From Barnet to Bengaluru: Luisma's Indian Super League story
The Spaniard was a free agent when offered the chance to move to India. Now, having won the second league title of his career, he is without a club again.
“There are moments that appear in your life and you have to decide whether to grab them or whether to let them go by, knowing that they will probably never come back around.”
It was January 2019 and Luis Manuel Villa Lopez – known simply as Luisma – had just become a free agent after terminating his contract with SD Ponferradina, a Spanish third-division side in the north-west of Spain.
Out of the blue, he received a call, asking if he would be interested in moving 5,000 miles to sign for Bengaluru FC in the Indian Super League, who are among the favourites in the online betting for 2019/20 season, which starts on 20 October.
“At first, I said no, because I had no desire to leave,” says Luisma.
“But, the more they told me about the league, the more I saw it as an amazing opportunity to continue playing football. So, the following morning, I accepted the offer.”
Having finished runners-up the previous year, Bengaluru – nicknamed ‘The Blues’ – were already halfway through their regular season, but still had one spare spot on their roster for a foreign player during the run-in.
Competition rules dictate that each squad can have eight foreign players, only five of whom are allowed on the pitch at any one time. That, though, suited Luisma down to the ground.
“In my case, I didn’t start many games but normally came off the bench to try and make a difference,” says the attacking midfielder, who was given the No. 9 shirt but tended to play in the hole.
And make a difference he did.
Bengaluru finished top of the league after 18 games, but still had to get through a two-legged play-off with NorthEast United in order to earn another crack at the title.
After losing 2-1 away, they were still trailing on aggregate when Luisma was brought on with 22 minutes of the tie to play. They ended up winning 3-0.
Six days later, on 17 March, Bengaluru faced FC Goa in the final. The game was still goalless after 70 minutes when Luisma was introduced, before the Blues went on to seal a 1-0 win four minutes from the end of extra time.
No goals, no assists, but an unmistakable contribution to what became the second honour of the Spaniard’s rather strange career.
Having come through the ranks at his local club, Racing Santander, Luisma made his La Liga debut three weeks after his 18th birthday. In all, he made just three substitute appearances in three seasons – one of which came at the Nou Camp in a 4-0 defeat to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona.
After spending the next three seasons between four different clubs in the Segunda B, he arrived in England in July 2013 for a trial with Barnet, who were then managed by Champions League winner and former Dutch international Edgar Davids.
Luisma earned a contract and became a regular starter for the Conference side but, when Davids resigned and was replaced by Martin Allen in January, his minutes on the pitch began to dry up.
“At the end of the season, we had a meeting in Martin’s office,” Luisma recalls.
“I already sensed that he didn’t think much of me, and then he gave me a piece of paper with my statistics for that season [four goals, six assists].
“He pointed to the assists and said: ‘Not bad’, before pointing to the goals and saying: ‘Not good enough.’ He circled the four with a pen and looked me in the eyes for 30 seconds before saying: ‘If you score 10 goals next season, we’ll be champions.’
“He said it deadly seriously, before breaking out in a smile from ear to ear. And that’s how it happened.”
Luisma scored 13 goals that season as Barnet won the title by a single point but, rather than make the step up with them to the Football League, he chose to return to Spain – bidding farewell to the fans in an emotional handwritten letter.
So why go back abroad?
“It was a difficult decision,” he says, “but in the end, it was the right one. You always have to think that whatever decision you make is the right one.
“I have great memories of Bangalore. They are three months that I will never forget.
“The relationship between the players was really good. The coaching staff made sure there was a good atmosphere around the place, and any dressing room that feels like a family goes a long way together.
“The Indian fans were also incredible,” he says. “They really surprised me for the better.
“On the day of the final, we arrived on the coach, and I remember seeing all the people jumping for joy. Every single person in their colours – both for Bengaluru and Goa – mixing among themselves, no bad vibes.
“It was incredible to see them enjoying themselves like that.”
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For the first time in his career, Luisma – who only turned 30 in August – is now without a club.
Should nothing come up, then he’s considering taking entrance exams for the police force, but he hasn’t given up hope of continuing his remarkable career just yet.
“It is strange,” he admits, “because this is a new situation for me.
“It’s frustrating, but I am keeping myself in shape for any moment that a new opportunity may arise.
“I’m very clear in my mind – I want to keep playing football, to have fun on the field of play, be in a dressing room with teammates. I miss everything that surrounds it but, above all, I want to carry on enjoying doing what I love most.”
Given how many sliding-door moments have defined his story so far, you wouldn’t bet against there being at least one more chapter to go.