Extra Time with Leeza Mangaldas: Serran’s great Indian adventure
Follow pitch-side reporter Leeza Mangaldas as she takes you behind the scenes this Hero ISL season. New posts every week exclusively on indiansuperleague.com. Connect with Leeza on Instagram or Twitter at @leezamangaldas.
Bengaluru FC’s Albert Serran feels wonderfully at home in India
Albert Serran joined Bengaluru FC with massive shoes to fill. He was coming in for their beloved former central defender John Johnson, who had been with the team since its inception - the only other player who’d been at Bengaluru that long is Sunil Chhetri. When Johno moved to ATK ahead of Season 5, many Bengaluru faithful couldn’t shake off the feeling that he’d be irreplaceable. And while he’ll always have a special place in their hearts, the inspired 34-year-old Spaniard recruited to fill the void has managed not only to bolster the Blues’ backline but has also carved out his own unique identity in his new home.
"Serran has an unmistakable presence on the pitch and an exceptional reading of the game," says Kunaal Majgaonkar, Bengaluru’s media manager, and one of the finest writers on Indian football that I’ve encountered. "The number of blocks and interceptions he makes is incredible and yet, the most beautiful thing about the way he plays is that mostly you don’t notice him. They say the best defenders are those who never have to tackle. Players like Serran see the next move coming before it happens. They are so well prepared and they never have to resort to anything dramatic."
Serran has always been someone who calmly goes about his business, without shying away from tough decisions. He was part of the Swansea squad that won the Championship final in the 2010-11 season but left the club despite their Premier League promotion, resisting the financial and social prestige that would have come with playing for a top-flight English club in favour of opportunities in other parts of the world that would allow him more game time. "I chose to go to Cyprus because it was my third year at Swansea and even though in many ways I was very happy there, I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted - as a player. What I want most of all is simply to be involved. I wanted to be able to make an impact, and in order to do so, I knew I needed to move," he explained.
In fact, this tendency to seek out purposeful experiences over purely lucrative ones - the need to be true to himself rather than simply chase glory, revealed itself very early on. As a 10-year-old, even though he came from a family of Barcelona supporters and lived just a few minutes away from Camp Nou, he turned down an offer to train with Barca’s youth academy, choosing Espanyol instead.
"But who says no to Barcelona?" I asked incredulously. "My parents had always let me make my own decisions," Serran laughed. "Even as a child, they’d always encourage me to be responsible and self-aware, and to have an independent mind. I just knew that my physicality, as well as my strengths and temperament as a player, would be much better suited to the culture at Espanyol."
Over the course of his career, Serran has played in several different countries including Spain, England, Cyprus, Albania, Morocco, and now India. Whenever he’s picked a club, he’s looked for an experience, for the next adventure - which is why he was intrigued by the prospect of playing for Bengaluru.
He had also heard a lot about the Hero Indian Super League (Hero ISL) from friends and former teammates. "Andrea Orlandi (Chennaiyin FC) and Coro (FC Goa) are like family to me. And I’ve also known Braulio, Bikey, Uche, Lanzarote, Calderon and several others for a long time. With many of these guys, we’ve even played together when we were young kids, and for the last few years, they’ve all spoken so highly about their time in India. I really wanted to experience the Hero ISL myself," he said.
When he heard Bengaluru were training in Valencia for pre season this year, and that they were looking for a central defender, he drove down from Barcelona for a trial and found that he fit in really well with the team. He earned the nickname 'the Trialist' in the early social media buzz about Bengaluru's pre season results and quickly became the club’s final foreign signing ahead of Season 5.
"We decided to take a chance on Serran and it’s worked remarkably well. We’ve conceded the fewest goals in the league, he’s been a valuable presence in the dressing room, and he’s won over the fans- we couldn’t have asked for more," Kunaal said happily.
I also spoke to Bengaluru fan Ullas Marar, a regular presence in the West Block who co-hosts a fan-run podcast called Fresh Off The Block, to find out more about how fans see Serran. "We made a poster for social media ahead of the away match against FC Goa where we used his photo and I think it pretty much sums up how we see him. He’s been superbly solid at the back, he’s got so much swagger, and he’s someone the opposition definitely can’t mess with —and we love how settled he seems in Bengaluru," he revealed.
Over the last 3 months, Serran and his family have truly made India their home. His wife Marta, a talented photographer, and their lovely six-year-old daughter Blanca have completely immersed themselves in the local way of life.
Blanca has joined a local school, where she has made several friends and thoroughly enjoys her classes. She’s also joined the Bengaluru FC soccer school, where she trains after class. Marta has enjoyed capturing on camera, all the beautiful and unusual memories, colours, people, and places they encounter. Many of the photos I’ve included in this article are taken by her, and you should definitely check out her Instagram account @martafandres.photo for more of her extraordinary photos and a wonderful glimpse into their time here.
The Serrans have loved that the matches have them travelling through the country, soaking in its diverse cultural heritage. From the Taj Mahal to Kovalam beach, from daily auto rickshaw rides to volunteering with local charities, they’ve taken great pleasure in discovering the rich and varied daily experiences that come with living in India.
"It’s really been amazing for me and my family," Albert says warmly. “To be at this great club that’s doing so well, to be able to play with some of the best players in the country, to be undefeated so far - it’s very very special. I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to this magical country."