Khalid Jamil is the new head coach of FC Bengaluru United. You'd be forgiven if, for a minute, you read that as Bengaluru FC. Sure, FC Bengaluru United (FCBU) are an up-and-coming football team who seem to be doing many things right. They were founded in 2018 and became Karnataka state champions last year. There's a lot of promise there.
Thing is, though, they will be playing the 2022-23 season in I-League 2, the third division of Indian football. Meanwhile, Jamil is... well, an undisputed heavyweight.
He'd earned the right to be at the very top by simply doing things no other Indian has done in recent times. He worked a miracle when he led tiny Aizawl FC and a bunch of unheralded names to national glory. He remains the only Indian coach to be appointed permanent head coach of an ISL side, ever; a job landed after transforming NorthEast United in half-a-season as interim head coach the year before.
At the time of the appointment, his career seemed to be on an unstoppable upward trajectory. Then last season happened. NorthEast crumbled. Much hyped before a ball was kicked, their campaign was a non-starter and the stats are pretty damning. They finished tenth out of 11 teams with 14 points in 20 games. They scored just 25 goals and conceded a whopping 43 (worst in the league).
Whatever else you could say about his sides, they were always fighters and were always organised off-the-ball. 2021-22's NorthEast United were neither. It must have hurt that much more.
In a bare-all interview with the Telegraph he would say differences with the sporting director and big-name foreigners were at the root of it.
Hence, FCBU, and what feels like a start from scratch.
He's never played or coached in anything below the first division of Indian football, but Jamil doesn't see it as a step down. "A job is a job, whether you work in any team. It's the same thing, it's all football no," he says. For him, it's a "new challenge" and his primary target, "taking FCBU up".
"It's a new job. I never think about the past," says Jamil. He's shown that in the past -- when his career suffered its only period of mediocrity prior to the last campaign (a season with East Bengal and half of one with Mohun Bagan), he bounced back rather quickly.
He enters an environment far removed from the stability (relatively) of the top two divisions. For the last two seasons, I-League 2 has not happened, being replaced with a short knockout tournament called the I-League qualifiers. This time the Federation's preparing a home-and-away season to run in parallel with the I-League. "Yes, [I-League 2] is unpredictable, but that we have to manage, because we're here to solve the problems."
- FC Bengaluru United (@bengaluruunited) May 30, 2022
And there are a fair few problems to solve. The biggest challenge, he says, will be getting players. "We have to make the players agree to come here. This may be second division but we want players who are willing to perform for themselves and for the club. We must start with local players, because this is Bengaluru, for Bengaluru people."
He is also in a unique situation, one he has rarely faced in his career. FCBU and Khalid are both big fish in the small pond. A man who essentially walks around with a sling in the off chance a Goliath walks past; is now the tallest giant of them all, and everybody else will be polishing their stones. He needs to win here, promotion the only real option.
More importantly, you get the sense too that this stint could hold deeper significance for Indian football. For so long Jamil has been the beacon for Indian coaches at the highest levels. He's the one that's been there, done that. And the one that was still doing it. Indian coaches appear as far away from leading an ISL team as they ever have. Even the top-half of the I-League has been foreign-coach-heavy for years now. With Indian coaches trying to prove that they are worth taking a shot on, Jamil's trajectory means that much more.
For Jamil, though, the only thing that matters is 'today'. As it always has.
"I am thinking about the season, I never think about the next. I think about today... and once it's tomorrow, the same thing."