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Interview: Abneet Bharti on Indian footballers abroad

SU Sintrense defender, Abneet Bharti, the only Indian footballer to be plying his trade in Europe, talks to Kaustubh Pandey about his experiences and motivations.

With the sun shining on Indian football like the dawn lighting up the silhouette of a mighty building, things have hardly looked this bright and promising over the past few decades. With the current rank at 96, this nation that was described by Sepp Blatter as the ‘sleeping giant of football’ is showing signs of waking up from a deep slumber.

When Sunil Chhetri led his team of lesser-known individuals to the Intercontinental Cup title recently following a win over a Victor Wanyama-less Kenya, there was something which caught the attention as much as the performances did- the unity that the fans had mustered to cheer their football side. The surprise was down to how rare occasions like that are in Indian Football. The Viking Clap, which was popularized by the Iceland national team during the 2016 Euros, was a symbol of how Indian football was finally getting the backing it deserves from the people of the country. In a country where cricket has been a prime mainstay since time immemorial, fans coming together under one flag to get behind their football team is certainly pleasing on the eye.

While it is clear that Indian football is certainly on its way up, a lot of impetus is needed to make the game a more prominent thing in the country. India is still way off where it should be, keeping in mind the population of 1.3 billion.

It’s obvious that improvements in a host of aspects have to be made, but one important way of improving the quality and prominence of the game is through international exposure and experience. That, not just in terms of coaching and scouting, but in terms of playing as well. Very few Indian players have had the opportunity to ply their trade abroad and acquire the experience to use it in India.

But if there’s someone who does know more than a thing or two about being an Indian playing abroad for a considerable amount of time, then its 20-year-old Abneet Bharti. While the man is still 20 and known to be one of the best youngsters in Indian football, he has a vast amount of experience of playing abroad.

And as easy as it sounds to a general audience, playing a foreign club is very tough ask for someone from India, which hardly has any reputation for being a football country. Once you talk to Abneet, you’ll realise that it is not easy at all. It requires the ability to go past obstacles and the willingness to do something no one has ever done before in India.

Abneet says: “An Indian footballer abroad is very strange for people. They look down on you. It is not positive. It’s not like wow, it’s an Indian player. The perception they have for Indian football is very very low. Nobody has even heard of an Indian football player.”

Having previously played for former La Liga side Real Valladolid and currently at Portuguese side Sintrense, Abneet’s career path has been affected by how Indian footballers are perceived abroad and how he has to work extra to impress the fans and the other players. He says: “In India, we have this mentality that we’re not good at football, we are just going to play cricket. It is not good at all. Because of that, whenever I join a new club, I have to work twice, thrice or four times just to be considered at the same level as a local player. And the expectation they put on an Indian player like me to impress is very high.”

Not just that, but the problem also lies in how young aspiring Indian footballers don’t have anyone to look upto- someone who has made the cut abroad. He says: “But we also have legal issues- visa, Non-EU passport. These things make it very hard to play there. But these are just small problems. People from other countries have done it- not from India but from other countries. The problem is that you don’t have anyone to look upto in India. No one will say- “Okay, I’ll do what this guy has done”. If you are from some other country, you have proper role models. In India, you have to be your own role model. You don’t have people who you can follow or look upto.”

Because of that, Abneet aspires to be someone who a kid from the streets of India can look upto and believe that he can also do it.  “And I want to become that guy- that role model. For young Indian footballers, who don’t know if they can make it. I want to represent this possibility that a little boy from India who dreamt of making it can really make it. I’m not representing my family or loved ones or something, I want to represent this whole country because it’s difficult, the impression we have in India of our football is not even close to what perception they have of our country abroad.”

“The impression is that we don’t know how to play football. The only thing we can do is play three or four times better than how others are playing.”

One of the biggest problems that aspiring footballers in India face is the way their dreams are crippled and shut off because of a supposed ‘herd-mentality’, that forces their parents into making sure that their children do what the others are. Because of that, the dreams of playing football professionally die at a young age and despite having the passion and desire to achieve big, the kid is forced to do something that involves little risk but the promise of living an ordinary life and the inability to do something no one ever has.

While Abneet was lucky to receive constant support from his parents, he feels that the herd-mentality is one big issue that kills talent in India. He says: “Parents are the most important thing and I know many people in India who aren’t as fortunate as me and do not have supportive parents. In my case, I was lucky to have that from day one- to have the freedom and support. And that’s what pushes me to the top.”

This habit of following the herd makes sure that children who can go on to do special things in football go on to lead ordinary lives. Abneet tells: “It’s the mentality in India. People here look at each other and try to follow the same path as the others. From what I’ve observed, everyone is afraid of doing something new or different. Everyone wants to follow the pack. And with that, everyone does the mainstream stuff. People want to be the same as their neighbours and the society. They’re scared to do something for themselves- to do something different. And that has to change. Because if that happens, you’ll be average for the rest of your life. But if you want to stand out, not only in football, but in anything you want to do- you have to be different and not have the same path as the others. And parents have to realise this. They have to give their children the freedom. Because it won’t without it.”

Having plied his trade in leagues and countries abroad almost all his career, Abneet feels that it is one way of increasing footballing abilities and increasing exposure. The latest Indian footballer to have played abroad is Gurpreet Singh Sandhu, but his stint at Norwegian club Stabaek had lasted about three seasons, during which he made only three appearances for the senior side. The likes of Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri have also played abroad, but their stints saw them go back to playing in India. And one reason why they have earned a name for themselves is because they played abroad.

Abneet says: “The exposure you get is very very valuable. It has been the same for me. Not just in football terms, but as a person. If you get the chance, you have to go, especially Indian players. Because India is not the same. I’ve played in India in the early part of my career, the quality of training and just the general atmosphere to make it on a professional level is not there. When you move abroad, like I moved to Singapore which is two steps higher, it was still not where I wanted to be.”

Recounting his experiences from playing for Real Valladolid, Abneet believes that the experiences make one independent, mature and make one stronger as a person. He says: “And when the opportunity of going to Spain came, I was young and it was difficult for me. Because I was about 16, it was really tough. I was living away from my family. The time difference was seven or eight hours. I couldn’t speak to my parents a lot of days. I was alone in the new culture and I didn’t speak any Spanish. And I was an Indian boy and while I was welcomed by the club very well, outside people used to wonder as to why an Indian player was there. But it made me stronger and my performances showed the quality.”

“I used to talk a lot to the public but I’ve now realised that it is better to be quiet and just do your job. So the experiences make you grow as a person and it made me very mature for my age. It makes you independent. If Indian players have a chance, go away from your comfort zone. Staying there takes you nowhere.”

With the Indian Super League( ISL) a growing phenomenon, it would be fair to point out that Indian football has certainly grown from what it was about ten years ago. The fourth season concluded earlier this year and the fifth edition is set to commence soon. While Abneet has not played in the ISL, he appreciates how much the country’s footballing landscape has widened, but feels there is still a long way to go. And a country such as India should not be happy with small achievements.

He says: “Indian football could have grown faster, but at least it is growing because it hardly grew earlier. We need to be happy for that but we should we should not be happy with small achievements and we need to demand more from ourselves. India is a big country.

“We should not be happy with getting a 0-0 draw in the Under-17 World Cup or by losing just 3-0. We should demand more. We have 1.3 billion people.”

“According to me and it’s just my opinion, people who work in football federation of India, they should have more knowledge of football. If there are former players in making those decisions, the decision-making would be far better. Because they have the experience of being at that place.”

“If you look at all the countries abroad, they have all these former players, former managers employed as technical directors or the coaches. They have a special engagement with the players, which is the most important part of football.”

“Secondly, we need to have this culture and I’ve noticed that it is growing. People love football more than they used to ten years ago. I’ve seen more people playing football than cricket. When I was younger, I used to get kicked out by my friends because all of them wanted to play cricket and I was the only one who wanted to play football, which was always the second option. But now, things are changing and that is changing the culture.”

“Technically, Indian players have to improve because players can learn tactics. You can teach technique if they start young and they must have one quality that separates from the others. In India and sometimes abroad as well, people try to have all the skills and move them up. But what I’ve noticed and what all the big scouts have told me that you need to have one characteristic. And if you make that very good, if not world class, you will be very good.”

Read all out interviews here

Kaustubh Pandey

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