Akbar leads Chennai to Indian league title
Singaporean achieves milestone just a year after helping club avoid relegation
From relegation candidates to I-League champions in a year, Chennai City proved there are more to football miracles than just Leicester City's stunning English Premier League triumph in 2016.
In achieving the improbable, head coach Akbar Nawas and his assistant K. Balagumaran also showed that Singaporean trainers are capable of producing magical moments after leading the Indian club to the league title on Saturday.
The duo are believed to be the first local coaches to win a professional football league outside South-east Asia.
Former Tampines Rovers coach Akbar told The Straits Times yesterday: "There is great satisfaction after accepting the challenge of taking over a relegation-threatened team, and then winning the league within a year."
When the 43-year-old took over the reins last year, Chennai had three games to stave off relegation from the I-League. They beat Churchill Brothers 3-1, lost 7-1 to East Bengal, before securing safety with a 2-1 win over Minerva Punjab in their final match.
A year later, the remarkable turnaround was completed in front of 8,000 fans at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, on Saturday with a comeback 3-1 win over Minerva as both club and head coach clinched their first league title.
For Balagumaran, this is his second league title as assistant after winning the 2013 Malaysian Super League title with the LionsXII.
With 13 wins, four draws and three defeats, Chennai amassed 43 points, one more than second-placed East Bengal.
And they did it in style, scoring 48 goals in 20 matches, and never relinquishing their place at the top of the 11-team league from the third match week.
The Times of India summarised their triumph as "befitting their dominant campaign, the fulcrum of which was a sustained possession-based football".
Akbar said: "I never lost sleep over the title race because we were focused and trusted our processes - there was great synergy among the owner, backroom staff and players. In fact, I lost sleep only after we won, with the many phone calls and text messages coming in!"
Astutely building the team around five Spaniards from Europe's lower leagues and former S-League star Jozef Kaplan, Akbar also made room for local talents to shine.
Incredibly, Chennai won the league without a single Indian international in their squad.
Balagumaran said: "When we got here, the players we had were not from football academies, they were from the streets and so unpolished.
"Many of them are playing in their first professional season and now they have won their first professional league title.
"Credit has to go to Akbar for his attacking philosophy."
Chennai are now eligible for the 2020 AFC Champions League qualifiers, while sources also told ST that the duo are now on the All India Football Federation's radar, with India's national coach position currently vacant.
Representatives from Swiss giants FC Basel, who have a 26 per cent equity stake in the Indian club, were at Chennai's coronation on Saturday and are said to be impressed by Akbar and Balagumaran 's work.
While Akbar declined to comment on speculation over his future as he has one more year left on his contract, Balagumaran said: "I hope this achievement shows there are good coaches from Singapore and opens the door for more Singaporean coaches to venture abroad."