“I needed to give them back the self-belief”: Antonio Lopez Habas

A photograph of Antonio Lopez. Source (X)


Habas and Petratos in conversation with Boria Majumdar

Mohun Bagan had just finished practice and Antonio Lopez Habas was in fine mood. His boys had trained hard, and almost all of them looked in good sync. Quite a few times, the coach was seen clapping and the intensity was clearly there. That was when he walked across for the interview and, when told that he was still as fit as ever at 66, seemed super pleased. “Feel it, feel it,” he said,taking my hand and putting it on his midriff. It was rock-hard, and Habas broke into a wide grin. That was when Dimitrios Petratos walked across to join the group, and asked if we were ready for the interview.

When he was told that it was going to be a joint conversation, Petratos looked a bit apprehensive. After all, it was his head coach who was sitting next to him. But then, you had to have the boss and his best student to make it really special and that’s what we convinced them to do. The conversation ranged from how Habas turned things around, to the derby and the fans, and also to what constitutes a cheat day for Petratos– to which we got a wide grin, followed by a cheeky “No Comments”. Clearly, this is now a team that is in good shape and the interview was proof of it.

Excerpts from the conversation.

Boria: Coach, you had taken over a team that seemed broken and had lost three games on the trot. The first ISL match on taking charge was the derby. And you were down 1-2 till the 83rd minute. How did you manage to turn things around?

Habas: No, no, it is not just me. It is a collective. As a professional, my job is to get the best out of the boys. When I took over, I needed to give them back the self-belief that defines this team. Everything was there, but things weren’t really coming together. The boys did not feel great about things, and my first job was to make them feel confident about their own abilities. To make them feel good and encourage them to just do the things they know how to do. You need to stay strong, and stand by the boys. That’s all I did.

Boria: Down 1-2 in the derby, did you ever feel pressure? Did the thought come that:Oh, I have taken charge at a wrong time?

Habas: Not even once. No. I am a professional, and I have managed to win the ISL twice with my team, make one final and one semi-final. It is always an opportunity and I am keen to embrace the challenge posed to me. So at no point did I have self-doubt or feel anything negative.

Boria: Dimi, you are the new heartthrob of the Mohun Bagan crowd. They are carrying your cut-outs, your photos and celebrating you as their hero. Tell me your reaction to all this adulation.

Petratos: It, of course, feels great to be able to do well for your club and your fans. That’s what we are here for. As professionals, that’s our job. But then, it’s not done yet. We need to win, and that’s the only thing that matters. When it comes to the goals, it has been me who was there at the right time in the right place. It is never about one person. Rather, it is always about a collective and each one has contributed to the goals that I scored eventually. In a team sport, that’s how it is always.


Boria: If I ask you to choose one special goal, which one will you choose? I know all goals are special, but then there must be one that will forever be etched in your memory?

Petratos:You are right in saying every goal is special. Each one is the product of hard work. But if I have to choose, I will choose the one in the final. It was against East Bengal in a derby, and won us the Durand trophy. That’s why it will always be extra special.

Boria: Coach, now that Dimi mentions the derby, may I ask you how special is the East Bengal-Mohun Bagan match for you? What is different about it?

Habas: The intensity is different. It is a big game, and the atmosphere is very different. Your fans are present in large numbers and that’s what I want them to do on the 10th of March. Come and support us all through. Support, support, support. That’s what brings out the best in us, and the derby is a very special contest. It is good for Indian football and helps the game.

Boria: And for you, Dimi? Don’t tell me it is just another game!

Petratos: It is just another game (smiles)! Look, when you think of it, it is much like any other game of football. But that apart, the number of fans present in the stands is very different, the vibe is different, the atmosphere is different and that’s why you want to win it for your team that much more. Even in the last game, we wanted to win. That’s what we had set out to do, but eventually we had to go back with a draw. I know what it means for our fans, who have been brilliant for us, and it is for them that we need to do well.

Boria: Coach, the fans love you. What do they mean to you?

Habas: In a football club, the fans mean the world to you. They are the ones who make the club what it is. Their support is absolutely critical for us all, and all I will say is I deeply appreciate their love and support and hope it continues in the very same manner going forward.

Boria: Dimi?

Petratos: The fans are the 12th man for us all. They make us give that extra bit on the pitch. Their love and affection makes a huge difference to every football player, and we are no different. You feel welcome seeing all of them in the stands, and that’s when your best comes out.

Boria: Coach, you are yet again in striking distance of the play-offs. Do you think you can go all the way?

Habas: That’s what is the aim. As the manager, you need to be able to do that with your team. That’s why I am here, and I will try my best to ensure that we get there. Having said that, it is always one match at a time and we don’t want to think too far ahead.

Petratos: We are playing well and all we need to do is keep playing well. If we are able to do that, we know we are good enough to get the results.

Boria: Finally, Dimi, you all train so hard and lead a really disciplined life. Do you have cheat days or not? Does coach allow you a cheat meal at least? Don’t tell me you haven’t tasted the Kolkata mishti yet?

Petratos: (Looks sheepish, glances at Habas and smiles) I will say: No Comments!

Boria: And you coach? (Petratos jumps in to say: Coach can have everything!)

Habas: I will also say: No comments (smiles).

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