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Bhowmick and the first family of Indian football
Churchill Alemao did not even bat an eyelid when he picked up the letter from the fax machine, read it patiently and then showed it its place: the dustbin. Hours before Churchill Brothers were set to take the field against Mohun Bagan earlier this week - in a match that gave them the I-League title for only the second time in their 25-year history - a small piece of paper had threatened to play spoilsport.
Joaquim Alemao, the club president and younger brother of team boss Churchill, had just faxed his resignation to the headquarters of the club in Varca, South Goa. Although it did create a flutter, as you would expect at a family-run club, all was back to normal in a flash.
It was not the first time that a family member had acted on impulse and washed his hands of the club. It wasn't for the first, or the last time, that a resignation letter was consigned to the dustbin. "In my one-year stay at the club, I must have resigned at least five times, " says technical director Subhash Bhowmick, adding, "Once I even booked my ticket to Kolkata but as I packed my bags for the morning flight, by midnight, I was persuaded to continue. " It worked, as Bhowmick, against the odds, guided Churchills to the title.
Bhowmick, the only coach to win the national football title with two different clubs, has seen enough in a 50-year association with Indian football, as player, coach and now technical director. He has witnessed the rivalry in Kolkata football, represented India at the highest level, won an Asian Games medal, but nothing had prepared him for life at Churchill Brothers, Asian football and probably the world's, only professional family-run club.
It's a club where four of the five brothers have an executive role. The daughter of the boss is the CEO, the son its patron, the nephew has held managerial charge for more than a decade, and every family member, including a five-year old, is a coach.
"It's crazy here, " says Bhowmick, before adding, "I had heard enough about Churchills' passion for football but what I had heard was nothing of what I eventually saw. I have never ever seen another family as passionate about football as the Alemaos. "
Bhowmick himself has been at the receiving end of the Alemaos' famous interference in team selections. As the team's technical director and largely because of his stature as India's most-respected figure, Bhowmick still calls the shots when it comes to team selection and changes. But at times, even he cannot escape the pressure - thanks to cell phones being allowed on the team bench - from the high command.
"Whenever Churchill calls for a substitution, I just close my eyes, swallow my pride and start thinking. Most times, it's the right call, " admits Bhowmick.
In the past, coaches, including those from foreign shores, have had starting lineups tucked into their pockets. Those who have resisted, Singaporean Vincent Subramaniam for example, left without notice, and others like Manuel Gomes - member of Portugal's coaching staff at the 2002 World Cup - forced out.
"Dad gets super angry at times. For those 90 minutes when a match is in progress, you just cannot make him see reason. He wants the best for his team, always, " said Valanka Alemao, Churchill"s daughter and now the team CEO. She also happens to be the first woman CEO of a football club in the subcontinent.
Valanka knows Churchill better than anybody else. She has grown, quite literally, with a football and footballers at her feet. Right from her childhood when footballers stayed at their Varca residence and her father took her along for club matches, the beautiful game has always remained a permanent fixture.
"Even at the table, the talk is always about football. It's all maddening at times but we all quite enjoy it, " said Valanka.
Valanka, a lawyer by profession, is the saner voice at the club and coaches like Bhowmick have had to call for her intervention whenever the senior Alemao has proven unreasonable. A word, first from nephews like Reagan, Warren, Frazer, Quillon, is sourced and if that doesn't work, son Savio or daughter Valanka step in. If still more support is needed, Alemao's wife Fatima, has the final word.
"I really do not know whether I will be here next season. I want to take this club to continental glory. I know this club can win the AFC Cup but a lot has to change, " says Bhowmick, who famously led East Bengal to the ASEAN Cup victory in 2003, India's only continental triumph at the club level.
"A lot, " by Bhowmick's assertion, means free hand in team matters and a professional set-up. In the past, Bhowmick has had his way with a dedicated training ground, sponsors and club house, but professionalism in a family-run club is like asking for the moon.
Bhowmick came to Churchills last year, along with Brazilian coach Carlos Perreira, when Portuguese coach Manuel Gomes left the club midway. The team was seventh but Churchill, as everyone knows, settles for nothing less than the title. Churchill finished third.
This time around, given a free hand to choose and develop the team he wanted, Bhowmick gave Churchill what he always craved for: the I-League title. "I always knew that we would be champions, " the technical director says. If he knew, he was probably the only one. For everyone else, this was a team of unknowns. Yet, when the crowning moment came, there was something almost childishly joyous as Alemao, a former chief minister of the state, hugged Bhowmick and broke into a dance.
Who could tell that just five minutes earlier, Bhowmick had fired the choicest of expletives while storming off the technical bench when he was stopped from making a crucial substitution, twice, by the big boss himself. But, like in a happy family, all's well that ends well.
"I like this family too much. Even though not everything has been to my liking, I don't think I will be able to look at anyone in the eye, and turn them down, " says Bhowmick.
At times, the whispering campaign against Bhowmick has been vicious and some of the moves absurd. But if and when he decides to leave, it will be difficult to tell if Bhowmick will miss the Alemaos more or the other way around. Such is family. And football, blended with emotion and passion.
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