Benjamin Lambot is the quintessential funny guy that every team needs to get through the ups and downs of a top-level footballing season. Having joined NorthEast United ahead of the 2020-21 Indian Super League (ISL) campaign, the Belgian has not just been one of the major pillars in their defence, he has also played a big part in building the squad’s camaraderie. Nothing typified that better than his celebration after scoring against Odisha FC when the whole team engulfed the captain in a bear hug with smiles all around.
So what has been his takeaway from the first few games in the ISL, we asked him. “It’s a direct game. Teams try to go direct which makes the game quite offensive. That’s why we can see a lot of 1-1 and 2-2 matches. It’s really end to end, there's a big intensity and everyone has to be fit physically,” is how he puts it.
For someone who had heard about the ISL but never seen any matches, he feels this intensity is what has taken him slightly aback. “For me it was absolutely great to discover the league. After 7-8 games I can now say that here you have to concentrate and be up for it physically because you need to be ready every second of the game,” he says with a knowing smile.
One of the best things about NorthEast United this season has been the understanding that the senior players have with the youngsters. Lambot has been a big part of that. At 33, he has captained sides quite often before and knows how to interact with younger players to draw the best out of them. It obviously helps that he is also one of the most-loved characters inside the Highlanders’ dressing room.
“My character is such that it helps them to open up to me. I’m a funny guy, I like to talk and smile and it’s easy for me to go to the younger players and give them any advice that they may need,” he expresses with a sense of self-awareness that is very genuine. “On the flip side, I have also been very well accepted within the side. Coming down from Belgium, the people here were waiting for us and since then we have developed extremely good relationships amongst each other,” he goes on to add.
Asked to pick a youngster who has impressed him in training, Lambot points out, “Everybody talks about Apuia and Ninthoi but there’s also the likes of Gurmeet, Rochharzela and Imran Khan who are all very talented. We play matches every 3-4 days so a lot of young players are going to get chances till the end of the season. We have to give them time to develop and maybe after a season or two we can say that some of them are really good prospects for the future.”
Gerard Nus side started their season with a victory over Mumbai City FC but the defender still feels that they are the team to beat this term. “For me, the Mumbai City side was the best team that we have faced. We won that night but we can now see with their position in the table what a good side they are,” he explains. In terms of individual players, FC Goa’s Igor Angulo is someone that he self-admittedly found difficult to defend against because of the Spaniard’s constant movement.
As the conversation steered towards his partner-in-crime Dylan Fox, Lambot’s innate appreciation for those doing well around him came to the fore once again. “He’s extremely professional. He’s young but he already has good experience at this level so it’s easy for me to talk about tactics and good choices with him. That is how we have managed to develop a good understanding,” he says with a sense of brotherly love for the young Aussie.
Eight matches into his debut ISL season, the seasoned campaigner is aware that all the good work that they have done in the past month has raised expectations amongst fans. “We got a good start and I think everyone was a little surprised because we had just a couple of weeks to train before the tournament began,” he recalls. He also feels that much of that was down to Gerard Nus keeping things simple tactically.
“In this COVID-affected scenario it was difficult to directly turn up on the pitch and find your best form. But the coach talked about the few most basic things and I think that has helped us in playing direct but effective football. Today we have found our identity and our desire to give 100% until the very last second,” he expresses animatedly.
NorthEast have quite a few challenging assignments ahead. And with teams around them looking to strengthen their squads in January, it is going to be a tough ask for the Highlanders to maintain their challenge for the top 4. However, you’d still be inclined to bet on them, if not for the brilliant football that they have played so far, for the heart and character that players like Lambot have enriched the ISL with.