“I love new challenges”: Spanish midfielder Hernan Santana excited to play for NorthEast United FC

Spanish midfielder Hernan Santana was a vital cog in Mumbai City FC’s midfield last season, helping them to win the League Winners’ Shield and the Hero Indian Super League (ISL) title.

Ahead of the upcoming Hero ISL season, Santana joined NorthEast United FC on a permanent basis. The 31-year-old spent his early years in Spain, playing for Las Palmas and was instrumental in helping them gain promotion to the La Liga after 13 years in 2014-15.

Indiansuperleague.com had an exclusive chat with Hernan Santana to discuss football in India, mental health and the reason why he made the move to NorthEast United FC.

“It was an important change for me, to make the leap from European football to India. Knowing that you are coming to a place where football is not the main sport but is still in continuous growth was a major challenge [for me]. Culturally, I realised the great diversity that exists within the same country, with different religions, customs, and languages,” he commented on the cultural diversity within India and the two continents with the shift in playing football.

The defensive midfielder impressed everyone in his debut season, making 41 interceptions, 71 tackles, and 17 blocks in defence with the title-winning team.

“When I was offered the possibility of signing for Mumbai City FC, a team with an ambitious new project to be champions, I had doubts, but the coaching staff was key in helping me out. [Sergio] Lobera and [Jesus] Tato convinced me in 5 minutes and things turned out perfectly, we won everything,” Santana shared his experience on being part of the winning team last season.

The adaptability of the players wasn’t just assessed on the field but off the field as well with Covid-19 protocols and a bio-bubble in place. Santana revealed how living together with his team for 6 months brought him closer to his team more than ever.

“Living together for six months makes the team become your family. You don’t go home after a defeat or a victory to share it with your family or friends. You share it with them, that connects us, and it makes us even better.”

Santana also elucidated on the importance of mental health of players due to the bio-bubble.

“On a personal level, it’s hard to live alone, to rest, train, and play. You practically put aside your social life and sometimes the mind and body need to disconnect as well. I think it’s extremely important to take care of our mental health. In football, the mind is sometimes more important than the body,” he added.

NorthEast United FC finished third in the points table under coach Khalid Jamil. Santana revealed how he loves taking new challenges and spoke about how things shaped up with the Highlanders.

“Ideally, I wanted to be with them [Mumbai City FC]. But things didn’t go as planned. I knew that NorthEast was interested and waiting for my decision. In the end, when things didn't work out with Mumbai City, I signed with NorthEast. I knew it was going to be another ambitious project.”

Having 8 years of playing experience in the Spanish league, Santana also played the La Liga with Las Palmas, where he scored against Real Madrid. He opened up about his experience of playing across two different leagues.

“You can’t compare ISL with La Liga. I think they are betting on the growth of football and that takes time. La Liga is the tip of Everest in world football and to get there you need time and a good base. A base where children have the possibility to play football and learn from an early age. If football in India wants to continue growing, they have to train the players from an early age, not just once to reach the I-League or ISL.”

Head coach Jamil will likely use Santana as a strong reinforcement in the midfield given his passing range and an array of defensive abilities.

“He [Jamil] is an ambitious coach who wants to build a competitive team and that is good, and he is open to any suggestions. If you have to be a good coach, sometimes you have to listen to the people around you who can bring you something and he does that,” Santana reflected on training under NEUFC head coach Khalid Jamil.

The Spaniard applauded Jamil’s managerial stint with NEUFC the previous season and said he deserved to be the first Indian coach in the Hero ISL.

“I think the difference between winning a title and not winning a title is in the small details, every little detail adds up in the long run for the benefit of the team. And it’s not just about what’s going on inside the field, outside too. The player has to feel that he is wrapped up by the club, that they care about us and listen to us. Even more so in the situation we are experiencing,” revealed the 31-year-old on how the team can win the title.

Santana also opened up on his targets with NEUFC for the upcoming season, he said, “The goal has to be in the short term. Finish the pre-season on a good note and think only about Bengaluru and nothing else. And then move match by match.”

The pandemic is still an unfinished business as matches are going to be played behind closed doors, restricting the fans to come out and cheer for their favourite teams. Santana left a special message for the NEUFC fans who are hoping that their team can bring home the title under new head coach Jamil.

“My message to the fans is not to doubt that this team is going to leave its skin for trying this year to give them many joys and reach the end - to be champions.”

The fans will be rooting for the Spaniard as his experience will play a significant role for the Highlanders’ success in the upcoming season. The Highlanders will face Bengaluru FC on 20th November 2021 at the Athletic stadium in Bambolim in their opening clash.

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