattacks, avoid dangerous situations and be more organized), they would have to pay for a team meal. The players understood the situation and have since committed more fouls than our opponents in twelve games. It is these small details that we professionals analyze. A lot of work happens behind the scenes that doesn’t reach the fans. This is an example of what you need to do to be competitive. It’s not just about having a good individual technique. Football is a complex sport and our staff analyze details that many people cannot imagine. This is the desired level. This is how you can win championships.

5. Be it defeating MBSG in a derby after four years or beating Odisha FC at their home in the Kalinga Super Cup final, the team has stepped up in crunch situations. What do you tell the players before such big-ticket games?

Cuadrat: It’s important to make the players realize that they belong to a different club than the rest. Millions of fans support this club with all their hearts and passion. This is a club with a storied legacy that has stood the test of time. There are players and coaches who are remembered even forty years after leaving the club. Every big game is a chance for glory. East Bengal is the only team to beat Odisha FC at their home turf this season. Moreover, we did it in a final. After trailing 0-1 in the first half, I made two risky changes, pulling out Mandar and Siverio. In the coming days, we’ll all cherish the triumph as a special achievement. Going to the opponent’s den and winning the trophy is something that has a lot of value. The players showed that they understand the weight of the crest and gave their best for the fans that traveled all the way from Kolkata. Eventually, their screams and chants overrode those of the local fans. That’s what I try to convey to the players – They can make special memories for our fans every time they don the red-and-gold jersey.

6. Is the post-Kalinga Super Cup celebration the most memorable moment of your career so far?

Cuadrat: I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of two memorable celebrations in Indian football – Bengaluru FC’s only ISL title and East Bengal’s Kalinga Super Cup triumph, which ended our 12-year trophy drought at the top-flight level. The second celebration was perhaps more emotional because I saw many more tears of joy in the eyes of the citizens of Kolkata than those of Bengaluru. BFC is a young institution which had become accustomed to success because at that time they won a title every season. It’s true that the ISL is the most important trophy in BFC’s cabinet, but at that time, it was a “six in six club”, winning I-League and Federation Cup titles regularly. We had a great celebration in Mumbai after that ISL triumph, but when we returned from Odisha with the Kalinga Super Cup in January, the East Bengal fans were on cloud nine! Thousands of people received us at the Kolkata airport and we had to navigate three hours of traffic en route to the club ground as the fans accompanied our team bus on bikes. The bike rally was a sight to behold! Wherever you looked, you could only see bikes, red-and-gold shirts, red-and-gold flags and teary-eyed individuals. It will be an unforgettable experience. It reminded me of Barca’s first Champions League triumph in 1992 and other similar celebrations. It’s only possible with legendary fan-centric clubs like Barcelona and East Bengal. Let’s hope we’ll see more such celebrations in the days to come.

7. You worked very hard with the technical staff last season to onboard players like Nandhakumar, Prabhsukhan, Saul, Nishu and Hijazi, and later extend Mahesh’s contract. After a long time, East Bengal has a core team to build on. How much of a positive is this?

Cuadrat: Yes, you’re right! I remember Dimas and me meeting Mahesh many times at the start of the season. He got offers from various sources who told him that he would never win titles with East Bengal and that he should leave. But Mahesh believed in our project. The result? He won a trophy with us only four months after his extension. It’s important for people to believe in what you do, and we have many players who’ve been happy playing for us and achieving results. They’ve formed the foundation that will allow us to be more competitive next season. They understand our requirements, what we want tactically in a match, our set-piece plans, training methods etc. It’s important not to start from scratch. Last year, I convinced the Emami East Bengal management to bring my erstwhile support staff from Bengaluru FC plus Dimas as my assistant. We also managed to bring some players who know me since my BFC stint. Hence, we started working immediately, knowing what we wanted and were able to reach the Durand Cup final. With a core team on our hands, we’ll start the new season with an advantage and we must make good use of it.

8. You are known for nurturing young talent, which is evident at EBFC too, with the promotion of twelve B team players. What is your approach with the youngsters? How do you bring the best out of them? How much does your La Masia background help you in this?

Cuadrat: Yes, it’s a big aspect of my sports culture. La Masia helps you understand that young talents deserve opportunities. That said, the opportunities must come at the right time. I always enjoy supporting young players who work hard and can have good professional careers. It was under me that players like Roshan (Singh), Suresh (Wangjam), Nishu and Rahul (Bheke) made it to the National Team. And it was also under me that players like Sukhan, Gursimrat and Ajay (Chhetri) made their ISL debuts. We must understand that it’s a gradual process that must be practiced with caution, without exposing the youngsters too much because a bad experience can sink a player and spoil his future. I am very careful with that. Hence, I replaced Vishnu with Sayan in the Super Cup final. Things were happening on the pitch that could hamper his confidence in the following games. We protected him and the player understood it as well. Since then, he has become more mature in his decision-making with the ball and has even made it to the India U-23 team. I’m happy with what Sayan, Aman and Vishnu have given us this season, and I’m hopeful that they and the other youngsters can take their game to the next level. We’ll work on and off the field to make it possible.

9. We managed to keep our ISL playoff hopes alive till our very last league fixture. What are our takeaways from ISL 10 and what are the things we can do better next season?

Cuadrat: Yes, it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t achieve our target of reaching the playoffs. The team was very tired after beating Kerala Blasters and Bengaluru FC. We played three games in seven days, and I asked my players to give it their all against Punjab FC. But they could hold out only till the 70 th minute. We started the second half creating many chances, and if we managed to level the score at 2-2, we would surely have gained the courage and strength to finish the game better. We have to accept it and move on. That said, the calendar was very hard on us. We played only two official games each in October and November and all of a sudden, we faced a situation where we had to play seven ISL games in February. I don’t like excuses, but if your players are injured or suspended in those weeks, you’re going to pay dearly. That’s what happened to us. We hope the Indian football calendar will improve. I’ve worked with a lot of clubs across Europe, America and Asia. (We played) Five games in August (Durand Cup), five in January (Kalinga Super Cup) and seven in February (ISL). That means out of our 33 official matches across the season, we played more than half (17) in just three months! It’s not a logical system and our players paid for that at times.

10. Your message to the fans before we embark on the new season…

Cuadrat: I think all of us who love the club should be optimistic. We must all work in the same direction. A very exciting season awaits us as we’ll once again carry the club and the country’s name across Asia. Our club has returned to the international fold, and we are building a squad that our beloved fans can be proud of. I must also say that the multitude of messages I receive from the fans with player names are unnecessary because we know very well what we are building and we are professionals who know our jobs. The messages from the fans show how much they love the club and how much they care about our operations. All I can ask from them is to show faith in us as everyone is working to the best of their capacities. I only regret the tone of negativity in some fans who do not believe that we’ll be great again. As I told the media a few months ago in a press conference – “Alegria, Alegria!” Believe in our management. Believe in our work. Believe in our players. The foundation stones of the new East Bengal are being laid. We are working in the right direction.