Last month, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) nominated a highly-experienced coach in Gabriel Joseph for the Dronacharya award, a prestigious sports coaching honour instituted by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS).
Only one football coach has ever won the award since it was started in 1985 - Syed Nayeemuddin in 1990. Gabriel Joseph, who has worked under Nayeemuddin incidentally with the Indian national team, is a behemoth as far as coaching is concerned in the country.
The coach, who hails from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, has had a long and distinguished coaching career which started in 1962 and has spanned around 58 years. In fact, he is still engaged in coaching at numerous academies in and around Thiruvananthapuram.
Gabriel Joseph, who completed his NIS (National Institute of Sports) Coaching Diploma in 1967-68, is highly qualified and has completed coaching courses in numerous countries all over the globe. He was selected for an advanced International Football Coaching Diploma which was a nine months course in Germany in 1973. He has also had diplomas from Brazil apart from completing the AFC A License for coaching.
He was also a qualified AIFF Class One Referee and completed short stints on Sports Psychology, Sports Medicine, and International conditioning stint in 2012. All this is in addition to the work Gabriel has done to establish a competent coaching education system in the country in his role as Director of Coaching with the AIFF.
He assisted the national teams in various age groups ever since 1974 when he took charge of the Indian School boys team selected from the Subroto Mukherjee Cup. He was the coach of the India U16 side that qualified for final round AFC U16 Championship in 1990 where they managed to beat Jordan 1-0.
In 1989, he was assigned as the coach for the senior national team that were to play SAARC Championship in Sri Lanka but the championship had to be called off due to internal problems then in the island nation.
He had assisted the senior national team in his capacity as a coach through various tournaments including the SAFF Championship wins in 1997 and 2005 and the Nehru Trophy in 1997 when India reached the semifinals.
However, one result that will always be a huge feather in his cap will be India's performance in the 1996 AFC U17 Championship. He was the coach of the team that had to undergo a strenuous qualification campaign before qualifying for the final rounds.
India had to play a qualification round in Pakistan against the hosts and Maldives and Joseph describes how the team had to overcome several hurdles. The mood was not great and the team was written off even before they travelled to Pakistan by most.
"While the team was being trained in the camp prior to the participation in the group matches in Pakistan, there were negative comments that destroyed the confidence of the boys. Many felt that our team can never win when you play the matches in Pakistan and so on," Joseph told Goal.
"As the head coach of the team, I had to put in extra efforts to regain and boost the confidence level of our boys. Still in the opening match at Peshwar against Pakistan who had a very good home support, our team conceded a goal against the run of play and were low in confidence at half-time. The boys who came to the dressing room, instead of refreshing themselves, sat on the ground avoiding the chairs and refresheners as if they already lost the match.
"It was a huge task to get them back to a winning attitude within the half-time break and make them score two goals and win that match," recollects Gabriel who added, "Next match, with good mental stability, our boys performed even better and won against Maldives to qualify with full six points for the final rounds in Thailand."
Qualifying for the final rounds of the AFC Youth Championships back then was a big deal for Indian football at that time when cricket was surging in popularity. In Thailand, the team were grouped with powerhouses in Iran, China, Thailand and Bahrain. Not much was expected from the team again and a 7-0 loss to Thailand in the opening game did not do wonders to the morale.
However, Gabriel's team did well to go down fighting to Bahrain (3-2) before a strong Iran team beat them 4-1. The final game was against another continental giant in China and the team was expected to return with a whimper. However, that was not to be the case.
Gabriel reveals that due to various reasons, they could not organise exposure tours for the team while all their opponents had preparatory camps abroad. For example, the Chinese team had exposure matches in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. Gabriel felt that after the first three matches, his team became more accustomed to the level of competition and ground conditions which played a huge role in the game against China.
"Having been at the venue playing matches and seeing other matches along with necessary psychological and analytical classes there, the boys gained very good confidence when they faced China.
"Our boys won by 3-2 margin which was the outcome of an outstanding performance. We showed clear cut supremacy in the match against a continental giant. In fact, China fought tooth and nail in that game since a win against us would have given them a chance to qualify for the semifinals. But we held on. We showed a high degree of technical-tactical ability, endurance and mental strength on that day."
While Kamal Ghosh was named the man of the match against China, Gabriel reveals that the tournament also threw the limelight on a player who would go on to serve the Indian national team with merit in the upcoming years.
"Furthermore, it was an achievement when Mahesh Gawli who gave a consistently good performance was included in the list of Asian Youth All Star team of the tournament."
It was just a small chapter in Gabriel Joseph's story as a coach and coach educator but one that throws light on his ability and competency. In fact, he was India's first active and independent AFC Football Coaching Instructor in 2001. He has taught many renowned coaches in the country including India women's team coach Maymol Rocky.
His efforts to create a uniformed coaching education system throughout the country has been much lauded and it was Gabriel who introduced the AIFF ‘D’ Coaching course and compiled the syllabus for it. He has travelled all over the country in his role as Director of Coaching (from 2006 to 2012) and set up camps, courses and much more. In fact, Gabriel Joseph is credited with introducing computer education in coaching at a time when the Information Technology boom had still not permeated enough into Indian football.
He has also written three technical books on coaching in 2000, 2002 and 2005. He has also functioned as a national team selector or spotter during his heydays. There is no questioning the contribution Gabriel Joseph has rendered for the betterment of Indian football. For his lifetime contribution for the development of the sport, Gabriel Joseph will be a worthy winner of the Dronacharya award should the MYAS decide to bestow upon him that honour.
"It is a matter of fierce pride when we get the opportunity to put forth the best of our abilities for the growth and development of the game in the country and football as a whole. It is very human to get motivated and satisfied when acknowledgements and recognitions are bestowed for the same.
"Hence the recommendation from the AIFF in itself for the Dronacharya award is an absolute national honour. Winning the same would be even more delightful for me. It will be a dose of energy to continue my best contributions for the game till the last breathe in me to set an example for the future generation."