Singaporean ‘Akbar’ first to win I-League football title

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HIS name translates to “Great” and Singapore-born Akbar Nawas is making heads turn in India by being the first Singaporean to win an overseas professional football league.

Chennai City was crowned champions of the 12th Hero Indian-League following a 3-1 victory over Minerva Punjab over the weekend.

Akbar Nawas, who previously coached Tampines Rovers and Philipines’Global Cebu, is now looking forward to taking Chennai City to greater heights and he has called for a unified league with 20 teams, saying it would “benefit” the national team.

He was the former head coach of Tampines Rovers in 2016 and led the team to the runners-up position in the S-League, amassing 52 goals in total, of which 30 goals in 12 games were scored in the second half of the season when Akbar took over.

He also brought Tampines to the Singapore Cup Final and emerged as runners-up and was a semi-finalist in the League Cup, where he introduced the reserve team players as most of the players from the first team were away with the national team. They lost to eventual winners Albirex in the League Cup semifinals.

He first joined as the assistant coach for the first team of Tampines Rovers under the then current national coach V. Sundramoorthy. His expertise is the attacking approach in football; this helped Tampines Rovers team to dominate possession in almost every game during his term as head coach and reduced the gap of seven points to only one point.

Uncertainty now looms over I-League’s future with the All India Football Federation (AIFF) mulling bringing the league’s top teams into the ISL fold.

“I hope we are there next season. It is not for me to comment. I think there should be a unified league with 20 teams. The national team would benefit more. Every professional player should play at least 45 games a season,” said Nawas.




Nawas gave full credit to his players after finishing on top of the table with 43 points from 20 matches. He says: “They showed their character today. They helped each other and they delivered. There was a lot of pressure.

During the half time, I told them that during every single attack we should look for a goal.

“Everything was going against us. (Roberto) Eslava getting injured and then an early goal, it became very difficult. The way we played in the second half it shows our character. To be honest, I was happy that we were a goal down because I was pretty sure we could come back.”

In March 2018 he joined Chennai City FC as head coach. He was the former technical consultant of the club, taking over the coaching job from V Soundararajan. The team had finished a very disappointing eighth position in the 2017–18 I-League.

Chennai City, whose home town is Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu State, plays its home matches at the 40,000-capacity Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Finishing No 1 allows them to play in the qualifying rounds of next season’s Asian Champions League, Asia’s premier professional tournament.

This latest win gives him more belief that his “players have plenty of room for improvement” and his longer-term goal job is to take the Indian players to the next level.

“This is a process I repeat. The I-League win is a bonus. We have room for improvement. Next season we have to see how we can concede fewer goals and be more effective on the break,” Nawas says.

“This season we kept possession and now we should try and do that more in the opponent’s half. We have to go up another level as these players must get called up for the national team.

“The win will boost confidence. All clubs now know that we can play this kind of football and still win. My players put my name on the landscape of Indian football. It is for them. I’m very happy.”


The presence of four key Spaniards – Pedro Manzi, Nestor Jesus, Sandro Rodriguez and Roberto Eslava – have galvanised Chennai into a formidable title-winning unit, says Nawas.

But he was quick to admit that despite their strong foreign contingent, the groundwork for this season’s brilliant showing was laid in the last campaign, when a number of the local youngsters came into fore.

“The likes of Pravitto Raju, Edwin Vanspaul, Gaurav Bora, Romario Jesuraj, and many others, have done exceptionally well,” says Nawas. “They have learnt a lot from the foreigners and implemented the plans on the pitch.

“The main thing is that these guys were willing to learn from the foreigners and improve their own game. They all play for one another, which is why we have been able to play such an entertaining brand of football this season.”

Nawas, for the record, has an advanced diploma in business administration from University of Wales and finished his degree in business administration and marketing from the same university.

As a career professional, Nawas started at the age of 10 and played in the junior and senior levels at Macpherson Primary School from 1985 to 1987. He captained Tyrwhitt Under 19 to third place. He also played for the Singapore Under 19 and the Tyrwhitt senior team. He was called up to play for the Singapore Pre-Olympic team and the Lions for Under 23’s and U19’s.

From 1998 to 1999, he played for Marine Castle United in the S-League. He was then called up for training with the National “A” team for the Dunhill Cup. In 1999, he had an ACL operation and stopped playing competitive football. He did his National Service with the men-in-blue in 1996 and played for the Police Force Home team.


Singapore’s FIFA coach instructor Vincent Subramaniam, now based in Bangalore, India, and even coached I-League club Churchilll Brothers (2010-2011 season), saluted Akbar’s success.

“He has worked hard the past 11 months as head coach and brought a new tactical image of quick short-passing into Chennai FC. He’s assisted by another Singapore, Balaguraman (who coached Singapore’s women team) and they’ve clicked very well to beat prolific clubs like Mohan Bagun, East Bengal, Real Kashmir and Minerva Punjab,” says 64-year-old Vincent, the former Lions coach (1998-2001) who was S-League ‘Coach of the Year’ 1996 and 1997.

“The main difference between the I-League and the S-League (now called Singapore Premier League) is the intensity in fan-support and the far higher budget for the clubs, which allows them training stints in Europe.”

For Nawas, the sky’s now the limit. He wants to further live up to his name, which translates to “Great”, to prove that Singapore (and even Malaysian) coaches can excel in overseas coaching assignments. – By SURESH NAIR

Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who covers the regional sporting scene


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