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Borja Fernandez: The underappreciated genius of ISL’s infancy

On the eve of the latest edition of the ISL, Arinjay Ghosh pays a tribute to Borja Fernandez, an ISL legend.

Sixty-eight minutes had passed on a windy October evening in Kolkata when Luis Garcia slid into the opposition penalty area trying to chest down a lofted pass. As the ball bounced off the Spaniard’s chest, it was agriculturally booted away. About 24 yards away from goal, another Spaniard chested it down – with grace befitting a Spanish international footballer – and in a motion resembling a whiplash, he struck the ball back towards goal, almost pirouetting in recoil. On another night, the ball may have whistled past the post, but on that evening, it whistled a different tune; and as 84,000 inside the Salt Lake Stadium erupted in unanimous delight, the glitterati in the VIP box stood up in awe – some with hands on their heads accompanied by a sheepish smile, while others with a gaping jaw of bewilderment. Borja Fernandez had just welcomed the world to the Indian Super League with a goal that was later described as “a goal that can grace any league in any country in the world.”

The Indian Super League ushered in a fresh dawn to Indian football. Despite the many complaints against the league, it has done its job in terms of making football a financially viable option in a country where previously just playing the sport would not guarantee a sustainable lifestyle. Apart from that, there has been a massive upgrade in technical expertise and professionalism towards the game. One of the pioneers in this regard was Atletico De Kolkata who were quick in realizing that the key to continued success would be a close-knit team with a consistently solid work ethic. The Sourav Ganguly co-owned franchise, thus, struck a partnership with Atletico Madrid of Spain and left the recruitment of staff and foreigners completely to the Spanish side. While most other franchises roped in marquee names well past their prime, Atletico Madrid had constructed for their Kolkata namesake a very quiet, yet competent side. Bred in the Atletico ethos of grit, hard work and determination, this team managed to become the most consistent and successful team of the league, winning two of the first three championships.

Thus, when it was announced before the 2017 player auctions, that Atletico Madrid would no longer be associated with Atletico De Kolkata, it came as a rude surprise. The club changed their name to ATK and decided against retaining any of the foreign players or coaching staff. A customary glance at the points table is enough to conclude that this did not bode well for ATK as they finished second last and missed out on the semi-final for the first time in their history. ATK was a football lover’s catastrophe in the fourth season of the ISL, struck with injuries and dull football stemming from an obvious overdose of poor recruitment. But perhaps one thing that may have hurt them more than their break up with Atletico Madrid was severing ties with a former player of their cross-town rivals, Borja Fernandez.

Borja started his career as a 15-year-old when he joined the Real Madrid academy where he rose through the ranks playing for their C and B teams before finally breaking through into the first team in 2003. Borja’s stay at Real Madrid wasn’t very fruitful as he made only 38 appearances over two seasons for the Los Blancos but this is, where he says, he educated himself in football. Playing in the Galactico era alongside Beckham, Zidane, Raul, Figo, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, Borja received immense learning on the pitch as well as off it, watching how these global icons carried themselves. Borja certainly used his schooling to good effect once he left Real Madrid in search of regular football. In his next nine seasons, Borja inculcated the values that typified him to be the Atletico Madrid prototype in his India chapter.

One of the major drawbacks of the ISL, over the years, has been stability of the teams in terms of player retentions. While most of the foreigners that have visited the Indian shores have either been too old to remain fit or too green to compete, the Indians have been volleyed around different teams with one-year contracts. Amidst this chaos, ATK’s Borja along with Arnab Mondal and Ofentse Nato would turn out to be the only players to play for the same team; and while Arnab and Nato found it difficult to regularly start in the third season, Borja emerged as the undisputed constant of ISL’s infancy.

Arriving in Kolkata with over 200 La Liga appearances, it was obvious that Borja would slot directly into the Atletico midfield. But what very few envisioned was the impact he would go on to have on the side in his tenure. In the first three seasons of the ISL, as alluded to earlier, only three players would wear the same crest throughout and Borja was the flag bearer of this consistency. The Spanish midfielder was the manager’s delight in the early part of the first season, playing in every position the manager asked him to. Being from Spain, he was technically brilliant and like most other quarterbacks, tactically aware. Realizing his ability to read the game, midway through the first season, then ATK coach, Habas, stopped tinkering with formations and deployed Borja as his midfield general, a move that would establish Atletico De Kolkata as an ISL powerhouse.

Playing in a predominantly defensive system under both, Habas (in the first two seasons) and Molina (third), Borja’s discipline and consistency set him apart from his contemporaries. Borja embodied the manager’s tactics on the pitch, a trait that saw him quickly take over from Luis Garcia as the official club captain. In fact, so apparently telling was Borja’s consistency that he became the sole routine presence as one of the two double pivots in Atletico’s 4-2-3-1 structure. Despite having to deal with multiple different partners, Borja managed to tweak his own game allowing his partners to play their natural game. When he played with Gavilan, Borja allowed him to dictate play while himself sitting back protecting the defence. When he played with Nato, he would travel the length of the pitch when in possession and sit beside the Botswana international when off the ball. There would often be times when Arnab would be unfit requiring the manager to field a foreigner in his place. With a cap on the number of foreigners each team could field, it automatically meant Borja would have to start with either Jewel Raja or Rakesh Masih. On evenings like those, Borja would quite literally play two people at once – from making sure his team doesn’t get overrun in midfield to protecting the back four and even galloping forward to provide an option in attack, Borja would genuinely do it all.

Purely from a statistical standpoint, Borja is a metronome – quite evidently a midfield maestro. The defensive midfielder, in his 47 appearances, ranks top of the charts in terms of interceptions, tackles and clearances, with 115, 181 and 127, respectively. These, along with his average of blocking a shot every game, ensured that the midfielder dealt with danger much before it befell his back four as can be evidenced by the 1.33 goals conceded per game in his absence as compared to the meagre 0.85 in his presence. Another remarkable aspect of his, is that despite clearly being tasked with doing the dirty work, Borja missed only one game due to suspension – a clear indicator of his ability to commit intelligent fouls that hardly drew the official’s ire while breaking the opponents’ attacking flow. While his team’s footballing philosophy warrants a good defensive output, his productivity on the ball is astonishing. For a team does not believe in possession, Borja averages an astonishing 50 passes a game. In fact, his tally of touches and passes is the highest in the history of the league. This simply states that everything his team did, went through him.  Tangibly summarizing an average evening in Borja’s life – the midfielder makes 2.5 tackles, 4 interceptions, 1 block, 2.7 clearances, completes 50 passes, takes 66 touches, delivers 1.5 crosses and shoots 1.2 times.

Despite his many contributions on the pitch, Borja stood for far more in Atletico De Kolkata’s set up. He was more than just the player on the pitch. Arriving merely months after Atletico Madrid won the La Liga and finished runners-up in the champions league, he was the archetype of the new Atletico Madrid in Atletico De Kolkata. Although bred in Real Madrid, his nine years of battle in the lower-middle half of the table had moulded him in the Atletico spirit. Borja was an apt representation of the Spanish club’s investment in Kolkata. In Kolkata, Borja stood for everything Simeone did, through his players, in Madrid. Borja was hardworking and disciplined; he was gritty and tenacious off the ball and efficient and fluent on it. He was an honest representation of a bygone era of relentless, industrious common men and this made him organic to root for. He knew his limitations and never tried anything flashy yet every time he left the pitch, his face told you that he had given everything on it. Once the game was over, one could hardly find him, yet during the 90 minutes, he was visibly the leader. He spoke to his players and had the rare ability of controlling the pace of the game even when he didn’t have the ball. On the ball he was quite brilliant in assessing when to counter and when to hold on to the ball. He could also pick out a shrewd pass when he so desired but it was his ability to know when to press and when to drop back that made him a unique asset in his manager’s arsenal.

It is quite evident that the Kolkata franchise miss him. The fourth season of the ISL has been a far cry from the three successful previous seasons they have had with him in the side. In fact, the only season Atletico did not win the title was when Borja pulled a muscle in the first leg of the semi-final in the second season. He walked off in the 42nd minute, following which the team capitulated conceding three goals to eventual champions Chennaiyin FC. In Borja’s presence, Atletico did not lose a single knockout tie and conceded just three goals in six games. He was ATK’s biggest big match player and he churned out his most special performances away from home in the second leg of the two semi-finals ATK won. In both games, he won man of the match protecting his back four, helping them earn clean sheets and leading his team on to the final. He was also ATK’s go to man in terms of decisive penalties, successfully converting the fourth penalty on two different occasions helping ATK win two titles. Thus, it is quite sad that despite his obvious contributions, the only time he was ever serenaded was at the end of the third season when he won the “fittest player of the season” award. Borja fell prey to a common evil of the sport. He wasn’t the goal scorer or the dribbler, he didn’t have pace to burn nor did he try audacious moves – he was a simple team man and he was happy to be that. He played in a position where his presence was hardly appreciated and like any other quarterback worth his salt, now that he is gone, his absence is being dearly felt.

While on its forthcoming pilgrimage to the annals of history, many will emerge to write and rewrite the story of the Indian Super League, let it not be forgotten that the legacy of its infancy irrevocably belongs to the unappreciated genius of Borja Fernandez.

Arinjay Ghosh

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