“Can you tell us a little about how the negotiations with Punjab FC…” I was left slightly startled before I could finish my thought. Head coach Staikos Vergetis cozied up on his recliner chair, nabbed the notepad on the desk, turned it over, and started jotting something down, or that’s what I thought. Without paying much heed, I carried on with my assemblage of questions.
One after the other, Vergetis welcomed all my queries with open arms and dished out the most earnest answers. But amidst all of it, he continued to scribble on that white piece of paper.
When I announced that it was the end of the interview from my side, the 47-year-old rose up from the chair on which his bullish frame was cooped up all this while. Thanked me with a wide smile and before I could address all the scribbling, he handed me the piece of paper I had my eyes on all this while.
“I have something for you,” the Greek tactician grinned. All these while, when we were discussing in great detail Punjab FC and the maiden ISL campaign awaiting them, Staikos had sketched down an abstract landscape. A steady craft sailing through calm waters, encircled by a serenading scenery.
Slightly over a year back, Staikos Vergetis had taken the reins of a similar craft, not quite lustrous enough as it is now. Having finished fifth in the I-League 2021-22 season, Punjab wasn’t the most lucrative project out there. However, the man from Tripoli captained the club to the second-division title in his debut season in Indian football, playing some of the most thrilling bits of attacking football the league had seen in the recent past.
As determined by the roadmap, Punjab FC were rewarded with a promotion to the Indian Super League (ISL) for the 2023-24 season for the exploits, becoming the first club to achieve this feat on sporting merit. The waters though weren’t always as calm as the picture Vergetis had sketched.
During the exclusive interview with Sportskeeda, when asked to reflect on the journey he had with the Mohali-based club so far, the head coach narrated:
“It was a journey that I didn’t make alone, we all did it together. I mean not just the players but even all the staff. I had co-passengers on this journey and everyone from their end worked to the best of their ability to help this club succeed,” he continued. “All of us were like a family and I think this is the first reason that the team succeeded, even more important than the factors of the game.”
Neither will it be all smooth sailing when the Shers set foot in the first division next season. At least on paper, their squad is still some distance behind the front-runners and a few of the mid-table clubs in the ISL. But Vergetis is smacking his lips to take on this challenge head-on.
“We cannot start the season keeping a certain position in mind, because it might so happen that with a few games left, we are already in that position. Then it should be our target to climb higher. So it’s better to say, every game that is coming will be a final for us,” the former Niki Volos FC head coach underlined.
For Punjab FC and Staikos Vergetis, the final portrait is still unaccomplished. The voyage might not be always as scenic as the gaffer intends it to be, but there’s still a promised land to be reached. And the Greek boss doesn’t seem like one to lift his pen before his sketch has come together.
Here are some excerpts from Sportskeeda’s exclusive interview with newly-promoted ISL club Punjab FC gaffer Staikos Vergetis.
(Note: The interview took place on August 6, before Punjab FC started their Durand Cup 2023 campaign)
Question: Hello coach, the last time we talked, you had stated that you’d be happy to stay on if Punjab FC wanted. You’re here now, so can you tell us a little about how the negotiations were?
Staikos Vergetis: First of all, it’s about the intention in any negotiation. Whether you have the intention to stay or not, if they want you or if you want them. So from both sides, it was clear that there were intentions to stay together. It’s not about the money, but it’s the project.
For this project, I came to India. The people at the club have stayed focused on this project and we succeeded in achieving a lot of things last year. But we want to continue what we started. Being a competitive team that everyone can enjoy.
Q: You mentioned money wasn’t the issue so if you specify what were some of the points you focused on during the discussion?
Vergetis: Firstly, it was about the conditions the club can provide for the coach to work in. In this club, they fulfilled all my conditions – the players, the staff, and interfering with my work.
Hence, I enjoy my work here at Punjab FC. We started with some youngsters, and we added more this year. I like to work with young talented boys.
Q: Was your decision to stay in any way depending on the club’s ability to complete the licensing and play in the ISL?
Vergetis: I had no doubts that the team will participate in the ISL and our management will do everything possible to ensure it. I stayed absolutely out of this keeping my trust in the administrators.
Q: Now coach, throughout the I-League last season, we saw Punjab play a very possession-based, flamboyant style of football. But do you think it would be possible to play a similar style in the ISL, against opposition who will at least be more potent on paper?
Vergetis: In some games maybe it needs to change. Or specifically some periods. In football, you can never predict two things – the result and how any particular game will go. But we have to be prepared for everything, to change formation, to change the style, and even to change the players’ tasks. Every time you have to be more ready because football surprises.
Q: Once Punjab had secured the promotion, everyone’s eyes were on how the team would perform in the transfer window. What do you make of the signings and extensions the club has made so far?
Vergetis: I think we have taken players with good characteristics for the positions we were thinking of. Each player that has come into our team has come after we have observed them closely. If they can be useful in the style of the game we want to play. All of these players have the feature to help us.
Some of them have experience of playing in the ISL and this will help us. Some of them don’t have a lot of experience but they are youngsters and hopefully, in the future, they’ll become competitive to play in the first division. We are here to help them build their career and they are here to help us reach our objectives.
Q: Coach, throughout this transfer window, we have seen certain clubs, specifically Mohun Bagan SG, bringing in players for ridiculous amounts. Now as someone who will come up against them in the upcoming season, how do you look at this situation?
Vergetis: I’m occupied just with my roster. Yes, maybe some clubs can give more money and bring better players, but I can’t do anything about it. I am focusing on what I can affect. What can do in regard to the structure of my squad, and the model of the way my team will play, these are areas I’m concerned about.
Q: Coming to the details, while Luka Majcen and Juan Mera’s extension was somewhat expected, people were slightly surprised to see an overseas spot being utilized on a goalkeeper. Could you tell us a bit more about why you and the club felt necessary to retain Kiran Limbu?
Vergetis: We believe the position of a goalkeeper is very important in our team. People who are thinking we have wasted one foreign slot to bring in a goalkeeper, I think they don’t consider this position as important. We have another philosophy. Maybe they are right or maybe we are right, time will tell.
Q: About the new signings, players like Leon Augustine, Nikhil Prabhu, Prasanth K, and Amarjit Singh haven’t been able to regularly feature in the starting lineups of their previous clubs. So what made you reach out to these players?
Vergetis: This makes us more responsible to prepare these players and give them the opportunity they haven’t had until now. As mentioned earlier, we are looking at the features of every individual player and if they can be useful for us. Looking at these characteristics, we decided to pursue these players.
Yes, we have to work a lot with them and help them. But they will gain experience while playing with us and eventually help the team. It’s a relationship of give and take you can say!
Q: It is no secret that when it comes to the top-tier talent pool in India it is already very limited. Now the best players in the country are already contracted with other ISL clubs. So as the head coach of the first club to be promoted to the ISL, how do you look at this challenge?
Vergetis: What you describe here is something that happens everywhere you football. Of course, it affects us, but how do you face this? Working more hard, putting in more details, and focusing more on some areas of football to help develop the players steadily.
If you take one player of medium player, because you can’t take players of higher level, and you work with him maybe he’ll reach that level someday. But yes, the player needs to have discipline, respect, and love for his work and the coach needs to be able to transmit his knowledge.
Q: Is this a challenge you enjoy?
Vergetis: Of course, I do. If you ask me which coaches you enjoy watching, I’ll not tell you coaches who take readymade players who are best in their position and are winning the Champions League.
I admire the work of some coaches, not so famous, who are able to take average-quality players and get massive results with them.
Q: Coach, you joined the club when they had finished mid-table in the I-League, led them to the second-tier championship, secured promotion to the ISL, and now you’re ready to embark on what promises to be a historic campaign for the club. Could you perhaps share with us what this journey has been like so far?
Vergetis: It was a journey that I didn’t make alone, we all did it together. I mean not just the players but even all the staff. I had co-passengers on this journey and everyone from their end worked to the best of their ability to help this club succeed.
All of us were like a family and I think this is the first reason that the team succeeded, even more important than the factors of the game.
Q: And what are you expecting from the next 10 months or so? What would consider a success at the end of the season?
Vergetis: To be champions of the ISL (Laughs). But what I want to actually say is we’ll try to focus on every individual game and then in the end we’ll try to see where we have reached. At this moment I cannot say that I’m happy with let’s say a fifth-position finish. This is not a target of a professional.
We cannot start the season keeping a certain position in mind, because it might so happen that with a few games left, we are already in that position. Then it should be our target to climb higher. So it’s better to say, every game that is coming will be a final for us.
Q: In this one-year coach, what would you say has been your greatest learning about Indian football?
Vergetis: In this one year, what I have observed about Indian football is that it improves fast. I watched this not just in my club, but even in the other clubs. The improvement is happening rapidly across the board for Indian football.
Q: Given you’d be playing from Delhi this season and not the club’s native state, Punjab, you wouldn’t be playing in front of your home fans. If you could reflect on that?
Vergetis: Of course, we would like to play in front of our fans. Why? Because in some moments of the previous year, they were the ones to give the motivation. I would like to thank them once again for this. There are some reasons why we aren’t allowed to play in Punjab and it makes us feel sad.
But I want to take this opportunity and give them the message that we will fight throughout the season to make them happy.
Q: We all know Luka Majcen as a prolific striker and for good reasons, everyone is excited to see him perform in the ISL. Do you think he can live up to these expectations that everyone has for him?
Vergetis: I believe Luka has to stay concentrated and focused on the things that he has been doing very well. But maybe sometimes all these expectations that people have for him, make him think otherwise. Maybe he ends up forcing himself at times to do something more, do something better, and end up being stressed.
I would like him to be calm. Luka Majcen scores a lot of goals every year a lot of goals throughout his career. That’s his job and he needs to continue doing it.
Q: Finally, you’ve already given the Punjab FC fans plenty to be proud of. Created some history with this amazing club. But what is the ultimate legacy that you want to leave behind the day you exit the club and Indian football?
Vergetis: At this moment, there are six players in the Greece national team whom I have trained at some point in their careers. When they were young, the first step of their career was with me. This gives me massive satisfaction.
What I would like to leave in India when I exit one day? Well, some youngsters that we now have on our roster, I want to see them at big clubs or see them become champions with Punjab FC and play in the national team. I want to help these young boys, who now have nothing but just talent, have a good career.
A part of this, regarding the fans, I want them to be proud when they look back at this period and say, “When Staikos Vergetis was our coach, our team was playing good football and we enjoyed seeing them.”