Kerala Blasters coach Ivan Vukomanovic plays on passion but walkoff is a step too far

The cheers started the moment they saw him. As it always has. Around 10.50 PM on a warm Bengaluru Friday night, Ivan Vukomanovic stepped out of the bowels of the Kanteerava stadium and strode the twenty odd paces to the team bus waiting just outside. There had been several hundred fans in yellow already gathered at that particular gate, both inside and outside the perimeter fence, and they had been loudly chanting ‘Blasters! Blasters!’ as one-by-one their team walked out. When they saw Vukomanovic, though, the place lifted. “Ivaaaaaan! Ivaaaaan! Ivaaaaaan!'”‘ they cried incessantly. Once seated, Vukomanovic responded with a trademark raised fist, a thumbs up, and a determined non-smile.”Ivaaaaaan! Ivaaaaan! Ivaaaaan!”

Remarkable support for a team that had lost a crucial eliminator to an arch rival. The loyalty of the fanbase to the man they call Aashaan (Master) in full show.

What throws this vocal backing of the coach into sharp relief, though, is what happened on the pitch just a few minutes previously — Vukomanovic had led his team in an astounding show of revolt, an act we almost never see at any level of sport, let alone elite.

You’ve probably caught up by now: The quickly taken Sunil Chhetri free-kick. The rage that followed. The unprecedented walkout. Bengaluru FC sitting on the Kanteerava grass for the last 20 minutes of the game, wondering, like everyone else: ‘what the hell is happening here?’

When the Chhetri goal went in minute 96, Vukomanovic had gotten to his feet immediately. He had stood on the touchline for a moment, arms spread wide, eyes bulging; the body language of a man who cannot believe what he was seeing, and not in a nice way. When the referee confirmed the goal was going to stand, he strode onto the pitch, waving his arms above his head. ‘This is not done’ he appeared to be saying. ‘This is not done and we are not standing for it.’

Somewhere in the background, his captain-on-field Adrian Luna had already taken the ball to the centre-circle. Head down, arms on hips, grumbling under his breath, he had been standing over it, ready to kickoff and chase an eminently chase-able game.

Vukomanovic, though, had been adamant. ‘This is not done and we are not standing for it.’ They trudged off toward the tunnel, the players haranguing the referees, Vukomanovic simply striding away from it all, calling his men with him. Jeered by the home support and cheered loudly by the away fans, they waited at the entrance to the tunnel for five-odd minutes before taking the final decisive action of the night, and walking back into the dressing room.

It was an incredible sight.

Since his arrival, the Blasters have always been a team that fed off his emotion. The playing squad, the coaching staff, the fans, the social media channels… even the commercial partners: they were all spellbound by Ivanism, as they call it.

When he had taken over last season, the Blasters had been a roving circus act that consistently underperformed. He had taken them to the final, making the state fall in love with their club all over again. With the season played out in Goa, he had brought them all out onto the streets for the semifinals, lakhs attending screenings across the 14 districts. He had then asked them to come to Goa for the final, and they had listened, in the tens of thousands. The state was head over heels; for the team, the players, but most of all for him.

When he had arrived for pre-season this time, he had been mobbed by fans at the airport, a reception more raucous than what any player got. From the first match, till this last one, his name was chanted louder than anyone’s, his mere presence lifting entire stadiums.

Vukomanovic connected with them on a level no manager previously had. He talked a big game off the pitch, and his players backed him all the way on it. They ran till they dropped. They chased lost causes. They scored goals. They defended as a unit. They played with carefree abandon; quick one-touch football that spoke directly to your adrenal gland. They fought tooth and nail, as the fans in stands the world over always believe their players should, for the honour of the badge.

As heavily emotional as he is, though, Vukomanovic had always kept a cool head. It was that balance of passion and cold calculation that worked so well for his team on the field. At the start of last season, when Blasters seemed to be struggling to get their act together, he never once raised his voice in uncontrolled anger in training. When they went on a poor run toward the end of this season, it was the same. It’s the kind of attitude that commands unquestioning loyalty.

On the touchline, Vukomanovic has always been animated; constantly speaking to referees and constantly egging his players on. But the last time he stepped onto a pitch mid-game had been to calm his young star Rahul KP down in a match earlier this season, to hold his head in hands and to tell him something on the lines of, ‘play with your heart on the sleeve, but think before acting.’

Which is why this reaction we saw on Friday night felt strangely out of character. As bad as he thought the decision had been, as little trust as he may have had in the officials, surely he had known this was a lose-lose option? His team had been playing better and better as the match progressed and by extra-time had taken almost total command of the game. The Chhetri goal had come against the run of play and there were still twenty plus minutes left to get back into the match. He had always maintained that win or lose, his team would always fight and that’s what they always did. But, what happened on Friday?

After the game, he didn’t come out for the standard post-match press conference, he didn’t speak to the television, and he smiled and waved and walked past when asked for a word in the mixed zone. We still don’t know what he was thinking.

Kerala Blasters have not released a statement, and neither have the league. They both find themselves in a hard place.

Will the Blasters take any action against the man most loved within their establishment? A man who appears to have the full backing of fans (whether they agree or not with his decision), a man who has come to embody the Blasters?

How will the league react to this? It would appear they don’t have much choice – if every manager decides walking off is the answer to a contentious call, we will probably never see the end of any match. So what kind of punishment will they deem exemplary enough?

As the dust settles on the drama, these questions hang heavy in the air, overshadowing everything else. Much like we were wondering last night, all anyone can think of right now is ‘what will happen now?’

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